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Can agricultural biomass benefit by an increased woody biomass market?

Earlier this year Community Biomass Energy (CBE) was putting together a business plan for a small agricultural biomass pelleting operation.   We had all sorts of ideas for small scale combined heat and power, using a gasifier and energy from syngas to run the pellet mill, sharing the heating and energy for a cluster of buildings with a local carpenter and oats milling operation, retrofitting outdoor wood boilers.  We wanted to use biomass from Danby Land Bank Cooperative (DBLC) member fields – old hay fields going to brush and goldenrod.

It didn’t happen.   There was a variety of reasons, but the main determining factor was that the market wasn’t there – not for agricultural biomass – not in sufficient quantity to make the books balance.   And the market wasn’t there because the appliances weren’t there.  

In most boilers and stoves, agricultural biomass is either not a recommended fuel, a secondary choice and/or even a break-the-warranty option.   These appliances are not made for a fuel with such variability, ash content, etc.   In the future, research on such bioenergy technologies as thermochemical conversion using gasification or pyrolosis — which can use more variable fuels – may eventually be successful enough to offer market-ready appliances.  In my opinion this market has a good chance of developing, and biochar will be a component of it.  Or, perhaps American retailed versions or European boilers will become financially feasible.   Agricultural biomass holds such promise for rural areas that the interest is not going away.  But whether factors such as natural gas — which has played havoc with all such predictions — will allow that promise to be fulfilled is another story.

So CBE, right or wrong, chose to forego the risk of  starting an agricultural biomass business, and chose instead to develop some alternative strategies.   Working under the assumption that acceptance of agricultural biomass as an alternative energy depends on continuing acceptance and saturation of woody biomass in the heating market, we looked at ways we could further the increased use of biomass of any kind.   

Initially, we began exploring the chance of partnering with rural, low income heating projects, change-out/retrofit projects, and pilot projects of various sorts.  We wanted to create community success stories.  One of our main strategies was to help develop a pellet delivery infrastructure similar to that of Maine Energy Systems (MESys) in Maine and Vermont or Sandri in Massachusetts.  New York only has one native delivery system, Vincent’s Heating and Fuel in Poland, near Utica.  It seemed reasonable to assume that a pre-requisite to replacing fuel oil required having a system in place that was at least easy to use.   This final strategy is the one that gained momentum and moved forward.

A local family fuel oil company, Ehrhart Propane and Oil, with whom we had spoken several years earlier was now interested.   Cooperative Extension had just received a grant for a change out of wood stoves.   But then an even greater opportunity arose.   Funds were available from New York Cleaner Greener Communities Program and the deadline for a grant application was only a month away.  The Director of Cooperative Extension in Tompkins County, a long-time proponent of biomass (and also, by the way, an advisory committee member of our sister organization, the Danby Land Bank Cooperative (DLBC)),  spearheaded a innovative public private partnership that involved Ehrhart and New England Wood Pellets in Deposit, MESA Reduction Engineering in Auburn,  as well as a Cooperative Extension led market analysis, education and outreach program and several cornerstone commercial boiler installations to develop a whole pellet delivery infrastructure for the Southern Tier of NY.  

Currently this project has passed the regional approval process to receive a full 20 points – the highest possible rating – and has moved on to compete with other projects in New York at the state level.    

Oct 17 is National Bioenergy Day and events will be held across the country to celebrate bioenergy and its many environmental and economic benefits on the local, state and national levels.  In the Southern Tier, with acceptance of our proposal, wood pellet delivery is set to make a transformative change in fuel oil/LPG companies.  It would convert them from dealers of imported fossil fuel energy into dealers of locally produced green energy.   According to Bill Overbaugh, General Manager of Ehrhart Propane & Oil, wood pellets would be delivered pneumatically directly into storage bins on the customer’s property. From there, they can be pneumatically or mechanically conveyed directly into the burner of the stove, boiler, or furnace.  “We’ve provided clean energy solutions since 1949. We’re excited now to offer a completely renewable energy source as well.”    

CBE and DBLC will keep working on agricultural biomass.   Meanwhile I think that’s a successful strategy.

Resist climate change and buy local.  Keep the money we spend on heating in the northeast.

