In Forest, scientists are studying an anaerobic digester designed to capture methane from a dairy farm and use it to generate power for the operation. In the West Point area, a similar project is underway at a swine farm. The possibility of using the same technology to capture and use poultry litter waste is also being studied.
These farm projects are examples of the work being done to develop a Prototype Energy Alternative (PEA) system for Mississippi that is affordable, efficient and effective. Now that Rep. Billy McCoy (D-Rienzi), a rural farmer who initiated the alternative energy source development plan with the help of Rep. Leonard Morris (D-Batesville) and other state lawmakers, is now in a leadership position as House Speaker, more emphasis will likely be focused on the research, development and design of renewable energy systems for Mississippi.
“I’ve always dreamed of being a part of, in some form or fashion, making the average home or business energy independent,” McCoy said. “It did not start with 9/11, but many years ago in my own mind. It`s been my goal to use the total absolute renewable sources of the sun, wind and thermal energy to produce power at my own farm and home and to be able to, for the most part, provide the power necessary for a small home, farm or business through innovative storage methods. When we first started talking about it, we wanted a prototype combination of these four possibilities to bring energy independence to small business.”
Charles “Bubba” Weir, executive director for the Mississippi Alternative Energy Enterprise (MAEE) Program, said the state is primarily focusing on farm-related technologies, such as using agricultural material or biomass material like wood waste.
“April 27 is the projected date for grand openings of the projects on the dairy and swine farms,” he said. “We are still a couple of months away from determining if the poultry project will be feasible. At the new beef processing plant being constructed in Oakland, we’re helping them determine the feasibility of using a methane capture system to generate power. At this stage, the projects are for demonstration.”
MAEE is also working with the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA) to discover the possibility of using solar power to mix catfish ponds, said Weir.
“Using solar panels, we can power two horsepower engines to operate the equipment,” he said. “Mixing is generally done at night, but these would operate in the day to save energy costs at night.”
Because many Mississippi businesses and operations produce wood waste, MAEE is considering the use of the material for co-fired boilers to produce steam for electricity and lumber drying operations, said Weir.
“We’ve just completed a study on biodiesel production in the state and are working with our state economist to determine the economic impact,” he said. “This project works two ways: you can produce biodiesel with either waste grease from restaurants and cafeterias, often called yellow grease, or soybeans, which can be blended with diesel fuel on a 5% to 20% mix. The Lauderdale County School District is running a small project now where biodiesel is being produced from cafeteria waste and used to fuel school buses. For every percentage increase in bio materials, it`s about a penny more per gallon, but it has environmental benefits. In many instances, it also reduces the cost you would otherwise pay to haul off the material.”
MAEE continues to study other poultry litter options, said Weir.
“Last year, we conducted feasibility studies and decided that large scale power facilities are probably not economically feasible, but we’re working now on smaller scale systems to see what we learn.”
MAEE has successfully deployed three combined technology sites around the state – in Booneville, rural Madison County east of Canton, and Gulfport – that use solar and wind to produce power for homes, said Weir.
“Those sites are working well,” he said. “In fact, up in Booneville on a Saturday night recently, everyone in the community was without power. The homeowners with the alternative power supply were very surprised when they arrived at church Sunday morning to discover that everyone else was talking about not having power the night before.”
A division of the Mississippi Technology Alliance, MAEE`s role is to coordinate all government, academic and private alternative energy initiatives. The Land, Water & Timber Resources Board, which is co-chaired by Mississippi Development Authority (MDA) chief Leland Speed and Mississippi Department of Agriculture and Commerce (MDAC) commissioner Lester Spell, funds MAEE.
MDAC has also helped investigate alternative energy sources that are much more economical to use than propane, electricity and natural gas, said Spell.
“For example, corn burners can provide heat in many instances much more economically than any other source and opens up an avenue for farmers who grow corn,” he said.
Weir is working with MDA`s energy division to help promote solar power in the state. He is also forming a Mississippi chapter of the American Solar Energy Society (ASES), a national organization dedicated to advancing the use of solar energy for the benefit of U.S. residents and the global environment by promoting the widespread short- and long-term use of solar energy.
“Other people around the state are also doing important alternative energy work,” said Weir. “We try to keep up with them so we can network people together. For instance, there`s a company in Greenville doing their own research and development and we try to connect them with academic sources and other companies in the state interested in their technology.”
Kenneth Calvin, director of MDA`s energy division, said alterative energy solutions holds unlimited potential, especially in economically depressed areas of the state.
“For example, farmers in the Delta could grow alternative fuel crops, such as switchgrass,” he said.
Switchgrass is a summer perennial grass that grows three to six feet in height and provides excellent cover for wildlife. An estimated 1,500 acres of switchgrass a year are required to produce one megawatt of electricity. If 1.4 million acres of switchgrass were planted for use as an energy feedstock, the energy produced would equal the electricity consumed by 800,000 homes annually, or the energy equivalent of three million tons of coal. Switchgrass has environmental benefits because even though it emits carbon dioxide when burned, it takes up an equal amount in its growth, according to Iowa Department of Natural Resources.
Weir said calculating the economic payback for using alternative energy sources was difficult because there`s no hard line rule of thumb, said Weir.
“Generally, we try to look at a three- to four-year payback as being very, very good,” he said. “Most homeowners and small businesses want to know: what`s the cost and what`s it going to save me. Some people have the attitude though that they don`t even care if it takes 20 years to meet payback costs because they don`t want to be responsible for giving one more penny to Middle Eastern petroleum sources. They want to be energy independent.”
The ultimate goal of MAEE is to make available an alternative energy device that is manufactured in Mississippi and sold and serviced by Mississippi firms, said McCoy.
“I am positive that alternative energy will become traditional energy,” he said. “And if I am able to live that long, I’d like to say we had a part in that.”
Contact MBJ contributing writer Lynne W. Jeter at firstname.lastname@example.org.