Alternative fuels could put gas in tank, money in bank

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Published: November 10,2008

Every month, Jon Jones is left with a problem the size of a small mountain. He is a poultry grower in Simpson County, and just like his peers, he struggles with what to do with the huge amounts of litter his operation generates.

“I don’t have that much pasture land to use it for fertilizer,” Jones said, who grew up in the business. “So, all I can do is put it in my compost shed.

“I’ve heard all kinds of things in the past. Someone’s going to pelletize the litter and feed it to shrimp. Someone’s going to get my litter and use it to produce electricity. All kinds of talk, but no action. Nothing ever seems to pan out.”

Need for organization

In October, the Mississippi U.S. House of Representatives’ Transportation Committee held a meeting to explore the state’s potential as a source for alternative fuels. Rep. Warner McBride, chairman of the committee, said what the state needs is a clearinghouse for alternative fuel sources.

“Who’s doing what, and where?” McBride asked. “What do we have now? Can we be a player in the future? How can the state enhance our efforts in alternative fuels? We need to be better organized.”

This is good news to folks in a number of industries, such as poultry and forestry. They are generating tons of litter that could be used for energy production. The main issue is a lack of a formalized plan and infrastructure.

Mark Leggett, head of the Mississippi Poultry Association in Jackson, said, “It would be a win-win situation. Poultry waste has now become a desirable product. We just need to eliminate some roadblocks.”

Converting poultry litter to energy has its challenges. Poultry growers use wood chips or sawdust as a floor covering, and this material makes it difficult to convert to energy. And the litter lacks the essential microorganisms that make it a viable option for methane gas production.

However, it can be done. John Logan and his wife, Bettye, own Brinson Farms near Prentiss. John developed his own poultry litter digester and conversion system that not only produces enough electricity to run his farm, but also sells excess electricity on the grid.

The Brinson Farm chicken-litter-to-energy system took years and significant resources to develop and be implemented. It took the input from a number of private and public sector entities to bring it to fruition, which underscores the need for a team approach.

Working together

“Though venture capital funds and large business (oil company) research and development monies are being offered for alternative energy developments, we cannot emphasize enough the need for government funding to reduce risk to develop these technologies in a timely and focused manner,” said Gary Hopper, vice president at General Atomics and a presenter at the Transportation Committee’s hearing. However, he added that “the capital requirements are generally expected to be handled by private industry.”

Hopper’s testimony supported the need for private-public partnerships, and he pointed to a good example of that approach in Mississippi. He said three Mississippi State University professors have developed a technology to convert nutrients present in wastewater into a hydrocarbon that can be refined into a transportation fuel, such as military J8 biofuel. This would be attractive to the U.S. Department of Defense. Additionally, the wastewater can then be used.

“Overall, I believe that biofuel products derived from non-food crops is a 21st century solution that could impact energy prices worldwide and address near term and future supply needs,” Hopper said.

A lot to offer

Monty Montgomery, energy development specialist with the Mississippi Development Authority, also testified at the hearing, and said Mississippi is rich in potential sources for alternative fuels. He brought numbers and graphics to back that up.

Data from the National Renewable Energy Laboratory show agriculture areas along the Mississippi River produce 100-200 thousand dry tons of crop residue annually, and in the Delta, 200-300 thousand dry tons.

The highest methane emissions from manure management is in poultry-rich Central Mississippi, producing more than 2,000 tons per year.

Of all the materials, forest residue is king. Many areas of the state produce more than 100 thousand dry tons of forest residue annually. Only the largely treeless Delta does not offer a significant amount of this material.

Another source with huge potential is switchgrass, a viable material for alternative fuel production. The data show almost the entire state has the potential to produce more than six dry tons per acre annually.

“We may not have the oil and gas of Texas and Louisiana,” Montgomery said, “or the coal of Kentucky or West Virginia, but Mississippi takes a backseat to no one when it comes to the potential to produce alternative fuels.”

Contact MBJ staff writer Wally Northway at wally.northway@msbusiness.com.

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