I often feel like I am having trouble keeping up with the current status of grass energy research and development. Just when I think I have a grasp of the scene, I get surprised by some new revelation. This happened most recently when I downloaded the Technical Assessment of Grass Pellets as Boiler Fuel in Vermont. This 46-page report was produced by the Vermont Grass Energy Partnership, a collaborative effort among the Vermont Sustainable Jobs Fund, University of Vermont Extension Service, and the Biomass Energy Resource Center in Montpelier (BERC). Various people have critiqued this report in this blog and elsewhere and I am not planning on using this space to give it a full review. Despite its flaws, real or perceived, I applaud Vermont for supporting grass energy research and development through the Sustainable Jobs Fund and wish that New York State had a similar commitment.
The Vermont study was by its own admission limited in scope and will therefore prompt further research. Citing the report’s “Next Steps” section:
The next steps in determining the feasibility of grass energy in Vermont should include a robust economic assessment of the costs of manufacturing grass pellets under different scenarios. For instance, what changes can be anticipated at a centralized (stationary) pellet mill compared to utilizing mobile equipment (at different scales) to process the grass “on location?” As part of this economic assessment, key variables such as the cost of energy (fuel, electricity, diesel, biodiesel, etc.), subsidies paid to farmers (e.g., USDA’s Biomass Crop Assistance Program), and economies of scale in production costs must all be considered. Once the grass pellet production costs are fully understood, target wholesale and retail price points can be projected and compared against other heating fuels, including liquid fossil fuels and wood fuels.
As part of these next steps, the report also states that research will be needed to:
• Examine new and existing heating appliances (furnaces and boilers) that claim the ability to reliably burn high-ash fuels such as grass pellets.
• Determine the production costs of pellets made with grass and wood blends and to gauge the interest of the pellet consuming market for this type of product.
• Assess the production costs of farm-scale grass pelletization and the potential fuel savings of grass pellets over other heating fuels. Other market development scenarios using 100% grass pellets could emerge that will need further in-depth analysis as well.
That’s a decent grass pellet research agenda. Recently, the Vermont Sustainable Jobs Fund issued a request seeking proposals that will: “…. lead to the design, fabrication, demonstration and use of a mobile or stationary pelletizing system capable of converting at least 1-ton of grass biomass per hour into densified fuel. Projects must be able to identify at least one in-state source of grass biomass that will be pelletized and at least one in-state end-user of the pelletized fuel.”
Others, notably Renewable Energy Resources LLC and Broome Biomass LLC are researching briquetting (or cubing) densification as well as feedstock harvesting and handling methods to produce grass fuels for larger boiler/CHP applications. Still others, such as Jerry Cherney at Cornell, Michael Newtown at SUNY Canton and Paul Cerosaletti of Delaware County Cornell Cooperative Extension are examining the combustion characteristics of grass fuels in commercial and residential-sized units. Also, we should not fail to mention the mobile pelleting work of the Hudson Valley Grass Energy Group and the Pocono-Northeast RC&D Council in Pennsylvania. Last, the work of the Resource Efficient Agricultural Program (REAP) in Ontario, Canada is well known.
My intention here is not to try and provide an exhaustive listing of all the research that may be ongoing, but rather to ask the question: “Are we, the grass energy community, covering all the research and development bases in a coordinated and comprehensive way?” Yes, different people are looking at different pieces of the puzzle, but are we really working together in a truly collaborative manner? Perhaps it is time to convene a special-purpose conference for the relatively small cadre of researchers and business interests to review progress, compare notes and chart out a research and development course that will get us to the goal of a viable grass energy industry.