Phil Evans, a poultry farmer in Dayton, Va., walks through one of his poultry… (Ricky Carioti -- The Washington…)
DAYTON, Va. -- Do not try to tell Oren Heatwole that chicken poop smells.
"Total myth," he said before a colleague, eager to prove the point, scooped up a mulchy handful and inhaled deeply.
Heatwole, a former chicken farmer, might be biased. But he isn't the only fan of the stuff. Scientists at Virginia Tech are experimenting with technology that would convert what you might call an abundant resource here in the Shenandoah Valley into energy. The effort so jazzed Terry McAuliffe, a candidate for Virginia governor, that he declared, "I love chicken waste!"
But what in any other year would have been an amusing blip in a heated political contest has taken on a unique significance because of the emphasis the candidates have placed on energy and the environment.
From wind farms to nuclear power to biofuels, energy and the environment have taken an unprecedented role in the race, ranking second only to job creation and the economy as a focus. That is especially true among the Democratic contenders, who will compete for the party's nomination June 9, but also for Republican Robert F. McDonnell, who has endorsed tax incentives to promote "green jobs."
McAuliffe (D) has spoken repeatedly about the role that energy efficiency and innovation can play in creating jobs. Brian Moran (D) took an early hard-line position against offshore drilling and came out against a power plant in Surry County, which was seen as a rebuff to the coal interests that have traditionally held sway in Richmond. State Sen. R. Creigh Deeds (D) has called on Virginia's institutes of higher learning to develop technologies that reduce the nation's dependence on foreign oil and fossil fuels.
But few issues have generated as much publicity as chicken waste, driven in part by McAuliffe's characteristic over-the-top zeal for the subject. Early last month, McAuliffe visited Heatwole's property, where Virginia Tech has built its prototype chicken-waste-to-energy machine.
"He was enthused. He was very wound up on it," Heatwole said.
Using a process called pyrolysis, the device super-heats the droppings to transform them into three products: an oil that can be used for heating, a slow-release fertilizer and a gas that the researchers hope will one day be recycled to power the machine.
If successful, the project also will help reduce a source of pollution in the Chesapeake Bay. Although the raw waste has long been recognized as a top-notch fertilizer, if applied too heavily, it can flush into waterways and eventually the bay. That has led to severe restrictions on its use.
Environmental groups have been largely critical of efforts to generate energy from waste products such as garbage or droppings. Often such plants produce harmful emissions.
In addition, critics note that raw poultry waste already brings in top dollar as a fertilizer -- more, sometimes, than the energy it can produce.
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.