Plans for a renewable energy facility in central Florida which will burn horse stall bedding as well as other wastes is raising concerns among officials from composting companies in the region, who are questioning everything from the cost-effectiveness of the multimillion dollar plant to whether it will actually help alleviate groundwater pollution problems.
“The proposed gasification plant is a $38 million project that is getting a lot of government and public attention,” notes Randall Crecelius, vice president and co-owner of C&C Peat Co. in Okahumpka, Fla. But, he adds, “Composting is also a green technology with several long term benefits…”
The gasification plant is being developed by MaxWest Environmental Systems in partnership with the Florida Thoroughbred Breeders’ and Owners’ Association. It is designed to handle 50,000 tons per year of stall waste and a similar amount of wood and organic waste. It will generate up to 10.5 megawatts of electricity — enough energy officials say to power 1,400 homes — that can be sold to utility companies.
Preliminary engineering is currently under way on the plant.
While the plant’s supporters tout it as an environmentally friendly way to dispose of stall waste generated by the more than 35,000 thoroughbred horses in Ocala/Marion County — the so-called “horse capital of the world” — others contend it is an overly-expensive project that fails to address the actual source of groundwater pollution.
“I don’t think they can promote this power plant as the answer to the pollution in the springs,” says Darren Midlane, technical director with Harvest Quest International, a Colorado-based environmental technology company specializing in organics recycling and residuals management. “They’re trying to promote the fact that this alternative energy process takes some of the manure away, but I don’t think it’s the manure that’s polluting the groundwater. It’s the [synthetic] fertilizer used on pasture. That’s the true source of the pollution.”
Midlane’s opinion appears to be backed up by a recent summary of studies done on pollution at Silver Springs, one of the largest artesian spring formations in the world. The report found that storm water runoff was washing nitrate-laden fertilizers from farms and other properties into the springs. An estimated 82 percent of the nitrate level was blamed on the runoff.
Compared to chemical fertilizers, there is only a minimal amount of nitrogen in the horse stall waste, Midlane, says.
“It’s basically all carbon,” he says. “There’s very little nitrogen.
“My argument is that the stable bedding is often pinpointed as the source of the nitrate and phosphate contamination in the springs,” he says. “The bedding, however, has such a high carbon content that any nitrogen from the small percentage of manure and urine contained within the bedding is quickly consumed by bacteria as they attack/degrade the plentiful carbon. I believe leaching of nutrients from stockpiled manure is very minimal.
“The real issue with regard to the pollution is not specifically from the manures themselves,” he argues. “Actual nitrate and phosphate pollution more likely comes from residential and agricultural use of synthetic fertilizers.”
The Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Affairs, however, says horse waste is a problem, particularly in the Ocala/Marion County area. “It is a problem,” says department spokesman Terence McElroy. “They’ve always been looking for ways to dispose of it.”
Marion County commissioners earlier this year adopted a lengthy Springs protection plan that, among other things, bans the dumping or stockpiling of manure in various locations, such as sinkholes or streams, in agricultural use areas. It also prohibits placing or burying manure in an excavated pit or mine.
“Protecting water quality is everyone‘s business and there‘s a lot of work to be done,” Bill Baker, vice president of marketing for MaxWest says in a written statement. “Not every technology fits into every challenge, but we‘re confident that our gasification system fits well with the needs of our partners and this community.”
Midlane maintains that the pollution problem can be addressed by substantially reducing the use of chemical fertilizer on pasture land and replacing it with an organic alternative — compost. Meantime, questions swirled among composting officials about how long the plant would take to pay for itself, who would be responsible for the cost and whether tipping fees or other charges would be imposed.
“You have to realize that most people don’t know what it’s going to cost them yet,” Crecelius points out. By his calculations, he estimates it would take 11 years to recoup an investment in the gasification plant. MaxWest says that it builds, operates and maintains its gasification plants. The plant will support itself by “selling renewable electric power and collecting disposal fees” from waste sources that will include sewage sludge and urban wood waste in addition to the horse stall waste, the company statement says.
