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Archive for January, 2012

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.

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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

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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.

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