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DNREC approves plan for Seaford biogas facility

Katie Tabeling
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Bioenergy Devco has received approval from state regulators to build a digester in Seaford. When finished it will look like the plant seen here in Milford, United Kingdom. | PHOTO COURTESY OF BIOENERGY DEVCO

SEAFORD  — Two years after Bioenergy Devco announced plans for an anaerobic digestion system in Sussex County, the Delaware Department of Natural Resources and Environmental Control has approved permits for the project.

Bioenergy Devco, a Maryland-based company, has proposed the state’s first digester system that would break down poultry waste into biogas, an organic-based relation of natural gas, and other products like soil. The $50 million digester would be an addition to the company’s 220-acre campus in Seaford, where it already composts 30,000 tons of chicken litter per year into fertilizer for companies like Scott’s and Coast of Maine.

With the approval from DNREC, Bioenergy Devco can move forward with a digester system that aims to handle 250,000 tons of feedstock per year. Bioenergy officials claim that the Seaford digester will generate 410,000 one million British thermal units (MMBTUs) per year — and reduce greenhouse gas emissions equivalent to 11,545 homes’ electricity use or 18,800 cars per year.

“Organics recycling is a game-changer in our collective fight to protect our climate and prevent pollution in the Chesapeake Bay,” Bioenergy Devco CEO Shawn Kreloff said in a prepared statement. “By preventing organic waste from ending up in landfills, incinerators or being land-applied raw, anaerobic digestion reduces greenhouse emissions for cleaner air, averts runoff that endangers the ecosystems of our waterways and generates a source of clean, renewable energy.”

DNREC Secretary Shawn Garvin approved five permits: a resource recovery permit, two air quality permits and two wastewater facility construction permits. The project includes four digesters with air pollution control equipment and a wastewater pretreatment system that turns poultry waste into digestate, or a slurry. Bioenergy Devco plans on using the slurry in its compost facility.

DNREC Secretary Shawn Garvin said the agency looked at the technology Bioenergy Devco proposed, specifically the mechanical pieces of the process and how potential emissions and waste would be handled.

“I don’t know that I would consider this new technology in a sense of looking at it from a  permitting standpoint. There are some things that wouldn’t be waste – either from an air standpoint or land standpoint that’s being turned into byproducts,” Garvin said. “Overall, that lowers the kind of footprint for waste.

“There’s been a lot of conversation over the years about byproducts of the poultry industry, and it’s the same thing with food waste,” he added. “It doesn’t become waste if it can be a product, and so this process [proposed by Bioenergy Devco] takes those pieces and puts them back into beneficial use.”

Bioenergy Devco has a 20-year history of building 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 company’s first American digester was constructed in Jessup, Md., but that handles food waste compared to poultry waste. However, more and more digesters are appearing throughout America. The U.S. The Department of Agriculture reports that there are 322 on-farm systems in operation as of 2021, with 50 that launched in that year.

The USDA also reports that anaerobic digesters slowed in use after 2013, with closures outnumbering new facilities 10-to-4 three years later. Reasons cited in 2016 for closures, if reported, included “include high operational costs, odor complaints, and mechanical issues.”

One supporter of the rise of digesters is U.S. Senator Tom Carper (D-Del.) who is the chairman of the U.S. Senate Environment and Public Works Committee. He toured Bioenergy Devco’s Maryland facility with Senator Ben Cardin (D-Md.) to understand the process.

“This is welcomed news in our efforts to address Delaware’s poultry waste by turning it into renewable energy. Not only will this reduce greenhouse gas emissions and pollution in surrounding communities, but it also promotes job creation and supports one of Delaware’s most important industries,” Carper said in a prepared statement.

Bioenergy Devco has agreements in place with Delaware companies like Perdue and Chesapeake Utilities to work in tandem with these operations. In 2019, Bioenergy Devco officials signed a 20-year deal to take over the composting operation in Seaford. 

Then in 2020, Chesapeake Utilities inked a deal with the company for the biogas. Earlier plans had that Chesapeake Utilities would truck the natural gas away for processing and eventually entry into its Eastern Shore Natural Gas pipeline.

Delaware is also pursuing reducing net emissions by 50% by 2030 and 100% by 2050, per the recently signed Climate Change Solutions Act, which codifies a plan set in place by Gov. John Carney’s administration. The permit issued by DNREC for air quality is based on the potential to emit and emission limitations based on worst-case scenarios and a combination of federal guidance, among other factors.

“It’s consistent with some of the pieces in the Climate Action Plan, looking at natural ways to address energy as well as capturing potential impacts to greenhouse gasses,” Garvin said. “There is a recognition of the ability for more ways to capture greenhouse gasses – and the more beneficial it is, at least to our responsibility on the mitigation side.” 

For years, the Bioenergy Devco proposal has been controversial in Sussex County and has seen consistent opposition from the U.S. Food and Water Watch, an environmental advocacy group. At the crux of the opposition is that it will draw more “factory farms” to come to the Delmarva region, which is already known as a top chicken producer in the country.

Other concerns, highlighted at a three-hour meeting last fall, focused on the potential for gas leaks or worse for the western Sussex County.

U.S. Food and Water Watch attorney Tyler Lobdell issued a statement that called Gov. John Carney’s role in the permit approval, “without necessary environmental review or oversight…  a dereliction of duty.”

Factory farm gas is not welcome in Delaware,” Lobdell said. “Bioenergy Devco’s proposed methane refinery threatens to cause further harm to Delaware’s environment and vulnerable residents. Yet, DNREC has allowed this developer to shortcut much needed protections. The decision to allow the company to proceed in Sussex County runs afoul of the state’s responsibility to safeguard the health of Delaware’s climate, environment and people.”

Bioenergy Devco is planning to form an advisory committee for the project, aiming to incorporate feedback from community stakeholders.

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