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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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Back in July, 2011, Elizabeth Keokosky wrote a posting for this blog titled: “RPS in New York State” in which she explained the RPS. I recently received from the Public Service Commission (PSC) staff an updated New York State Renewable Portfolio Standard Biomass Power Guide, September 2011. It contains the clearest definition to date of the category in which grass finds itself: “Sustainable yield wood (woody or herbaceous) – woody or herbaceous crops grown specifically for the purpose of being consumed as an energy feedstock (energy crop). Some examples include willow, poplar, sycamore, and ash species (woody), and Miscanthus, hemp, and grasses (herbaceous). “
We have talked about the various potential users of grass energy and have generally characterized them into three groups: (1) large commercial/institutional (combined heat-and-power operations (CHP); (2) smaller commercial/institutional (example: school districts); (3) residential. Significant utilization of grass biomass for fuel is initially likely to require large-scale consumers in the first and second categories. The residential market will be the most challenging to develop. This posting will focus on the first category and its relationship to the Renewable Portfolio Standard (RPS) in New York State. The RPS deals with electrical energy and not heat per se because the PSC has authority over electricity issues (as well as gas, steam, telecommunications and water utilities) but not the use of biomass for heat-only applications. Elizabeth noted in her posting that the heating sector is controlled only by the market, yet it represents a significant component of our fossil fuel use. Although it could be helpful if the PSC was given policy-making authority over biomass heating under a revised RPS, for now the potential markets under the RPS remain CHP projects.
The RPS classifies biomass fuels into unadulterated and adulterated. Both are eligible fuel types but have differing processing and use requirements. The Guide states: “Unadulterated biomass may be used with any of the accepted feedstock conversion and power generation technologies to generate eligible renewable generation under the RPS program.” Grass is an example of an unadulterated fuel. Adulterated biomass includes such things as paper, paperboard boxes, plywood, particle board, textiles, yard waste, leather, offal, food processing residues and mixed adulterated and unadulterated wood wastes. If grass is combusted alone or in combination with other unadulterated fuels, the electrical energy so produced is designated 100% renewable or “green” power. If grass is combusted with adulterated fuels, then things get more complicated. Basically what has to happen is that there must be: “….. separate feed and measurement systems for each fuel stream plus regular sampling and analysis of fuels to ensure that the reported eligible generation is based on an accurate measurement of heat input for each fuel stream to the boiler or other conversion system.” For example, if 15% of the heat input to the boiler/generator is from grass, then 15% of the electrical energy is renewable or green power.

Another feature of the RPS is that grass and wood are not held to the same standard with respect to sustainable harvesting. Wood can take several forms, but here I will concentrate on wood commercially harvested from forests or “waste” wood harvested as part of timber stand improvement. These two classes of woody biomass require a Forest Management Plan that is reviewed and approved by NYSERDA and the PSC. Alternatively, the biomass producer can use one of the following already-approved certifications: Forest Stewardship Council (FSC), Sustainable Forestry Initiative (SFI), American Tree Farm System (ATFS) or New York State Real Property Tax Law 480A Program. Grass, on the other hand, requires no such certification because it falls in the “sustainable yield wood (woody or herbaceous)” category. This is of course not to say that grass should not be managed for sustainability, but merely to emphasize that there is no pre-approval cost associated with a plan approval.

The take-home message is that under the RPS there are currently no significant regulatory constraints on the use of grass fuel for biomass-fueled CHP applications. We need to see some demonstrations of this use to establish the economics and then a scale-up of production. This will create jobs and help New York State reduce its reliance on non-renewable sources of (electrical) energy. Once production capacity has been created, grass fuel can then be attractive for heat-only applications.

