Biomass facility brewing in Simpson County

by Lynne W. Jeter

Published: June 10,2002

MAGEE — If funding can be secured, the state’s first biomass facility could be under construction in Simpson County by September 2004.

The $130-million biomass facility, patterned after the Thetford Power Station in the U.K., the world’s largest biomass facility, would burn 400,000 tons of poultry litter and other biomass, including forest debris, every year. Located on a 30-acre site in the Simpson County Industrial Park on U.S. 49 in Magee, the facility would be situated near substations owned by Entergy and South Mississippi Electric Power Association.

Roughly 300 jobs would be created during the 18-month construction phase. When complete, approximately 35 permanent jobs for engineers and technicians would be created for the direct combustion baseload plant. Spin-off jobs would include at least 100 to 150 truck drivers for fuel delivery.

“The potential benefits to agriculture from a project like this are two-fold: first, we are better prepared to dodge the bullet of environmental concern associated with the buildup of poultry litter’s nutrients on our soils and in our streams; and secondly, there exists the possibility of financial stability, even gain, for our poultry growers and those who have recently gotten into planting plantation pines,” said Dr. Lester Spell, commissioner of the Mississippi Department of Agriculture and Commerce.

Sen. Mike Chaney (R-Vicksburg), who accompanied a small group to the U.K. last month to tour Thetford Power Station, said the project is “very feasible” for Mississippi.

“The only drawback is it may not be at the most favorable rate per kilowatt hour when compared to oil and gas today, but it could be 10 years down the road,” he said.

Three years ago, Oklahoma Gas & Electric considered the site for a 400-megawatt peaking plant, but the deal never happened. (A peaking plant is a standby facility that operates primarily during periods of peak demand to help prevent power shortages.)

Soon after, Spokane, Wash.-based Avista planned to build a 280-megawatt combined cycle plant to be expanded to an 850-megawatt facility on the same site. A long-term option had been secured from the Simpson County Development Foundation (SCDF) and permits had been issued, but the project was halted after a partial interest in Avista was sold to a German company.

“At the beginning of last summer, energy prices skyrocketed and lumber was going south on us,” said Tim Coursey, SCDF executive director, who also toured the U.K. facility. “A group of local businessmen, including poultry producers and timber farmers, were discussing solutions and the idea for a biomass facility came up. So last September, we contacted Fibrowatt, a company in the U.K. that specializes in agricultural biomass as a fuel, and the project snowballed.”

The U.K. produces about the same amount of poultry litter as Mississippi. The country’s environmental regulatory agency began a process in the early 1990s disallowing the spread of poultry litter on farms because of high potassium and phosphate levels. About 10 years ago, Simon Fraser founded London-based Fibrowatt Ltd. and began building the first of three biomass facilities in the U.K., said Coursey.

A 12.7-megawatt biomass facility at Eye in Suffolk that burns 160,000 tons of biomass annually was the first of its kind in the world. A 13.5-megawatt biomass facility in Glanford was commissioned in 1993, which now is burning meat and bone meal under contract for the U.K. government because of the so-called “mad cow” disease.

Built in the middle of a national forest, located 200 yards from a Boy Scout camp and overlooking a protected river, the newest facility is the 38.5-megawatt Thetford Power Station that burns 500,000 tons of poultry litter and other biomass every year. The mix: roughly 60% poultry litter and 40% forest debris.

The biomass facility in Magee, called Fibromiss, would be roughly the same size as Thetford Power Station, and would be the company’s third facility in the U.S. Fibromiss would be co-owned by Mississippi investors, such as the Rex Broadhead family in Mendenhall, poultry farmers and owners of Broadhead Lumber Co. & Manufacturing, said Coursey.

Fibrowatt’s first U.S. projects, also in the planning stages, are biomass facilities called Fibrominn in Minnesota and Fibroshore in Maryland. The company is also looking at sites in Arkansas and North Carolina, said Eric Jenkins, director of business development for Fibrowatt Ltd.

Fibrominn has negotiated 10-year contracts with chicken and turkey producers, who have already pledged 440,000 tons of litter to the plant. Litter will be picked up from the farms by specially topped trucks and transported to the plant, where it will be burned into ash and electricity, the latter of which will be the main revenue source, initially representing about 90% of sales. Xcel Energy Inc. will purchase the electricity as a biomass energy source for its customers in the northern U.S., said Jenkins.

Fibrowatt markets the incinerated poultry litter as a compound fertilizer, which is not water-soluble, yet has the proper Ph to be absorbed by a root tip, Coursey said.

But what about the odor emitted from a facility that burns poultry litter?

“The first concern of local folks was that it might smell, but there’s smell abatement equipment in operation,” said Coursey. “You might get a whiff of it when you’re in the plant, but once you’re 15 feet offsite, you can’t smell it. Believe me, those folks in the U.K. weren’t about to let some stinking chicken manure plant locate there. They’re even more environmentally conscious than we are.”

A biomass facility could reduce water quality concerns. Oklahoma recently sued Arkansas over water quality issues concerning pollution, partly from poultry litter discharge, in the Arkansas River that flows through the Sooner State, said Chaney.

“Even though we don’t have the runoff situation they have, it’s still a potential hazard,” he said.

Some people have raised concerns about adding another peaking plant to the mix since merchant power plants and peaking stations have been popping up around Mississippi.

“As I understand it, this project is not designed to replace existing power sources doing a good job of meeting our needs in the state, but is intended to supplement their service while reducing our dependence on foreign oil,” said Spell. “It sounds like a ‘win-win’ to agriculture, indeed to all interests, in the state.”

Even though the proposed biomass facility has received tremendous support, it’s not a done deal. One snag: funding.

“We’ve sought assistance from the Mississippi Technology Alliance, which has been trying to help us figure out how this can work in Mississippi without having a mandate to get rid of our chicken litter,” said Coursey. “(Rep.) Billy McCoy is involved because of his interest in alternative fuel. We’re doing feasibility studies and trying to figure out how to grease the skids to get this project financed.”

Chaney said the budget shortfall has made it difficult to provide state funding for the project.

“You could build the plant in Simpson County, feed the electrical production into the grid, and sell it to TVA,” he said. “Once you get a 10- or 15-year contract with TVA at say, 8

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