Building a grass-based bio-energy industry will require advances on three fronts: (1) creating demand through price competitiveness and heating appliance compatibility, (2) developing reliable, cost-effective densified fuel production and (3) making it worthwhile for grassland owners to produce sustainable bio-energy crops. These can be thought of as three legs of a stool, all of which must be present for the stool to stand. This brief essay focuses on the second item: developing reliable, cost-effective densified fuel production.
Although there are special systems such as those manufactured by Reka that can burn undensified fuel, densification into pellets and/or briquettes is going to be necessary for widespread adoption. Densification facilities, whether they be mobile or stationary, have to be designed for optimum production and minimum cost. People who know how to do this well can be found in the dairy and livestock feed mills that serve New York and the Northeast.
An opportunity may exist to work with one or more of these mills to test grass pellet production under real-world conditions and establish the economics. Such a research effort could be a model of public-private partnership. The ideal candidate for such a project would be a mill that has some amount of surplus pelletizing capacity. Depending on their configuration, some mills produce both pelletized feed and bulk mixtures. If the demand for bulk mixtures increases relative to pelletized feed, such a surplus capacity can occur.
The research may cause feed mills to add grass fuel pellets to their product lines or it may open the door for new entrepreneurs. In the future, densified grass fuel could be delivered in bulk to on-site storage at the points of use with the same delivery vehicles that are currently used for feed deliveries. Another approach could be the interchangeable container method, as described by Tony Nekut in the February 13 posting.
If no feed mill can be identified that would agree to participate in a funded research project as described above, another alternative would be to fund a dedicated test-bed facility. It would be economical, however, to use existing equipment located in a feed mill if possible.
I am hopeful that this is one of several issues that participants will discuss at the HeatNE Conference in Manchester, NH on April 14-15. Grass energy will have a higher visibility at this year’s conference than in the past. I encourage you to attend.