Energy from Chickens and a Fox in a Georgia Community's Henhouse

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Livonia TimesI twittered today, for maybe the sixth time. "No thing is any thing; no thing is nothing; relationship is all. Interconnection rules the world, so all 'things' are an error of perception." This sense, that interrelationship is what defines everything, making a rich comprehension of all-that-is possible, is one of the ideas(I almost said 'things,' a very useful word) that guides all of my work.

Thus, my stories examine the past. They examine one event or group or issue in relation to multiple others. Some very popular tropes these days--'tipping point,' 'unintended consequences,' 'hidden agenda,' 'six degrees of separation,' and more, flow from the notion that every aspect of existence has a dynamic connection to all else.

Moreover, understanding is richest when these intersections among what appear to be separate 'things' are clearly and deeply developed. This idea is the underlying point of today's post.

On top of that sits a significant community energy victory in Northeast Georgia, which illustrates the potency of community leadership in the context of networking of information and resources. This local Livonia, Georgia triumph in turn connects with matters as diverse as basic biology, 'green' entrepreneurship, biofuel and other sustainable energy policies, and a whole lot more.

If we remember that all the seemingly disparate pieces of existence, every thing and everything, stand in relation to every single bit of stuff that is, then perhaps we can begin to anticipate better what we need, how we can have a positive impact, what we should learn and teach and ponder. After all, this process of interconnection is how it all works.

INTRODUCTION

Chickens
A skein of companies that originally developed chicken waste power generation in England, now doing business as the holding company Homeland Renewable Energy (HRE), has until recently been trying to bring electricity to Georgia that comes from chicken manure. While everything from the economics to the environmental impact of this operation seems to scream that it would not be anything akin to a 'green' move, the company promotes itself as part of the ever-popular 'green revolution' that is sweeping the corporate propaganda machine, even if it is not nearly so much in evidence on the ground.

When we consider that the United States slaughters nine and a half billion food birds each year, most of which are chickens, the amount of fecal waste has to be astounding. According to Ohio State University, an average hundred chickens produce about thirty pounds of poo in twenty four hours.

This means, at a minimum, that every day in this nation, chickens and turkeys produce a minimum of 3,000,000,000 pounds of manure (10 bn./100 = 100 mn. X 30 = 3 bn.). While the notion of taking stinky waste and creating a useful energy source has to be attractive, Livonia's citizens, in conjunction with the Energy Justice Network, brought such fierce opposition to a proposed incinerator to bear that the company has moved on to 'greener' pastures, or at least to climates in which citizens do not have as much grit and fight in them.

This essay examines several aspects of this story.

  • First, it presents a simple narrative of what happened in Georgia.
  • Second, it examines the company, (HRE) and known locally as 'Fibrowatt,' in the context of a current industrial trend, the development of energy from biomass.
  • Third, it looks at the background and history of how, for millennia, issues of waste and energy have had a complex interaction wherever people have wandered.
  • Fourth, it suggests how, in this case, matters of policy and community empowerment appear that readers and citizens might see as models for how we need to think about widely divergent issues of energy and justice and democracy.

In coming posts, many of the subsidiary components of today's story will appear again--tomorrow, for example, I will proffer a profile of the Energy Justice Network as a marvelous model for community empowerment in regard to energy issues. I'll hope that JustMeans readers are as curious and as thirsty for a rich interweaving of facts and ideas as I am.

A LESSON FOR BUSINESS AND A CASE STUDY IN COMMUNITY CAPACITATION

Hart County operates a business and technology center, billed as a 'green energy corridor,' near its border with Franklin County, where the city of Livonia sits. Gateway Industrial Park operates in this fairly rural area, astride the border with South Carolina, where the Seneca and Tugaloo rivers join as the upper reaches of the Savannah River, forming 70,000 acre Lake Hartwell in the process.

Stop Fibrowatt Website
The (HRE)/Fibrowatt incinerator, according to the StopFibrowatt! website, would be

"the view that will represent our county & state to hundreds of thousands of people DAILY along I-85!"

As a result, predictably according to local organizers Sandra Fulghum and Carol Clyde, locals could say

"Goodbye Tourism & New Industry! Hello Toxic Pollution!"

