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.