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Bioenergy Devco seeks to turn poultry waste into natural gas

Katie Tabeling
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Bioenergy DevCo proposes building digester tanks that will turn poultry waste into natural gas. Chesapeake Utilities will take and process the natural gas before sending it in its pipeline, and BDC will use what’s left to compost. | PHOTO COURTESY BIOENERGY DEVCO

SEAFORD — Waste comes in, and after five months, fine organic soil goes out.

To be specific, Bioenergy Devco (BDC) takes 30,000 tons of poultry bath and hatchery waste from Perdue Farms on the Delmarva Peninsula and composts it on a large scale at its new facility just south of Seaford.

Eggshell debris, feathers and other materials can be turned into organic soil fit to be bagged by companies like Scotts and Coast of Maine and sold in garden centers across the country in a matter of weeks, speeding up the natural process of microorganisms breaking down carbon by carefully controlling its conditions.

BDC CEO Shawn Kreloff envisions taking production one step further by constructing an anaerobic digester at the property his company bought in late 2019, extracting natural gas from the same poultry waste as part of a deal with Chesapeake Utilities. After hours of public testimony in February,  the Sussex County Planning and Zoning Commission recommended the project’s approval on March 11. The project now heads to another public hearing before the Sussex County Council on March 16.

“Instead of waiting millions of years for the organic material to break down and get trapped underground and frack it, we’re going to make it in real time with this technology,” Kreloff explained. “We’re trapping methane – the worst greenhouse gas there is – instead of releasing it in the atmosphere through a landfill or incineration. If you let the land break it down, you risk runoff to the Chesapeake Bay. This is really an elegant way of solving these problems all at the same time.”

BDC may be new to Delaware, but the company has a 20-year track record of building 230 facilities and digesters in seven countries, aided by acquiring longtime Italian digestor developer BTS Biogas. As the global conversation turns to renewable energy resources, anaerobic digestion has become a viable option in several European countries, notably in the United Kingdom, Germany and Denmark.

The European digestion market value is expected to hit $75 billion by 2026, and Global Market Insights Inc. notes that the sector has advantages, such as low operating and power costs due to little critical equipment, and new technology making it easier to process dry feedstock.

The United States has 263 anaerobic digestion facilities as of 2020, although this would be among the first in the First State.

BDC’s philosophy of letting nothing go to waste even comes at their site, a 228-acre property off U.S. Route 13 that includes the former Perdue Farms AgriRecycle organic soil composting facility. The poultry giant used to repurpose chicken litter into fertilizer, drying it into pellets at the Seaford plant before selling it back to farmers.

In November, Perdue sold the Seaford facility to BDC for $7.2 million and committed to supply compost material to the site for 20 years. The material comes from farms in Delaware, Maryland, Virginia, although BDC officials hope that Perdue will soon expand the agreement to its farms in North Carolina.

Poultry remains king on the Delmarva Peninsula, but the region has long struggled with how to manage the nutrients before running off into the Chesapeake Bay. Chicken farmers in Delaware, Maryland and Virginia raised 4.3 billion pounds of chicken in 2019, a 35% jump from two decades earlier, according to the Delmarva Chicken Association.

“Part of the reason this prospect is so intriguing is that poultry companies know the cost of getting rid of their waste is going up exponentially, year over year,” Kreloff said. “The laws on land application are changing when it comes to how long they can hold it and the max amount of nutrients you can apply on it. We’re giving the poultry industry long-term visibility over this.”

Front-loader trucks mix in the feedstock with wood chips before laying it in long, narrow piles and covering it with a tarp to help it retain moisture. Each pile is assigned its own number and its temperature is monitored closely by an electronic reader. After six weeks, the compost’s internal temperature hits between 135 to 160 degrees, high enough to kill the pathogens inside.

A turning machine straddles each pile and moves along its length to flip the material, exposing it to more oxygen to fuel the decomposition process. Once the material is no longer decomposing, it is left uncovered to dry out for three weeks.

From there the raw compost moves to cone-shaped piles to allow carbon and nitrogen in the material to adjust to final levels. The final step includes running the material through a screening machine, shaking the wood from the compost. The wood is later mixed in with fresh wood and reused all over again until it eventually breaks down as well.

The odor is strongest when Perdue ships in the feedstock and BDC mixes it with the wood in the receiving building, where it is kept contained and a biofilter breaks down the odor. But by the time composting is done, the soil smells as if it just came out of a bag bought at the local garden center.