Ms. Fulghum only heard of the planned development a few months ago, according to Logan Mathis, a mechanical engineer and another local activist. Mathis suggests that secrecy in planning industrial development is "understandable," but that upon hearing of the likelihood of a 300 foot tall smokestack associated with an incinerator that would process an "18-wheeler load of chicken manure every six to eight minutes," Sandra started looking into Fibrowatt.

She and others found Fibrowatch online and contacted Mike Ewall, executive director of the Energy Justice Network EJN) and a forceful proponent of informed democracy and opponent of backroom deals to promote 'jobs at any cost.' "Amazingly," Ewall applauded when I spoke with him, "within six weeks, they had the company packing their bags and leaving Georgia."

The EJN website's message, "Poultry waste is NOT a clean fuel; (b)iomass is NOT "green" energy," backed by data about a longstanding legacy of pollution and toxicity at other plants, especially in Minnesota, worried Fulghum and other original citizen organizers enough that they began to reach out to other community members such as Mr. Mathis. They quickly realized that their community, in many ways a hill-country paradise, was at risk if HRE's plant came to stay.

Lake Hartwell Area
The $31 million annual positive impact of Tugaloo State Park, for instance, only half-a-mile from the incinerator site, would probably have declined. "How many bassmasters tournaments (a planned park event) would want to set up shop next to a plant burning chicken litter?" Carol Cagle, according to an article in the nearby Anderson, S.C., Independent Mail, fretted about the impact of fumes from the plant on a planned hospital only five miles away.

A technical adviser and organizing mentor from the Blue Ridge Environmental Defense League (BREDL), Louis Zeller, presented data at a community meeting in early July that drew several hundred attendants. He showed that in terms of various noxious gases such as those formed by sulphuric acid and hydrochloric acid, and as regards carbon monoxide and many heavy metals, the prospective incinerator would be substantially worse than a coal-fired plant.

As the information they received grew more dire, and an awoken citizenry became more adamant in opposition, politicians began to line up against the plant. Livonia's mayor expressed grave reservations. Across the lake, South Carolina's Representative Don Bowen was preparing an even larger rally when Fibrowatt/HRE 'threw in the towel.'

StopFibrowatt! organizers thanked supporters.

"The citizens against Fibrowatt in Northeast Georgia would like to thank everyone who made it clear that they did not want this poultry waste incinerator in our area. Literally thousands of you mobilized, contacting everyone from government officials to the various media outlets using every communication means possible. Ultimately. . .you were determined to make your voice heard."

At least two interesting sidebars to this 'win-for-the-home-team' are noteworthy. The first involves the idiom, "once burned, twice shy." Several community members, including Logan Mathis in our interview, remembered very clearly the continuing impact of illicit PCB dumping in the Tugaloo River nearly three decades ago. The lesson of this toxic tort lingers on--the catfish are still not safe to eat--and certainly could have made citizens more watchful.

Money
The second point revolves around the presence at the community meeting, and general involvement, of Charles Utley, a tireless fighter for communities of color that have experienced corporate and military poison as a daily dose of life. He has helped seek redress for communities in the vicinity of the Savannah River Site, for example, sixty odd miles downstream, where Plutonium is merely the most frightening variety of a noxious stew of toxic wastes.

He congratulated Livonia's citizen activists at the same time that he cautioned them.

“Of all the communities that I’ve worked with, the bottom line is the dollar bill. The money drives (the corporations) to do these things. I’ve seen babies with tumors the size of their heads. That doesn’t bother them. All they care about is what goes to the bank. You have to stay organized. … As the Scripture says, ‘Where there are two or three gathered together in My Name, touching and agreeing on anything, there I am in the midst of them.’ I see you touching and agreeing. … Put them on notice that you will not sit idle.”

Sandra Fulghum's parting advice on the StopFibrowatt! website resonated with this message.

"Finally, remember our work is not done. We implore you to work with your elected officials and community leaders to bring environmentally friendly industries to our area, (i)ndustries that create jobs and stimulate the local economy."

BIOMASS AS TECHNOLOGY, DEVELOPMENT, BUSINESS, AND SOCIETY IN TANDEM

I'd bet every penny in my purse that at least 90 people out of every hundred don't really know how situations like this one add up, fit together, make sense. In reporting the story itself, I found out the following:

  • HRE/Fibrowatt hoped to pay $250/ton for chicken poop that farmers in South Georgia would pay $1,250/ton to use as fertilizer.
  • The purchase price that HRE could expect from the electric grid was likely below the cost of producing the electricity in the first place.
  • The $100 million+ local tourist industry would dwarf any possible gain from a plant that burned chicken manure in front of vacationers and revelers on the lake.

