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Archive for November, 2010

Second post from St Lawrence County:   Small to Large Institutions as Biomass Fuel Consumers

People have been using grass as a fuel for centuries, but today its promise as a fuel that can successfully compete with fossil fuels remains unfulfilled. Yes, there are systems that can very efficiently combust baled grass, such as, for example, REKA Boilers that are marketed by Skanden Energy, but these systems are not yet widely in use in the United States. There are also other multi-fuel biomass boiler manufacturers that can accept densified grass fuels, such as Hurst Boilers and Advanced Recycling. These are aimed at institutional-sized applications. There are a few choices for residential-sized biomass heating equipment, but the ability to reliably burn grass pellets or briquettes has not been emphasized when marketing and certifying these units.

Until manufacturers of residential biomass heating systems promote the use of grass fuel, the market for producing pellets or briquettes will remain stunted. Of course, manufacturers don’t want to sell true multi-fuel heating units unless they are certain that people really want to burn something in them other than wood pellets or corn. Likewise, growers and producers are not going to make the necessary investments in grass production and densification until people start using and demanding the fuels. Chicken and egg.

At this point in time it would seem that in order to develop the supply side of the grass energy equation we need some major consumers. The most realistic consumers would be the larger institutional users such as school districts, hospitals, combined heat and power installations, etc. If enough of these consumers installed multi-fuel boilers, it is likely that grass could be competitive with, say wood chips. Farmers would have a reasonable assurance of a saleable crop and producers would make the investment in densification equipment. Once the production side is up and running, hopefully the residential market could then be more easily developed.

So far we have one school district in St. Lawrence County – Edwards-Knox Central School – who has installed a Hurst Boiler and is currently using wood chips. They have the capability to receive, store and feed pellets less than 2 inches by 2 inches. They could also burn corn. The St. Lawrence County Grass Energy Working Group and the Drum Country Bio Energy Group have been encouraging other school districts, hospitals and businesses to make use of feasibility studies that were available on a completive basis and 100% funded though the U.S. Forest Service. The Forest Service is interested in promoting wood fuels, but we have also been advocating that any entity considering biomass heat specify a system that has multi-fuel capability. Recently, some 11 school districts, hospitals and businesses in St. Lawrence, Jefferson, Franklin and Lewis Counties were awarded feasibility studies, performed by Yellow Wood Associates, Inc.:

Brasher Falls Central School District
Burrows Paper
FiberMark
Potsdam Central School
Salmon River Central School
Colton-Pierrepont Central School
Lewis County Social Services and Public Safety Buildings
Watertown Industrial Center Local Development Corporation
Clifton-Fine Hospital
Clifton-Fine Central School
UH Cedars Complex

Most of these studies are nearing completion as of this date and follow-up site visits are planned for early 2011. We are hopeful that many of these projects will move beyond the feasibility study phase. Stay tuned.

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     By way of introduction, my name is Tony Nekut , I live and work in Ithaca, NY, and my vocation is engineering. I became interested in biomass energy a few years ago when I bought some forest property and started heating my home with wood. I serve on the steering committees of two local groups that promote local biomass energy development: Danby Land Bank Cooperative and Community Biomass Energy .  These websites describe the groups’ missions and list the expected benefits of pursuing local biomass energy development.
      As an engineer, I tend to think about the problem of creating local biomass energy infrastructure from a systems point of view. The supply chain involves a number of links which need to be forged and connected for the whole system to work. To some extent, the links representing raw biomass supplies, biomass processing, and processed biomass fuel markets already exist, but they need to be strengthened and expanded. Currently, firewood is the only commonly available biomass fuel that is locally produced and consumed.
     Technology has an important role to play in modernizing what has been a relative backwater. There are opportunities for innovation along the entire local biomass energy supply chain. Technology can improve biomass crop productivity, increase harvest, processing, transport and combustion efficiencies, and make biomass energy more convenient for end users. Expect more discussion of this topic in my future contributions.
     Low fossil fuel prices have been the main obstacle impeding market driven innovation. It seems clear to me that anyone who is concerned about the negative consequences of continued massive consumption of fossil fuels should voice their support for strong policies, such as a carbon tax, that place penalties on atmospheric carbon emissions.

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The Hudson Valley, like many regions in the Northeast, is faced with loss of local producers and a lack of local energy. In a world economy currently based on the consumption of non-renewable hydrocarbons and faced with imminent Peak Oil, access to locally derived food and energy will be fundamental to our survival. We are fortunate to have so much arable land in the Northeast, now we just need a way to better sustain it. In the valley we are losing an alarming number of farming operations every year. For example, there were 250 dairy farms in Orange County in 1980- now there are 45. It’s entirely possible that there will be none in a matter of years. The reason we are losing so many producers is because it’s often not economical to farm on a smaller scale.

A growing demand and need for local, renewable energy presents an opportunity for producers to create a new revenue source: farm-based power. There is a range of technologies available, from soybean oil presses for biodiesel to anaerobic digesters for biogas energy. Many of these technologies are feasible on a smaller scale. My company’s work focuses on heating fuel pellets made from grasses.

Grass pellets are highly efficient and comparable in energy content to those made of wood. The technology for producing, transporting and combusting grass pellets is already in place thanks to the existing haying and wood pellet industries. The most significant advantage of grass pellets is that they can be made from left-over resources, instead of diverting something that is already in use. One of the biggest issues for grass pellets is that like all biomass, they are very dense and costly to transport. However, we can turn this into an advantage by using a mobile pelleting mill and keeping the resource local.

Hudson Valley Grass Energy (HVGE) is a non-profit operation committed to local, renewable energy and keeping farmers in the Hudson Valley. HVGE operates a fully mobile grass pellet mill, the first of its class to be in operation in the US. By keeping our operations fully mobile we remove the need for a middle man- the stationary mill, and put all profits into our producer’s hands. Our mill takes poor-quality hay and other agricultural byproducts that previously presented little or no value to the farmer, and converts it into high-quality heating fuel pellets. This represents a huge profit margin that can create significant income for producers. At the very least, a farmer can process a couple of tons of left over materials in order to heat their home all winter.

Utilizing grass and other farm-based energies will be a significant way of keeping our energy and economy local in farming regions throughout the Northeast. As with all emerging technologies, however, it is vital to open communication and collaboration between all parties involved in the development of this growing market. I look forward to continuing this conversation with all of you through this blog.

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