Utilization of the gasification plant by the horse farms will be voluntary and a tipping fee will be charged, it says. That fee was not specified although composting officials predict it will be substantially higher than what they charge. More irksome to Crecelius was the fact that the breeders’ association and MaxWest have received a $2.5 million grant from the Florida Energy and Climate Commission. The grant will be used to help purchase waste handling and processing equipment, according to both organizations.
“The tax dollars being spent on one industry and not another really bothers me,” Crecelius says. “It‘s my tax dollars and your tax dollars. If this is such a great idea, it needs to stand on its own or else the government needs to fund me, too.
‘We’ve got several successful composting operations and to come in and partially fund a gasification plant is not necessarily the answer,” he adds. “Let’s keep the playing field level.”
“It is a little bit unfair,” Midlane agrees. Crecelius warns that the composting industry could be impacted if government commissions elsewhere help fund gasification plants. “Virtually any material that can be composted can be gasified,” he says. “With the global warning issues/carbon credit issues, it appears it could be more politically correct to burn all our waste than to compost it.”
Midlane notes that alternative energy is the “hot button” issue right now driving the move to waste-to-energy plants.
“Everybody is looking for alternative energy sources to try to meet state and federal requirements for alternative energy,” he says.
Florida in 2006 launched its Farm to Fuel program to promote production and distribution of renewable energy. The goal, McElroy says, is to create 25 percent of the nation’s energy needs. MaxWest officials say their plant will fit in well with those efforts. “From the state’s perspective, it is potentially a home run because it is solving a critical disposal problem through localized conversion into renewable energy,” Baker says in his statement. “The Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services, the Florida Energy and Climate Commission, the Florida Department of Environmental Protection and other interested groups like the Florida Audubon all recognize gasification as a hopeful and promising technology.
“Our cost-effective solution is scalable, time-tested and produces a green energy byproduct that adds additional value,” the statement says. Midlane argues that composting offers one of the best options when it comes to the “true beneficial reuse” of material. “The true beneficial reuse is to recycle this material,” he says. “It’s plant matter basically, so recycling it back to the soil is the only true real beneficial reuse. Once you burn it, it’s gone. There is no reuse of it other than the energy produced in burning it . . . I would think that would be less efficient and more expensive.”
“With us, all the material is going to be beneficial,” adds Matt Biegler, one of the owners of CompostUSA, headquartered in Winter Garden, Fla. “They’re going to have residuals left over which are going to have to go back to the landfill.”MaxWest, however, says those residuals — or ash residue from the burn process — can be utilized in a variety of applications, such as concrete or building materials. The ash is inert and harmless, the company says, and notes that the quantity produced will be a tiny fraction of the material going in at the front end.
“There’s virtually no waste in composting,” Crecelius counters. “We’re also keeping the organic nutrients in the organic form and using them in a way that’s beneficial to the environment . . .” Despite the brouhaha over the waste-to-energy plant, composting company officials say they are not completely against the gasification plant. They agree that even if the plant took in 50,000 tons of stall waste a year, that was still only 10 percent of the 500,000 tons generated annually in the area.
“I’m not against gasification plants,” Crecelius says. “There’s probably room for all of us. But it probably needs to be thought out a little better.” “If it’s done right, it’s another viable alternative,” agrees Glen Stewart, superintendent at CompostUSA. “We’re not exactly against it,” Midlane adds. “We just don’t think it will be truly viable when they get to doing it.”
Michael Lange, general manager of Black Gold Compost Co., in Sumter County, Fla., is a supporter of the plant but admits he has the same reservations as his colleagues concerning competition and the plant’s economic viability.
“I’m in favor of the plant from what I know because it does produce alternative or green energy,” Lange says. “Green energy is good. Compost is good. I hate to see anything that makes good compost be burned.