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You and a guest are invited to join colleagues in the bioenergy industry at the 2nd Annual Summer Social.

The event will take place on Thursday, August 8 at 10 am to 3 pm.  The day will begin at ReEnergy Black River, a state-of-the-art biopower plant that has recently been converted from coal to use woody biomass to generate 60MW of electricity.  Then, the Social will continue in Alexandria Bay on a double-decker charter, with lunch and a cash bar on deck.

For more information, please contact Alice Brumbach (abrumbach@newyorkbiomass.org or 607-316-3437) or register via credit card here.

Greetings all,
At the conclusion of this year’s Agricultural Biomass Heating Seminar in Saratoga Springs, I had the pleasure of announcing the pending release of funds to support a “state-of-the-science” review of grass energy in Vermont and the Northeast. Here are the details:

The Vermont Sustainable Jobs Fund (VSJF) is seeking proposals from individuals, consulting firms or organizations to conduct a state-of-the-science review of grass energy in Vermont and neighboring states and establish the next step(s) to accelerate the commercialization of grass energy in the region and specifically in Vermont.

Over the past few years, a number of projects in Vermont and the Northeast have led to a body of knowledge on growing, processing and using grass for energy. However, this opportunity has not fully developed into a marketable option for growers, landowners, fuel processors and dealers, equipment manufacturers and vendors, nor homeowners or communities. There are still some uncertainties around the viability of using grass for energy, and as a result some are hesitant to move forward with grass energy plantations or system installations that will support grass combustion.

At this time, VSJF would like to assess the current state of knowledge and identify the remaining critical questions that need to be answered in order to commercialize this opportunity. To review the complete Scope Of Work relating to this RFP, and the information needed to apply, please visit the VSJF website at: http://www.vsjf.org/news/72/request-for-proposals-grass-energy-in-vermont

THE DEADLINE FOR PROPOSAL SUBMISSIONS IS Friday MAY 17, 2013, 5:00PM

After reviewing the RFP, if you have questions please email us at: vtbiofuels”at”vsjf.org

The 2nd annual Northeast Agricultural Biomass Heating Seminar on April 3, 2013 at the City Center in Saratoga Springs, NY, will present project and business leaders from Vermont, New York, Pennsylvania, Kentucky and Ontario sharing experiences with agricultural biomass crops and combustion. The Seminar is part of the 3-day Northeast Biomass Heating Expo, the largest biomass heating conference and expo in the region.

Seminar presentations will be offered on agricultural biomass fuels for heating, such as grass, willow and crop residues, how to establish energy crops on marginal lands, and the densification, combustion, emissions and economics of crop biomass at residential and commercial scales.

A mid-afternoon session will show the video ‘Grass Fuels.’

“This seminar focuses on an emerging sector of the biomass heating experience, and highlights grass energy as a local source of renewable fuel and a complement to heating with wood”, says Alice Brumbach, Administrator of the New York Biomass Energy Alliance.

The New York Biomass Energy Alliance is one of the lead sponsors of the event with the Vermont Sustainable Jobs Fund, Cornell Cooperative Extension, Farm Credit East, Catskill Grass Energy Project, and Ernst Conservation Seeds.

Attendees can network with regional experts in the industry, and come away with the knowledge of what it takes to grow crop biomass and a better understanding of the opportunities to use it for heating institutional buildings, commercial and agricultural spaces, and homes.

The Agricultural Biomass Heating Seminar is open to the public. Online registration and the program agenda are available by going to http://www.nebiomassheat.com/events.php .

In its 5th year, the Northeast Biomass Heating Expo unites a diverse audience from the engineering, biomass fuel, supply chain, developer, manufacturer, and government sectors to break barriers and ground for biomass thermal and combined heat and power (CHP) systems. The interactive event includes exhibits, panel discussions and technical workshops for engineers, emphasizing practical learning and real project case studies.

For more information, go to http://www.nebiomassheat.com.

On behalf of the New York Biomass Energy Alliance, please join me on July 20 at the the NYBEA’s first social event, for members, prospective members, and guests. This is a great opportunity to catch up with your colleagues in the biomass industry – share successes, challenges, and kick back and relax over a local brew.

