Archive for the ‘Systems approach’ Category

Greetings all,
At the conclusion of this year’s Agricultural Biomass Heating Seminar in Saratoga Springs, I had the pleasure of announcing the pending release of funds to support a “state-of-the-science” review of grass energy in Vermont and the Northeast. Here are the details:

The Vermont Sustainable Jobs Fund (VSJF) is seeking proposals from individuals, consulting firms or organizations to conduct a state-of-the-science review of grass energy in Vermont and neighboring states and establish the next step(s) to accelerate the commercialization of grass energy in the region and specifically in Vermont.

Over the past few years, a number of projects in Vermont and the Northeast have led to a body of knowledge on growing, processing and using grass for energy. However, this opportunity has not fully developed into a marketable option for growers, landowners, fuel processors and dealers, equipment manufacturers and vendors, nor homeowners or communities. There are still some uncertainties around the viability of using grass for energy, and as a result some are hesitant to move forward with grass energy plantations or system installations that will support grass combustion.

At this time, VSJF would like to assess the current state of knowledge and identify the remaining critical questions that need to be answered in order to commercialize this opportunity. To review the complete Scope Of Work relating to this RFP, and the information needed to apply, please visit the VSJF website at: http://www.vsjf.org/news/72/request-for-proposals-grass-energy-in-vermont


After reviewing the RFP, if you have questions please email us at: vtbiofuels”at”vsjf.org


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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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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
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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