Archive for the ‘New grass energy businesses’ 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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By Doreen Barker

Since we have been mentioned in prior blogs, I think it would be best to help others understand who we are and why Broome Biomass came about.

Rich Barrows was a sixth generation dairy farmer until 1985, when he left agriculture and became a sheet metal worker. He owns approximately 80 tillable acres that have not been properly utilized over the past decade. In 2009, he began researching different crops that could be planted. Leaning toward non-traditional plants for renewable energy, he discovered that Cornell University was hosting a field day about switch grass. We decided to attend.

We listened to the speakers discuss the grass as a renewable energy resource and the sales person in me starting to wonder… “What and where do you send it once harvested?” I have worked in sales and marketing for nearly two decades. It is second nature for me to wonder what the answers are. After the speakers were done and people were milling about, I started asking questions to those that were there. Light bulbs kept flashing in my head as I kept hearing all the negatives. Statements of “Nowhere to send it. It needs processing. Too much ash,” kept ringing in my ears. The marketing side of me started asking, “Is it just specific to switch grass or all grass?”

Rich and I discussed all we had learned for a couple of days before we discovered EnviroEnergy, the Millers, in Unadilla. We decided to take the nearly two hour road trip to go for a visit. So there is no confusion, EnviroEnergy produces grass pellets for combustion and from my understanding they work with the Catskill Grass Energy Project. Bob Miller was patient and walked us through the entire process, answered questions and discussed the hang-ups with grass energy. Bob taught us a considerable amount about grass energy that day but, there were still too many unanswered questions.

After that, we spent many hours on the phone, the computer and at the library discovering all the information we could about biomass in general (all aspects) and other sustainable energy. I have worked full time since that fateful day in August of 2009. Actually, it has become an obsession and I live, eat and breathe grass biomass. Rich has worked diligently to discover alternative options of production, seed mixtures, harvesting methods and combustion cycles. I have worked hard to develop a marketing strategy. I have spent time learning test results, burn cycles, ash contents, mineral and chemical compositions, effects of moisture contents, and different process methods. I have also spent time seeking advice through world-wide industry leaders. We are both very passionate about what grass energy can do for the agricultural industry. This is our largest driving factor for grass as a renewable energy.

From our initial assessment, we discovered the need for a consistent product that could fit into industrial or commercial parameters. To fulfill that need, it was discovered that the most efficient way to produce was by making a product that is very similar to the old alfalfa cubes used to feed horses. We also discovered an area within our region that needed just this sort of business. We chose Tioga County, New York due to the simple fact that farm land usage has seen drastic reductions over the last five to ten years. This will provide us with the opportunity to utilize the currently unused acres and not interrupt traditional farming methods. We are in the process of finalizing our timeline for construction and are anticipating being in full production by July.

Grass energy is a fickle industry. I think the largest downfall to the industry is the perception that grass isn’t a workable material for combustion. Most of us involved with this blog know different and there seems to be an increasing awareness out there…but, I will caution this one detail: we all need to be diligent and put nothing but the best products we can produce into the market stream. One wrong move could cripple the grass energy market within our region. It is going to take determination and dedication moving forward to secure the future for all.

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Building a grass-based bio-energy industry will require advances on three fronts: (1) creating demand through price competitiveness and heating appliance compatibility, (2) developing reliable, cost-effective densified fuel production and (3) making it worthwhile for grassland owners to produce sustainable bio-energy crops. These can be thought of as three legs of a stool, all of which must be present for the stool to stand. This brief essay focuses on the second item: developing reliable, cost-effective densified fuel production.

Although there are special systems such as those manufactured by Reka that can burn undensified fuel, densification into pellets and/or briquettes is going to be necessary for widespread adoption. Densification facilities, whether they be mobile or stationary, have to be designed for optimum production and minimum cost. People who know how to do this well can be found in the dairy and livestock feed mills that serve New York and the Northeast.

An opportunity may exist to work with one or more of these mills to test grass pellet production under real-world conditions and establish the economics. Such a research effort could be a model of public-private partnership. The ideal candidate for such a project would be a mill that has some amount of surplus pelletizing capacity. Depending on their configuration, some mills produce both pelletized feed and bulk mixtures. If the demand for bulk mixtures increases relative to pelletized feed, such a surplus capacity can occur.

The research may cause feed mills to add grass fuel pellets to their product lines or it may open the door for new entrepreneurs. In the future, densified grass fuel could be delivered in bulk to on-site storage at the points of use with the same delivery vehicles that are currently used for feed deliveries. Another approach could be the interchangeable container method, as described by Tony Nekut in the February 13 posting.

If no feed mill can be identified that would agree to participate in a funded research project as described above, another alternative would be to fund a dedicated test-bed facility. It would be economical, however, to use existing equipment located in a feed mill if possible.

I am hopeful that this is one of several issues that participants will discuss at the HeatNE Conference in Manchester, NH on April 14-15. Grass energy will have a higher visibility at this year’s conference than in the past. I encourage you to attend.

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