The Summer Social will begin at 11 am with an industry tour of New England Wood Pellet’s Schuyler Manufacturing Facility, followed by a luncheon and ending at the Matt Brewery in Utica. The day will be a great opportunity for Alliance members and guests to share successes, challenges, but more importantly meet and get to know colleagues in the biomass industry in a low key, casual atmosphere. Events like the Summer Social are just as important to strengthening cooperation and communication within the family of enterprises and organizations committed to biomass energy solutions as attending industry conferences and public sector workshops, but more fun.

Utica area representatives, Congressman Richard Hanna (24), Senator James Seward (NY 51), and Assemblyman Marc Butler (NY 117), are invited as guests of the Alliance. Don’t worry, there will be no speeches, no PowerPoint presentations – just an informal, low key gathering on a summer day.

Tickets are $30 per person, invited guests of Alliance members are free of charge.

Please RSVP by July 13 to me, Alice Brumbach (abrumbach@newyorkbiomass.org / 607-316-3437).

If you wish to pay by credit card, go to http://nybeasummersocial.eventbrite.com 

To pay by check: please send a check payable to ESFPA – Biomass Alliance, (include “Summer Social” in the memo), to: 47 Van Alstyne Drive, Rensselaer, NY 12144

If you plan to continue socializing into the evening, here are some suggestions for local restaurants and accommodations.

For directions to New England Wood Pellet and the Matt Brewery, click here.


Optimistic

From InShik Lee, TC3 SUNYGREENS NY Program Coordinator- and new to the BioEnergy discussion.
We are living in a time of great stagnation and great transition. The quest for “sustainability” and the reality that we are all dependent upon limited global resources has us all scratching our heads, wondering, ‘what is truly the right thing to do’? Fear of not doing the right thing has many of us doing nothing and perhaps waiting for someone else to take the first plunge- whether it’s the first electric car or the first pellet furnace…So how do we get out of this lull? How do we drive our efforts to get us to the next “wave of innovation” to achieve the levels of sustainability that we have come to know is necessary for a sustainable future? The multitudes of advances in high technology have us questioning their value. The philosophical and ethical discussion about the value of each and every technological innovation leads to a life time of discussions for philosophers. I think it is pretty much agreed that in the field of BioEnergy, we are ripe for innovation.
BioEnergy is a vast and open field of opportunity. As consumers we are bombarded from every angle –what is the best solution, what is the most efficient, what is the most economical…? We have end users who are still burning wood like they did in the 1700’s! We have homeowners complaining that a neighbor’s chimney gases are giving them health problems. We have whole hospitals or schools using the waste woodchips to heat their whole facility. We have corn being turned into ethanol and fueling our vehicles and yet being told it’s not an efficient use of food stock, new willow being grown to be burned… So, what is the best way? And what does it take to push forward an industry so diverse and full of opportunities for so many? And what about all the other side industries which are not energy related who can benefit from this economic growth arena? Manufacturing, transportation, sales & service to name just a few…
As an educator, designer, and consumer, I look for ways to promote opportunities for innovation. Innovations are NOT totally new inventions – derived from Latin ‘innovare’- “to renew or change,” from in- “into” + novus “new”. BioEnergy is not a new idea- Innovations continue to develop from existing ideas and it is what will drive us to the next wave, brought together within a new perspective. The much denigrated “S” word is creating consumer awareness, and a need for industry to rethink systems of growing, processing, manufacturing, processing, delivery, sales to meet the challenges of a changing paradigm. Inspired students and consumers are coming to this arena with questions and ideas which will drive the next wave of innovation. The Bio-Energizers will be the industry members who will answer the call and design solutions to make it economically viable. This will require education of a new generation of students who are looking at new ways to look at the concept of renewable, collaboration between the “old school/low tech / existing knowledge base” and the “new school /high bio-tech/new knowledge base”, and allowing for discovery through trials and failures. I think this aligns with one of Carlton Owens’ take-away from the BIOMASS conference last week- to take the ‘good’ not only the ‘perfect’… We need to move forward to build on the examples of the ‘good’ to move towards the ‘better’ and the ‘perfect’.
The BIOMASS conference I attended this past week armed me with a wealth of information to spread. I learned that the ideas need to be shared, misconceptions need to be cleared, and innovations need to be promoted. All it takes is time and money …and to quote Ephraim from the musical “Hello, Dolly” – “Money, pardon the expression, is like manure. It’s not worth a thing unless it’s spread about, encouraging young things to grow.” We depend on organizations such as NYSERDA and USDA to help forge BioEnergy innovations- as they have for solar and wind technologies. It can be done and I am optimistic!
This leads me to a shameless plug – Tompkins Cortland Community College will be hosting a USDA funded conference on April 27 to discuss the collaboration between education, agriculture, and business to promote and to grow the local BIOENERGY industry. Please follow this link for registration information for the conference
Bio Energy Opportunities in Upstate NY http://www.tc3.edu/about_tc3/sustainability.asp
Hope to see YOU in the BioEnergy future!

