A few of our contributors have recently summarized their experiences at the 3rd Annual HeatNE Conference that was held in Manchester, NH April 14-15 and, in doing so, have nicely captured most of the “take home “ messages from the event. I was very pleased to see that grass energy had a real presence and was encouraged by the participation of so many people in the special post-conference grass energy development meeting. I strongly support folks working through statewide and regional organizations and communicating through this blog and in other ways in order to raise issues and track progress. At the national level, it is important that we participate through membership in the Biomass Thermal Energy Council (BTEC). I have suggested to our County’s Industrial Development Agency (IDA) that they join BTEC inasmuch as biomass energy development is important to our County, whether it be woody or agricultural. This would provide a conduit for informal, non-incorporated, (cash poor!) groups such as the St. Lawrence County Grass Energy Working Group to convey their thoughts to BTEC. By extension, I would encourage other county IDAs with similar interests to do the same.
Now for the topic-de-jour. I would like to focus on a conversation I had with a vendor at the Conference who, while demonstrating the features of the boiler his company had developed, made a very simple but profound statement: “You decide what fuel you want to burn and we will design a unit to burn it efficiently and cleanly”. It became clear to me that, in order to advance grass as a fuel, the “research and development community” needs to first decide which grass species and cultivars to use, either singly or in mixtures, how to grow and harvest them in ways that will minimize ash and chlorine, how to best densify them (or not) and to document their combustion characteristics. In short, recipes for grass fuel are needed. Then, boiler manufacturers will have a fuel with predictable characteristics for which they can design their equipment. Currently, research on grass combustion is often based on the reverse sequence – different grass mixtures are tested in off-the-shelf boilers to see if they will work. Maybe you get lucky doing it this way, but it is a hit-or-miss proposition.
Having definite recipes for grass fuels would also give growers comfort. They would know how to establish stands and properly harvest them, and the value of the bio-energy crops could be more reliably predicted. Much of the speculative nature of these crops could be eliminated.
The main priority of grass energy research at this time should therefore be in developing grass fuel recipes that are: (1) adapted to regional growing conditions, (2) harvested using a standardized protocol and (3) tested for their combustion characteristics. This is a proper role for government-assisted research. Once the recipes are known, the innovation of the private sector can then be unleashed to create the desired combustion technologies.
I suspect that several manufacturers are already close to being able to claim reliable, clean, efficient grass fuel combustion performance. Some are probably already there, particularly for larger boiler systems. It is the residential market for grass-fueled heating systems that stands to gain the most from the approach described in this article. Regardless of the market sector, everyone should benefit from zeroing in on the best recipes for renewable grass fuel.