At the business’ peak, there could be as many as 16 piles waiting to clear the Delaware Department of Natural Resources and Environmental Control bacteria tests. But BDC has built a year-round business with landscapers, retailers, and construction companies to make sure the waste is moving in a streamlined process and leaving the facility just as fast. Other well-known BDC clients include Blue Hen Organics, Grizzle’s Landscaping and Eastern Shore Forest Products.

“In the fall, we have Scotts and Coast of Maine buying because they’re getting ready for springtime. Then in the spring, the garden centers and landscapers get busy and we have construction companies getting busy in the summer,” said Vinnie Bevivino, BDC director of organics. “We don’t want to see the material on site, because that means it’s not moving to customers. It’s just simple concepts of manufacturing, a repetitive sequence of processes. When you follow it, you can make really good compost in a short period of time.”

Right now, BDC is permitted to receive 30,000 tons of raw feedstock a year but the company hopes to raise it to 56,000 tons a year.

If the county council approves the digester, Kreloff said the digester will dramatically boost capacity to 210,000 tons of organic matter annually and cut composting time down to two to three months. The former pellet plant will be enlarged by 10% to 76,620 square feet, combining the composting facility with the anaerobic digestion system.

The feedstock will be placed in two oxygen-free tanks and heated and constantly stirred. Over time, the fermenting process produces digestate, a soil conditioner that can eventually be composted, and natural gas, which rises to the top of the tank for removal. Chesapeake Utilities is proposing to truck the natural gas away for processing and eventually entry into its Eastern Shore Natural Gas pipeline.

“What we hope to do with the digester is what’s already happening on a silent scale with the compost. It’s not that different,” Kreloff said. “I fell in love with this opportunity because it’s the best way to solve nutrient management issues in the water, soil management issues and the need for energy through a natural process.”

Now that America is starting to lean toward renewable energy options as it becomes more congested, Kreloff said “it’s time for this to happen” and believes this could be a new chapter in green business.

But the proposal is not without its critics. In late February, the Sussex County Planning and Zoning Commission heard four hours of testimony on the project, with many people concerned the digester would cause poultry house litter and manure shipped by the truckload to be concentrated in one spot. The Food & Water Watch, a national nonprofit focused on corporate and government accountability relating to food and water resources, sent a letter to Gov. John Carney demanding his intervention, claiming that county officials were rushing through the approval process without proper oversight.

BDC Chief Development Officer Peter Ettinger told the Delaware Business Times that he believes the local community is positive about the prospect of a new enterprise supporting the longstanding poultry industry. However, he pointed out that there are some organizations that have concerns about the poultry industry as a whole rather than their specific work.

“We’re one coil in that industry. Unfortunately, they’re not [considering] … that we get the science and how this works on an environmental level,” Ettinger added. “We plan on being a solid member of the community and keeping this process here for 30 years to come.”

BDC has other projects in development, such as one at the Maryland Food Center in Jessup, Md., where dozens of produce and seafood merchants, food processors and distributors produce about 100,000 tons of organic waste each year. Kreloff argued that this was more about what waste BDC was working with than the process itself.

“We don’t judge whose waste we take, because it’s all bad. We take whatever is organic, not recycled and bad for the world,” he said. “We’re just here to help fix the problem and process this material. The problem is somewhere up the food chain.”

The $45 million digester tank should be in full operation by early 2022 at the latest, if approved by the county. BDC currently employs 11 full-time staff, and construction will add between 40 and 45 jobs. Once construction is complete, the company projects there will be 30 employees for the digester and 11 employees for the compost facility.

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1 Comment

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    Karen Igou March 14, 2021

    I would like to make sure that you all know the whole story with this biogas digester. This digester does nothing for Delaware except bring in truckloads of dead chicken waste to a residential area that is NOT zoned industrial. It is also located near precious wetlands that could easily be contaminated. It then produces methane to be turned in to natural gas when we have all been given the clear warning from our global scientific body as well as our own government that we have to stop carbon emissions NOW to avoid climate catastrophe. This plant locks in 20 years of carbon emissions and they strive for more. This plant will create only a handful of low paying jobs but will make Devco tons of money all while greenwashing Perdue’s disgusting practices of factory farmed chicken. Would you want to live near this plant? Do you want to answer to your children as to why you didn’t do what you could to stop carbon emissions? This is another nail in our coffin and a big mistake for Delaware. Please spread the word Delaware Business Times about the downside of this project and the fact that over 100 community members have voiced opposition to it. Not just about the few pennies to be made and the greenwashed production of gas that is warming our planet and creating uninhabitable circumstances for our children. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OUDXKQYTQkg More info here from Delaware environmental and community advocates.

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