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Archive for the ‘mobile pelletizer’ Category

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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It has been some time since HVGE contributed to the Grass Energy blog. This is primarily due to the resignation of our former Project Manager, Libby Murphy. Libby has moved on to graduate school, but not before infusing our project with her enthusiasm and leading our team in many significant accomplishments.

An additional challenge to our project has been the extreme weather that was experienced by southeast NY in August/ September, 2011. Not only did this weather divert some of our  (Soil and Water Conservation District) Project staff to flood response work, it essentially prevented our participating farmers from making ‘pellet’ hay as they attempted to cope with the many impacts of this unprecedented weather.

Despite these challenges, the Project has made some significant advances this past summer/fall. In July, we were visited by Jim Carrabba of NYCAMH who performed a safety analysis of our mobile biomass pelleting equipment/operation. Jim was able to observe our preparation and start-up procedures, and was able to observe our equipment line producing grass pellets for some time before a motor issue required us to shut down. Given that our self-contained mobile system had no real model to follow, the design instead being essentially a ‘from scratch’ amalgamation of many off-the-shelf and fabricated components, we were extremely pleased that Jim found our equipment and operational procedures to be very safe and well planned. Jim’s report did make note of several areas where suggested improvements could be made, but overall these were relatively minor concerns and they  all have been addressed by our project team already. 

Improvements we have made recently  include a fines recycling system, a road-worthy roof over the pelleter trailer, and a safety rail around the bed of the  truck that carries our gen set and pulls our pelleter trailer (0ne of Jim’s suggestions). Our talented fabricator, Toby, who is also our driver/mill operator, is currently building a  storage tank on our flat bed truck that will pre-heat water using excess heat from the gen set before delivering it to the steam generator on the pelleting trailer. Previous testing suggested that  our steam generator might not be generating enough steam to deal with hard-to-pellet or excessively dry materials. We are hopeful that pre-heating the water feeding the steam gen will increase its steam output sufficiently to deal with these types of materials. Among the many other things we have learned at the school of hard knocks, one is that we will encounter a wide variety of materials and moisture contents from one Hudson Valley farm to the next. While we can’t possibly deal with all of them, the more accommodating we can be – the better. A rule of thumb that seems to have coalesced is, better too dry than too wet. We can add moisture, but can’t in any practical way remove it to any significant degree.

If the weather cooperates at all, we hope to continue field operations and pellet production/testing in the coming winter months. What about grass pellet marketing and use? Briefly, two of our project team members are continuing to test the wide variety of biomass pellets we have made in residential multi-fuel stoves (a US Stove 6041 and an Enviro M-55) with very encouraging results. We are working closely with one local Town who hopes to install a small  commercial scale pellet furnace in a new Dial-A-Bus garage scheduled for construction in 2012, and fuel it with biomass pellets from farms within their town. A number of other marketing initiatives are under way,  but progress in this area has been slow and somewhat frustrating. This frustration results partly from the current lack of a Project Manager to keep the various initiatives on task, but also from some significant technical, institutional and related challenges to the use of biomass pellets in commercial scale heating appliances. I suspect most readers of this blog are already quite familiar with these particular issues. We  also know that many of you are actively working on these and other related issues. HVGE would like to coordinate and collaborate more closely with other grass energy advocates around the Northeast. Unfortunately, we have found it to be an extreme challenge simply finding the time and organizing work days to optimize our equipment line, complete grant deliverables and visit farms that originally signed on to collaborate with us on this project. While we do have paid staff, the project still relies heavily on the contributions of volunteers and SWCD staff with limited availability. We hope to soon have a new Project Manager and to be able to interact more actively with others promoting and developing grass energy.

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R&D of a mobile grass pellet mill

Hudson Valley Grass Energy has developed a fully mobile mill capable of producing two tons of grass pellets per hour. Implementing this mobile unit is the central goal of our company, although we are also working to further research and marketing of grass pellets. Intensive field R&D over the last year and a half has brought the mill, which sits on a 25-foot trailer, to operation today. This article will share with you a few significant improvements that were realized throughout our journey.

Material transport and storage, some of you may already be familiar with the fact that ground hay does not flow and has serious bridging problems. We’ve tackled this issue by applying constant mechanical agitation using augers. Augers transport raw material between all of the components on our trailer. We spent months building an effective mixing bin that would act as a buffer between the hammer and pellet mills. I believe that it was our fifth iteration that finally worked. This buffer zone compensates for the variable output of the hammer mill and is key in ensuring a constant feed rate to the pellet mill.

Feed rate, many mill operators will attest to the fact that pellet mills need a constant feed rate to run at optimal efficiency. However, we noticed that even with the feed rate constant our mill responds differently to each raw material. This was problematic in that some batches handled fine while others overloaded the mill or wouldn’t pellet at all. This makes sense considering that grasses vary so much in physical composition. Therefore, in addition to keeping a feed rate in the mill constant, it is also vital to be able to adjust this rate to make up for varying material density and composition. Ultimately our method has become to start feeding the material in slowly then ramp up the rate until the die warms up and reaches its “sweet spot”.

Steam, adding steam to our operation has also helped us to pelletize a range of material characteristics. With steam you can accept hays that are otherwise too dry or require higher temperatures to activate their natural binders (which is often a problem with switchgrass). Additionally, steam is beneficial to the die because it reduces wear and helps it to reach and maintain optimal temperature. Pellets produced with steam often are higher quality with less fines and greater hardness.

Please visit our newly updated website at http://www.hvge.org!

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