What could the Hart County folks, and the Fibrowatt folks, have been thinking?

Answering that question definitively would take time and resources many times those available for this article. However, if my inception point is a guideline, then we can begin to apprehend this interesting little situation more fully, in a way that at least hypothesizes an explanation for what would otherwise remain inexplicable, by looking at various interconnections.

For example, both the Department of Energy and the Department of Agriculture make hundreds of millions of dollars of grants and other support available to companies that activate and innovate in creating energy from biomass. Such funding leads to all sorts of enterprise and is undoubtedly essential in refining new techniques and deepening scientific knowledge.

This exists in relation to the 'industrial development authority' model that Hart County employed, in a two and a half year process with Fibrowatt/HRE, in seeking a production facility next door to Livonia. That model necessitates discretion. It does not in any sense 'front load' community.

This practical politics of technology and development then intersects with actual businesses. Sometimes, almost miraculously, that marketplace expression looks like Blue Ridge Biofuels, grassrootsy and funky and struggling to survive despite powerful community roots and admirable service and product development. More often, though, HRE is the prospect that comes knocking, a 'holding company,' a manifestation of financial and MBA thinking that has roots nowhere but in the notion of making a profit.

SE Biomass ConferenceMoreover, influencing, or even guiding, business decision making are well-funded and very slick standard overarching organizational forms. One of these is the trade magazine, in this case Biomass Magazine. Another is the big trade conference, the next one in Atlanta, November 2-4 this year, in this instance chiefly a promotional venture of the magazine itself. And finally comes the lobbying and industry communications group, in this case the Biomass Energy Research Association (BERA), all of which have an obvious orientation to 'business-as-usual' models that don't so much exclude community as bypass it.

For example, in its 2011 testimony before the House Committee on Appropriations Energy and Water Subcommittee, BERA President Joan Pelligrino offered this as her penultimate recommendation. "Permitting processes should be reviewed with a goal of facilitating industry growth by making permitting as simple, quick, and reasonable as possible. Regulators and companies need to be confident that they can obtain permits for biomass power or fuel plants."

And outside of any substantive loop in this process, like fish awaiting the net or like indigenous peoples awaiting the arrival of slave catchers and colonial tradesmen, sits the community. Thus, whatever the particulars of this story, the vast majority of which I have not discovered, I can state with some certainty that the specifics emanate from the multi-sided interactions of various stakeholders.

Unfortunately, arguably the most important of these actors, the communities of citizens, have the smallest input, the least knowledge and capacity, and the most minimal forewarning or involvement in the process. When we as a society, when communities as collectives of empowered citizens, reverse this process so that community comes first, the anomalous results of the Livonia Fibrowatt travesty will be much less likely to transpire.

As Logan Mathis, the former engineer, stated the case to me,

"We oughta educate ourselves in all these situations, because we can't count on these other groups to do it for us; we have to get strong enough, with enough knowledge, to know what these people are doing."

BACKGROUND AND HISTORICAL DATA AND IDEAS

Each of seven billion people, ten billion cows, a hundred billion or more poultry, and billions and billions of other mammals and birds--we'll just ignore the fish and reptiles and insects and so on--defecate on a daily basis. How does the average person feel about this? Probably, the reaction is some version of "Ewww, gross!" or "Get a life!"

I bring it up because, as we have proliferated, and proliferated our livestock companions even more prolifically, these matters of waste have become 'inconvenient' in many ways, not the least of which has to do with water. A set of policies that would 'balance' waste handling in a more ecologically sensible way would be truly transformative. Perhaps energy generation is part of this equation, perhaps not.

Dung in Indian Village
One certainty is that, to this day, a likely majority of the earth's people and households power themselves with poop of one sort or another. The google search, "dung + fuel" generates over 2,000,000 citations.