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A perennial discussion point among the individuals and small businesses that are working on agricultural biomass projects is whether the New York Biomass Energy Alliance, the Northeast Biomass Thermal Energy Working Group, and the Biomass Thermal Energy Council are sufficiently focused on their specific interests to be worth joining. Aren’t those groups mostly dominated by wood energy interests who aren’t interested in grass as an energy source?
As someone actively involved with two of the three coalitions mentioned above, I can report that the question sometimes arises within those groups about how much time and energy they should spend on grass issues, given the very limited participation they get from folks in the grass energy sector. You can’t imagine how often we hear, when we suggest membership to folks from the grass energy sector, “Yeah, I’ve been meaning to join.”
The Biomass Energy Alliance came into being because its original members realized that if they just sat around talking about what politicians, government officials, and members of the public “need to understand” nothing was ever going to change. Someone has to make the case, and it has to be the right case for the right audience. And you have to get in the door to make the case in the first place.
The other thing we recognized was we were a splintered group of very small players, and that if we didn’t try to bring all the folks working on biomass energy under one roof, the very well-organized and well-funded nay sayers were very likely to shut us down, either by declaring our conversion processes insufficiently clean and green, or by continuing to put strictures into energy legislation that would effectively cut off our supplies of feedstock. We needed to be a “big tent” organization.
Including agricultural biomass interests in the coalition is obvious to us, since many of the companies working in this sector are working with agricultural materials, and those that work exclusively with forest products all recognize that wood supplies are not unlimited. Without the current supply of forest wood chips, we’d have next to no industry at all today. However, if we don’t figure out how to make purpose-grown biomass a reality, biomass energy won’t reach even a quarter of its long-term potential.
Since its inception, the Alliance has made a considerable effort to keep grass biomass in the discussion. Noting that the regular exchanges of e-mails after each Big Flats meeting weren’t producing the hoped-for systematic exchange of information, we started this blog last fall. We’ve been delighted to see the enthusiasm with which articulate spokespersons for different grass energy groups have taken up the challenging of providing useful content. As members of the planning committee for the last “Heat the Northeast” conference, Rick Handley and I made sure that there was programming on grass bioenergy, providing the names and contact information for most of the presenters to conference organizers.
The July 20 meeting in Ithaca has stimulated an excellent discussion of what the grass biomass sector needs in the research area, in public recognition, and in policy support. However, most of the suggestions looked more like goals than like strategies for getting from here to there. “Meet with the Governor” may sound like a strategy, but I can assure you, as one who has struggled to get meetings with people two or three levels below the Governor, meetings themselves are goals of a sort. They are also a waste of time for all concerned if you can’t leave behind something that’s very easy for the person you’re meeting with to act on. “Here’s my problem” doesn’t get you anywhere. A good meeting is the result of a great deal of attention to process, influence, and aligning your objectives with those of people who are more influential than you are.
Suggestions about the next place that public agencies should put money are also goals rather than strategies. Folks may imagine that funding organizations start out with a pile of uncommitted funds, just looking around for good ideas. Not so. Every petition for funds is a request that money be taken away from something that almost always has both a powerful outside constituency and probably supporters within the funding agency as well. If it didn’t have both, it would have lost its funding a long time ago. Money is directed to projects that officials believe to be worthwhile, and it’s hard for them to cut off people who have been doing good and conscientious work in the past. If you want public funds, you need to become an expert in where those funds come from, what the sidebars are for their expenditure, and who’s likely to scream when you propose reallocations. Or support an organization that can, over time, develop that expertise on your behalf.
During its monthly teleconference in August, the NYBEA Board discussed the ideas that came forward from the polling of people involved in the July 20 meeting. There was a clear consensus among those on the call that it will benefit all players to have agricultural biomass interests involved in what we are trying to do. The Board agreed that we should keep looking for ways to utilize our communication infrastructure to get the word out on what’s happing with grasses and other cropped biomass. The Northeast Biomass Heating Expo 2012 (“Heating the Northeast” conference renamed) will take place in Saratoga this year, and it can be another way to bring folks together to talk about grass biomass. The Alliance hopes to be involved in a prospective “Biomass Heating Roadmap” project sponsored by NYSERDA, and we can make sure that biomass is well-represented there as well.
The only suggestion in our discussion that did not receive strong support was the idea of the Alliance setting up special meetings in Albany exclusively focused exclusively on grass biomass. Board members who were “there at the beginning” recalled how trivial we appeared to the powers that be when we were all trying to “go it alone”. Better to include references to and suggestions in support different biomass energy segments within a broader message than to try to catch legislators’ separately for each industry segment’s individual concerns. The Board agreed that we need to keep agricultural biomass well-represented in our Board, and in meetings of all sorts, to maintain the balance that we seek to maintain among feedstocks and technologies.
So, yes, the Alliance believes it needs the active and committed support of folks from the grass energy sector to be the effective and broadly representative organization that it set out to become in April, 2009. We will keep trying to demonstrate to folks from that community that we can advance their cause, and to persuade them that they need us, and NEBTWG, and BTEC to do the things that can only be accomplished when people with overlapping (not identical!) interests work together.

