If you think your electric utility rates are a bunch of crap, consider this: Poop-powered electric plants are becoming big business. Pig poop and chicken poop, in particular, are apparently hot commodities, as Duke Energy—the energy-production corporation dominating the Southeast and Midwest—announced it plans to buy energy produced in a power plant that will turn chicken and hog manure into electricity. They hope this will power 10,000 homes. North Carolina seems to be the hotbed of poop-to-power projects, as some large-scale, commercial hog farms have been taking on their own manure-digestion projects to run these farms for nearly 10 years now.
This type of alternative energy is the shit, some might say, but remember that last year, environmentalists in Maryland were unhappy about plans to convert manure from the state’s giant poultry industry into energy. They point out that turning manure into electricity isn’t a clean business—there are still byproducts to deal with, plus hazards associated with burning waste and releasing gasses into the environment.
What’s In For Small-Scale Farmers
What pushed individual pig and poultry farmers in North Carolina to fully take advantage of their most abundant asset is strong state environmental regulations. They’ve been tasked to do something with all the manure that thousands of animals kept in confinement are bound to produce.
One of the problems with large-scale, confinement farms is that they produce more manure than they can use to fertilize the land that they sit on. Storing it all poses an environmental hazard, as there’s some nasty stuff in there—from bacteria to antibiotics to antibiotic-resistant bacteria—that we don’t want in our streams, lakes and groundwater. Never mind that the manure releases gases pinpointed as a cause of climate change. Digesting manure into energy uses up this unfortunate byproduct of large-scale animal agriculture while also creating another revenue stream for farmers and requiring fewer carbon-based fuels be consumed for energy production.
For you as a small-scale, nonconfinement farmer, this technology doesn’t really impact you yet. In order to turn animal waste into energy, the waste has to be concentrated in one area so it can be collected. You probably have better things to do with your time and money than to walk around your paddock or woodlot and pick up piles of pig poop so you can invest hundreds of thousands of dollars in the technology that would be required to then turn that poop into power. The good news is there is now enough interest in manure digestion that we might start seeing smaller-scale systems under development.
A Different Kind of Waste-to-Energy
Just last month, researchers from South Dakota School of Mines and Technology, Princeton University, and Florida Gulf Coast University announced that they’ve been working on turning rotting tomatoes into energy.
“There is theoretically enough tomato waste generated in Florida [a major tomato-producing state] each year to meet Disney World’s electricity demand for 90 days, using an optimized biological fuel cell,” according to the article. So if livestock farming isn’t your thing, it’s possible that someday, your tomatoes might themselves power the fans that cool the very greenhouse in which you grow your tomatoes.