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Chicken-Waste-to-Energy Project Gains Attention in Election Year

In governor candidates' pitches on the future of energy in Virginia, Democratic candidate Terry McAuliffe's enthusiasm for using chicken waste has stood out. In the Shenandoah Valley, a Virginia Tech team is researching the technology.

A Pennsylvania-based company called Fibrowatt is aiming to build a power plant on the Eastern Shore of Maryland that would be fueled entirely by logging and poultry waste. The company, which built the nation's first such plant in Minnesota two years ago, estimates it would generate enough electricity to power about 40,000 homes. But company officials estimate that the $200 million plant would be economically feasible only with the help of state and federal subsidies.

Bill Miles, a Maryland lobbyist for the project, said the emissions are safer than a coal plant's and described the subsidies as a "government kick-start" necessary to get the industry going and to allow it to compete with traditional energy sources.

The argument does not sway Mike Tidwell, director of the Chesapeake Climate Action Network, a Takoma Park-based nonprofit organization.

"It does not make sense to try to solve a waste problem as an energy solution," Tidwell said. "It is an unproven technology that is going to serve only to delay and confuse the real solutions in Virginia, which are energy efficiency and true renewable energy like wind and solar."

Jesse Ferguson, a spokesman for Moran, criticized McAuliffe's fixation on chicken waste. "He's made it seem like chicken waste is the solution to the problem, and we're not even sure how much of an answer it is," he said.

McAuliffe says he brings it up in part because it grabs people's attention. "People perk up," he said. "If this is what I need to do to get people's attention on alternative energy and jobs, so be it."

The project has ignited interest in more than just political circles. It has brought together poultry industry and environmental groups such as the Chesapeake Bay Foundation to help fund the research. It will be at least two years before the technology is perfected and the unit -- now built for about $1 million -- is affordable for the average poultry farmer, said Foster Agblevor, the Virginia Tech professor in charge of the project.

The project uses a different technology that scientists there say will eventually emit little or no harmful gas. They are aiming to build small-scale units for individual farmers to process their own chicken waste and produce enough oil to, say, heat their chicken coops in winter.

On a recent morning, Heatwole and one of Agblevor's graduate students demonstrated how the machine works. The tangle of pipes and tanks sits in an oversized garage on Heatwole's property just feet from his house -- a testament, perhaps, to his immunity to chicken poop stink.

The machine takes about two hours to warm up. The waste, a mixture of the droppings and chicken bedding made of wood shavings, is donated by local farmers eager to see it produce results, Heatwole said. After about 30 minutes of rumbling, a valve is opened that lets out a steamy goo resembling motor oil.

Heatwole said he has been tickled by the attention the project has received because of McAuliffe's visit. But he won't be voting for McAuliffe or anyone else.

"I belong to the Mennonite faith," he said, explaining that he chooses not to vote. "I feel that the Lord will put the right candidate in."

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