Advancing Grass Energy

I am excited about the one-day Agricultural Biomass Heating Seminar that is coming up on March 21 in Saratoga Springs! The seminar is being held in conjunction with the Northeast Biomass Heating Expo 2012. For full details and registration information, go to: http://www.heatne.com/program.html . This seminar will provide a major opportunity to advance the development of grass energy by bringing together leading players in the agricultural biomass arena. It is our big chance to bring many good but independent efforts together into a coherent whole.

Here is a sketch of the day’s agenda. The seminar will open with a keynote address from Christopher T. Wright, Ph.D., Manager, Idaho National Laboratory, Biofuels & Renewable Energy Technologies. The Idaho National Laboratory (INL) has been a leader in bioenergy research and development. Chris will describe INL’s expertise, capabilities and desire to work with and enable industry to make bioenergy a reality, with a focus on the Northeast.

Following the keynote address will be a succession of four panel presentations.
The first is on Agri-Biomass Performance Characteristics, moderated by Sid Bosworth. His panel will draw from regional knowledge of the variety of agricultural biomass crops being converted to fuel. The focus will be on viable biomass crops for the Northeast and which ones are the most promising. The panelists will speak to a range of performance characteristics i.e. ash, chlorine, production costs, land use, time of harvest, fertility mgmt, etc.

The second panel, starting after lunch, deals with Processing Agri-Biomass, moderated by Matt McCardle. Case studies will give examples of different methods being used in the region to process grass as a commercial biomass fuel including mobile units and stationary systems. Quality standards, storage & handling, and improving efficiency will be covered.
The third panel will examine Combustion & Emissions, moderated by Jon Montan. Case studies will give examples of successful ag biomass or multi-fuel heating systems. The session will conclude with the results from current NYSERDA-funded grass combustion research. The suitability of grass fuels for different scale systems, how fuel variety affects combustion, emission profiles and additional research needs will also be featured.
Then, after a break, the fourth and last panel will look at the Cost of Production, moderated by Dan Conable. What does it cost to produce ag biomass fuel? Participants will hear two examples of different cost & breakeven scenarios, based on current enterprise models. What costs and which variables have the biggest opportunity for savings?

The culminating session at the end of the day will bring together the points of information, challenges and consensus from each of the earlier panel sessions under the goal of developing the market. The product will be a Research and Development Action Plan.

We need your input, experience and ideas, so don’t miss it !

I attended the presentation of the completion of the Community Biomass Energy (CBE) project presented on January 11, 2012 that was a proposal of a more economical use of biomass field grasses and agricultural wastes as a fuel source. The Project Lead for this CBE project was Tony Nekut who recently passed away in September. With his involvement, valuable efforts, and support the project was able to get off the ground and evolve. Continued efforts to complete what his work had helped to make possible led to this presentation. My presence was on behalf of the New York Biomass Energy Alliance (NYBEA) with a role as their intern. Also in attendance was George Adams of CBE, John Bootle of Renewable Energy Resources, Alice Brumbach, administrator of the NYBEA, Dave Grusenmeyer, Managing Director of the NYFVI, Betsy Keokosky of the Danby Land Bank Cooperative and CBE, Bob Rynk, Associate Professor of Agricultural Engineering at SUNY Cobleskill and RBEG Project Investigator along with an intern from SUNY Cobleskill. The consultant who provided technical assistance to the CBE project and who presented was David Waage P.E.  The project presented was one selected to receive technical assistance funded by the Rural Business Enterprise Grant. The selection process was performed by the NYBEA, New York Farm Viability Institute (NYFVI), and SUNY Cobleskill who all jointly administer the technical assistant program. Through this program submitted projects go through a selection process and the chosen projects are then matched up with consultants who can provide technical assistance to the project.

