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.


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


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.


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 !