An Oregon non-profit produced a fascinating article, "Designing a Clean-Burning, High-Efficiency, Dung-Burning Stove: Lessons in cooking with cow patties." This matters not primarily for reducing 'carbon footprints,' but mainly as a way to massively improve the lives of folks who are clinging to this mortal coil. Dung in India, Bosnia, Turkey, and elsewhere is the fuel source of choice for billions of our cousins.

Of course, in the West, a critical public health advance--by some estimates contributing as much as half to increases in life expectancy--was the capacity to deal with our own wastes and animal feces attendant on our farming practices, without poisoning ourselves. One article calls the process the "Public Health Progress that Changed America," contending that

"(w)hat fostered this rapid and revolutionary change... .(a reduction of)mortality rates...by a full 40 percent (were) clean water technologies, filtration and chlorination (that accounted) for nearly half of the total mortality reduction in major cities between 1900 and1936, with even greater impact on infant and child mortality rates during that same time period."

Figuring out how to move forward from where we are, at a very different crisis point, must take account of this history. Whether the developments that we need to create are in the realm of 'energy' or not, if we do things intelligently and with vision, they will energize more than just us. They will help the connected communities of the planet to get along with each other in a sustainable way.

BRINGING COMMUNITY AND DEMOCRACY TO ENERGY POLICY ON MORE THAN A CASE-BY-CASE BASIS

David and Goliath
This tale is one of thousands that have taken place in the past period of time in which people have, truly, prevailed against entrenched social and economic forces that held all the political cards except the power that unity gives to a populace. But for each of those examples of social success, of the underdog winning through, of 'Mr. Smith going to Washington' and revealing the living, beating heart of democracy, a thousand--or even a thousand-thousand--other instances demonstrate the opposite.

How to reverse that metric, or at least balance it more, is the defining problem of the present time. More than Weapons of Mass Destruction, more than Global Warming, more than Peak Oil, more than Imperial War, more than any of a hundred 'Lacks'--health care, justice, equity, jobs, etc.--the issue of how regular people, by which I mean working class people primarily, can gain the consciousness and knowledge to collaborate in transforming human history by changing 'business as usual' in their communities, will determine whether my children will have a chance to grow old as human beings instead of as hunted animals in a devolutionary diaspora.

I have no answers. I bring no easy mechanism to these stories that says, 'See?! This is how it works.' But I have faith that, by changing our perspectives to include the real materiality of interrelationship, by insisting that we can figure things out, and by then demanding democratic processes that start with the bottom instead of the expert on high, people can make sure that society "of the people, by the people, and for the people does not vanish from the earth."

CONCLUSIONS

March on Washington
I cannot count the number of times that I have chanted, "The people, united, will never be defeated!" And in simplest terms, that is the lesson of Livonia. Folks who know what they want, armed with pertinent information, are unstoppable.

However, the world is a lot more complex than a question of whether to burn chicken s*** next to a tourist town. And, somehow or other, citizens have to be willing to get into those complexities, consider the deeper questions and more problematic issues that this story reveals.

One model for how that can happen wandered into my 'inbox' today. It's a little more raucous than the folks in Livonia but expresses popular sentiment toward similar ends, albeit perhaps the demo in the video is just a bit more proactive than the community meetings in Georgia.

A more proactive model still will appear in tomorrow's posting. The Energy Justice Network calls on the precepts of Environmental Justice and community participation as benchmarks for whether any economic development is apt.

Mike Ewall, of EJN, and for that matter Charles Utley and the folks at BREDL and activists generally who have shown up and will show up in these pages, would agree: understanding things in isolation cannot lead to transformation. The big picture is the key to political power. And without political power, the occasional victory will hardly amount to a pennyweight against the onslaught of organized interests that might need the community but for which 'community interest' is little more than a convenient buzzword.

AFTERWORD

Interrelationship rules everything. No 'thing' is truly separate from any other. "No man is an island, complete and entire unto himself," said the poet. Though the flutter of a twitter bite, or the satisfaction of a video game score, or the sense of breakthrough on "American Idol" clearly have their charms, they may stand in the way of a broader reach, unless we make it our business to seek out that broader reach.

That's why I'm here. That's what this story is really about.

Photo Credits:
Chickens: Darin Barry
Lake Tougaloo Map: terraprints
Money: Tracy Olson
Dung: Aprovecho Research Center
David & Goliath (Louvre): Bongo Vongo
Lincoln Memorial: Blatant News

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