Recognizing the benefits of using waste hay, field grasses, and waste straw as a potential energy source that would offset fossil fuel usage and reduce greenhouse gas emissions while providing a boost to the Upstate New York farming economy, CBE proposed a concept to use these fuel sources in an economically feasible way. With the assistance of David Waage, P.E. the concept was explored and a design drafted.

The more economical approach to utilizing field grasses and waste agricultural products avoids the technical problem of low bulk density which is usually resolved through pelletizing and briquetting that is energy intensive and suffers other difficulties, by using a transportable container that delivers the field grasses as a prepared, compact fuel for burning.

The concept of the containers would be mobile storage containers that utilize rolling compaction and are self-unloading. This would ensure that the fuel grasses which are chopped to ¾ inches would maximize capacity in the transportable containers, optimizing trucking costs and providing adequate combustion. So not only are the containers used for transportation but for storage until use. By avoiding pelletizing and only performing chopping, coarse milling, drying, and rolling compaction, a power savings of 75% is projected over pelletizing. The feedstock is then readily usable for the end user to burn once it is delivered. The feedstock can be stored in the containers for long periods of time until they are needed. The design of a lid for the container will keep out moisture and other unwanted things.

The field grasses once processed at a Central Processing Facility (CPF) and ready for use have potential market to end users heating with biomass fired boilers and furnaces. Such end users would be institutions, commercial buildings, micro generating facilities, and liquid fuel facilities.

In the state of the current market, CPFs can be profitable particularly with switchgrass; and with increasing energy prices CPFs can expect even greater profit. The one fuel that it will be difficult to compete with is natural gas which is a very inexpensive fuel source compared to other fuel sources at $0.73 per therm. But liquid fuels such as fuel oil and kerosene are more attractive to replace, fuel oil having a current market value of $3.60 per therm. Based on the delivery costs of other fuels and the delivery cost of fuel grasses, field grasses can compete with liquid fuels and electric heat. This would provide savings for the end user to use field grasses over these fuels.

The farmers that provide the feedstock would benefit monetarily from the use of field grasses as a fuel source as well. Having around 200 acres of harvested land farmers could expect an average yield of two tons per acre for fuel grasses of $28,000/year at $70/ton. This would boost the economy of local farmers providing for the CPFs.

By refining this concept of using self-unloading mobile storage containers with densification and direct boiler feed capacity, it becomes economically feasible to consider the use of field grasses, switchgrass, and other agricultural wastes as a fuel source in the place of currently expensive fuel sources.

For more information about the Technical Assistance for Customer-Sited Rural Biomass Energy Projects, please contact: Alice Brumbach, abrumbach@newyorkbiomass.org, 607-316-3437.

The Vermont Grass Energy Partnership, founded in 2008, is an R&D and market development collaboration of the University of Vermont, Biomass Energy Resource Center (BERC), Vermont Technical College, the Vermont Sustainable Jobs Fund and Vermont’s bioenergy stakeholders.

A happy and auspicious New Year to you all. It’s 2012 and there’s drama in the air. I don’t know that it’s the End Of Days, but the global financial train is still going in circles, crude oil is above $100 a barrel again, everything is in the process of being occupied, and it’s an election year after all. So, hang on. Think local.

I’d like to begin this update of the Vermont Grass Energy Partnership by taking you out in the field, where surprisingly there was enough sunshine to generate some decent grass yields in 2011. There certainly was enough rain.