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The following two posts are comments on the first July 20th Grass Energy in NY meeting at Tompkins Cortland Community College in Dryden (which has now become the Agricultural Biomass Interest Group Meeting  – ABIG – do we want that acronym?).   I’ve been on vacation so I do apologize – they are a little late.

The meeting’s participants have since been enumerating action item lists – as mentioned in the posts  – via email and now will have to prioritize them.    Alice Brumbach from the NY State Biomass Energy Alliance (NYBEA), who will be presenting the action items to the NYBEA Board of Directors meeting on August 15,  is requesting that,  in addition to selecting the top priority general action items,  they are broken down into smaller action steps detailing how to accomplish them.

For example, the action item of  “Define a grass pellet standard that fits grass and differentiates it from wood pellet standards” might need to be re-phrased to “Advise us on who determines a grass pellet standard, and the steps needed to accomplish this.”  Or, if we know this already, then the steps should be listed.

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First off….Thank you to everyone who attended the meeting on July 20th at TC3. It was great to get everyone around a table for a face to face discussion about the barriers and future of grass energy within NY. To those of you that could not attend, we will be putting together a synopsis of the days discussions and you are welcome to contribute to the rolling list of 3 action items that you would like to see for the future. The deadline for those contributions is August 12th.

We have several projects coming up that we are just starting to develop. One of them has been in the works and should get restarted sometime in September. Lois Kang from the SET program in Tioga County will be issuing some updates on the program schedule very soon. I have hopes that many of you will still be available to contribute to the program!

I am looking forward to see what In Shik Lee from TC3 will be able to develop through her hard work and dedication to assisting with the promotion of biomass too. I am sure she will have more updates for us as time goes on.

As for Broome Biomass, we are headed to the Biofeedstock field day on August 3rd and then headed to Kentucky to visit with the folks at LEI products (the manufacturer of the Bio-Burner). We will be bringing a unit back with us and will be completing some test burns over the course of the winter. We are looking forward to a long working relationship as representatives in this area for them.

We will be taking lots of pictures and possibly even some videos that we will be sharing over the next month or so. There will be much more news from us within our next post!

Til then…Doreen

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The greater grass energy community of New York State met on July 20th to touch base on our current projects and research. As the summer intern for the St. Lawrence County Grass Energy Working Group, I am new to this conversation and gained a lot of insight on the current projects at hand. The major problems we addressed were how to establish specifically a grass energy market and how to further emissions testing to meet EPA and DEC standards. We need to grasp the public and media’s attention about the potential of a grass energy market in New York State. In St. Lawrence County, this has been done on a small scale by distributing a survey and informational cards to the community to gain their opinion on our current project. This has proved beneficial and provided feedback that many residents are interested in a biomass market but do not know how efficient and useful it would be in their homes. The driving force fueling this opinion is the installation cost and maintenance associated with using a pellet stove.
This leads to one of our next agenda points, promote small-scale commercial biomass operations instead of residential as these outlets will provide better use for agricultural based biomass. In order to promote this type of market, we proposed using conferences or home-shows. The Heat the North East Conference is scheduled to be in Saratoga Springs March of 2012 and our hope is that grass energy will be a focus. In addition, there is a proposal to host our own biomass conference within the next year where all spectrums of the grass energy lifestyle will be present from producers to end-users. Finally, the participants of the meeting signed a petition dedicated ourselves to the state’s grass energy project. It is our hope, with more lobby and support from the public, that a list of supporters will prompt agencies like NYSERDA and USDA to fund our projects.
In the world of emission testing, the cellulose and chlorine content of grass is the cause of higher ash content and greater fluctuations in emissions. Further research needs to be dedicated to emission testing before a proper market can be implemented. There are a few hang ups in the process of testing emissions including utilizing the proper furnaces, testing high vs. low ash pellets and lowering the chlorine content of the actual pellet to avoid spikes in harmful emissions. Researchers like Jerry Cherney, are playing a bit of a waiting game on emission testing waiting for pellets with different ash contents to arrive.
The final agenda point of the meeting was for everyone to compile his or her three most important action steps to have The New York Biomass Energy Alliance present to NYSERDA in favor of grass energy. The Energy Alliance board will vote in mid-August about our proposal. I think, that by banning together as a state-wide working group, we will be able to grasp the attention of missing resources and make New York State the front runner in grass pellet energy.