Dr. Sid Bosworth, from the University of Vermont Extension, and the state’s forage agronomist-cum-grass energy researcher has been planting, observing and tabulating data on a variety of warm and cool season perennial grass trials (grown for their biomass value) since 2008. “This was our third year of a species/cultivar study at two locations in the Champlain Valley”, Sid wrote in. “We’re looking at four varieties of switchgrass, two varieties of big bluestem, one ecotype of Indiangrass, Miscanthus giganteous, and a polyculture of ‘Cave N Rock’ switchgrass and ‘Prairieview’ big bluestem.”

For starters, Dr. Bosworth harvested our first Miscanthus “crop” this year, which were planted from rhizomes in June of 2010.  Okay, these were test plots, but after just 16 months the plants reached more than 12 feet high at two of his locations. He has yet to calculate the yields, but Sid says the early results bode well for the future.

Most of the 2011 data from Sid’s research is still being summarized, and so far, based on the last two year’s performance, he has been especially impressed with the ‘Prairieview’ big bluestem and reports that big bluestem outperformed all other grasses, even in our wettest soil (which is unusual). “We’re seeing a dry matter yield of 5.2 tons per acre for the big bluestem. The next highest yielding cultivar was ‘Cave N Rock’ switchgrass, at 3.9 tons per acre.  Regarding yields”, Sid commented, “which are really the determining factor of economic feasibility, I’m a lot more optimistic now than I was when I started on all this (4-5 years ago)”.

Sid, he’s cautious, so believe me when I tell you this is saying something.

Dr. Bosworth’s optimism is also good news to the owners of Vermont’s first commercial grass energy business, Renewable Energy Resources (RER), who will be relying more on dedicated warm season grasses in the coming years. John Bootle and Adam Dantzscher started RER in 2009, and for the 2010/2011 heating season they had a mobile briquetter set up at the Benton (Pennsylvania) Area School District. By early 2011, RER completed production on several hundred tons of switchgrass briquettes (approximately 1-1/2” diameter x 1/2” thick) for the school’s biomass heat system. The switchgrass was grown within 30 miles of the school, which fits the “Heat Local” strategy many of us are aligned with.

RER has also gained the interest of several institutional customers in Vermont who have committed to testing the grass briquettes in their wood chip boilers. This led Bootle and Dantzscher to return to Bennington with their equipment to begin work on a new 2-ton per hour mobile briquetter (double the output of their first model). “We learned an enormous amount during the Benton project”, John shared during a recent conversation, “It wasn’t the densification that proved so challenging, rather it was the material handling side of things. We’ve now got the bridging and clogging under control that posed such a problem in the beginning.”

On the policy front, in a flurry of last minute negotiations as the 2011 legislative session was wrapping up, Vermont’s newly elected Governor Shumlin insisted on getting an incentive package through to help offset the cost of biomass heating systems. Nice job. Really.

Trouble was the language in the bill made it clear that only wood burning systems would be eligible for the biomass incentives. Now if you use new high-efficiency appliances to heat with No. 2 oil, kerosene, propane or wood pellets you can get a little help from the state, but burning grass? Fuggedaboudit.

This has prompted RER’s new partner, Chris Flinn, to spend more time at the Vermont Statehouse where it’s warm (wood chip warm!) and the Legislature has rejoined for the 2012 session. “Chris will be helping to raise awareness among the legislators about the viability of grass biomass”, says Bootle. To what end? “There’s a good deal of State policy being formulated around renewable energy generally, and biomass in particular. We just want to be sure that “biomass” policy includes wood and grass on equal footing”.

The fabrication of RER’s new mobile unit and some of the initial R&D that will help line up growers for their customers is supported in part by a $100,000 grant from the Vermont Bioenergy Initiative (VBI); a program of the Vermont Sustainable Jobs Fund (full disclosure: I’m the VBI program director). VSJF, and one of our other Grass Energy Partners, Biomass Energy Resource Center (BERC) have drawn funds from the US Dept. of Energy to help move this initiative forward, thanks to Senator Patrick Leahy who set up several congressionally directed awards to fund the VBI, beginning in 2005.

The VT Bioenergy Initiative is focused on providing grants and technical assistance to farms and start-up entrepreneurs who are principally producing bioenergy for local use. Feedstocks and fuels include on-farm biodiesel and feed from oilseeds, oil from microalgae, bulk wood pellet distribution, grass thermal energy and more. These funds provide critical early-stage financing and technical support (you need both!) to help develop Vermont’s nascent bioenergy sector.