Emily Grilli
St. Lawrence County Grass Energy Working Group
St. Lawrence University 2013

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RPS in NY State

In the US, a Renewable Portfolio Standard (RPS) is a federal mandate that requires the increased production of energy from renewable energy sources.   It relies on the private markets for its implementation but it increases market demand by generally requiring that electricity supply companies produce a specified percentage of the their electricity from renewable sources.  RPS-type mechanisms have also been adopted by such countries as Sweden, Britain, Poland, and Chile.   Here target percentages, policy and regulations are set at the state level and vary considerably from state to state.

An easy-to-use website for State comparisons is the Union of Concerned Scientists Renewable Electricity Standards database (unfortunately only current up to 2009).  New York’s RPS program is administered by NYSERDA.   Our state has an ambitious target percentage:  25% by 2013 and 30% by 2015, but then 19% of NY electricity was already from renewable resources, mostly hydroelectric.    Most states are looking at longer time frames with smaller percentages.

In New York, among other renewable technologies, eligible biomass technologies include biogas, direct combustion, combined heat & power, and co-firing with existing fossil-fuel combustion.   Eligible sources of biomass include both woody and herbaceous agricultural residue, multiple other sources of wood, and woody or herbaceous crops grown specifically as energy feedstocks.   New York has an interesting, successful Customer-Sited Tier for distributed technologies that might be useful for small scale implementations but currently is only applicable for solar, wind, fuel cell, and biogas.   Unfortunately it accounts for only 2% of the RPS program.   The 2009 NYSERDA New York Main Tier RPS Impact and Process Evaluation report stated that The Customer-Sited Tier enabled NYSERDA to achieve 119% of its 2009 target by the end of 2008 while the Main Tier RPS program, though cost effective, may have considerable difficulty meeting its 2013 goal.  So why isn’t small scale agricultural biomass getting more air play in New York?

One of New York’s goals is to diversify energy resources for security and indendence.   So why isn’t the importance for multiple types of feedstocks in multifuel stoves and boilers getting more air play in  New York?

NYSERDA administers the RPS in New York State but the Public Service Commission has controlling authority over the generation type and fuel source eligibility requirements. The New York State Public Service regulates, electric, gas, steam, telecommunications and water utilities.    The Main Tier RPS electricity replacement program is concerned mainly with biomass co-firing, hydro, landfill gas, and wind.    Heating oil (which is now almost back to 2009 prices) and propane for rural areas do not fall under public utility’s jurisdiction.  In fact there is no comparable agency for these fuels which have no price regulation other then the free market. Why let this large fossil fuel-using segment slip away?   So why isn’t biomass thermal combustion for heat getting more air play in New York?

These are some of the questions we are hoping to ask (and influence) at the July 20th meeting on Grass Energy in New York from 1-4 pm at Tompkins Cortland Community College (TC3) Sprole Conference Room at 170 N Main Street (Rt 13) in Dryden, NY.    Call or email Doreen of Broome Biomass at 607 849 3945, doreen@broomebiomass.com or Betsy Keokosky of the Danby Land Bank Cooperative at 607 342 5430, evk1@cornell.edu.

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