Switching gears, how about what’s happening in your neighborhood? How did it go last year and what will you be focusing on, growing, pelletizing or burning in 2012? Have you discovered (or invented) a breakthrough grass combustion appliance or recently purchased processing equipment that rocks your world? What’s working out there but also, what do you need help with? Let’s talk about it.

I know that a good deal of what motivates all of us is the notion that we’re building something that will make a difference in the way we heat our homes, farms and businesses, while keeping land open and productive and more energy dollars close to home. But it will take time, perseverance, capital, creativity, and as Jon Montan has often pointed out in his posts; coordination and collaboration can really help.

Which reminds me, there’s a great program coming together for the Northeast Agricultural Biomass Heating Seminar on March 21; which takes place on the first day of the 2012 Northeast Biomass Heating Expo (March 21-23). Make your plans now to come to the seminar in Saratoga Springs and stay for the trade show and Biomass Heating Expo. You can register for both events on line at http://www.heatne.com.   See you then.

Netaka White is the Bioenergy Program Director at VSJF (www.vsjf.org). He can be reached at 802.828.0040 or netaka@vsjf.org

The Promise of Biochar

Ever since it was determined by present-day scientists that native people incorporated charcoal into soils in the Amazonian Basin for thousands of years to increase soil fertility, biochar has fallen under the spotlight. There are many sites on the internet that are devoted to biochar and a search will get you a great deal of information. Nevertheless, the chief advantages of converting biomass into biochar can be summarized as follows  (for more click here).

Biochar:

1. is considered a stable form of carbon in soil that effectively sequesters atmospheric carbon for long periods. (Carbon-negative)

2. in the form of sequestered carbon has a potential value on carbon markets.

3. displaces fossil fuel use as a result of partial combustion of biomass feedstocks.

4. as a soil amendment, helps to improve crop yields and productivity, raise soil pH, and reduce the need for some chemical and fertilizer inputs.

5. helps retain nutrients, thereby inhibiting leaching.

6. is but one product; syngas, bio-oils and energy are other potential products.

7. can be produced in pyrolytic or gasification systems that are scalable in output.

The technology to covert solid carbonaceous feedstocks to gaseous and liquid higher heating value products is well developed. Even so, research continues into refinements that are feedstock-specific. Many corporations and companies are involved and there are numerous products on the market that serve a variety of applications. Systems that produce biochar also have the advantage of dealing well with high-ash fuels because the temperatures in the reaction chamber are low enough to prevent ash sintering or agglomeration. Also, the stream of syngas that is produced following gasification can be cleaned up as necessary before it is used in combustion or bio-oil production. In contrast, combustion in an “excess-air” environment releases pollutants that must be filtered out at the tail–end of the process in order to meet air quality standards.

With all of these points in its favor, what is there not to like? It really comes down to what one’s objectives are. When many of us first became interested in using grass for bioenergy, our overarching principle was that we should squeeze the most useable energy out of our renewable, but finite, energy crops. To do this, we should reduce losses from processing and transportation to a minimum. We should conserve as much of that good photosynthetic chemical energy as possible. I feel that this principle remains valid, but the urgent need to pull carbon out of the atmosphere has risen in importance. This means that it is not enough to merely offset the use of fossil carbon using bioenergy crops; we must also actively sequester carbon in a cost-effective and practical manner.

The future of biochar, it seems to me, hinges on determining its monetary value. How valuable is it as a soil amendment? How valuable will it be on carbon markets? One convenient thing is that there is no ambiguity about how much carbon has been sequestered (unlike other carbon offsets that rely on assumptions and verification schemes). A tonne of biochar is essentially comprised of carbon and ash. If you know the ash content, you know the carbon content. It is directly measurable. What you see is what you get.

When it comes to bio-energy, the value of biochar will determine whether we will try to oxidize all of the photosynthetic carbon for energy or only a fraction, saving the remainder as a hedge against climate change.

This is a big topic. I do not pretend to be an authority on it and welcome comments.