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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

The Promise of Biochar

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.

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.

As many readers of this blog know, Governor Cuomo has restructured the way that New York State is going about the business of economic development. Some of you may have participated in the development of regional economic development plans through one of the ten Regional Economic Development Councils (REDCs). If this is new to you, learn more about the initiative at: http://nyworks.ny.gov/

Each REDC had to submit a five-year Strategic Plan to the State by November 14. A quick perusal of the different regions’ draft plans as of 11/10/2011 does not indicate much mention of the role of biomass (and grass biomass in particular) in the State’s economic development future. A notable exception is the draft plan for the North Country Region. I would encourage you to review your region’s plan to see how biomass has been treated.

The emphasis of the REDC initiative is, of course, job creation through the funding of priority projects – those that most closely conform to the goals and priorities of each Regional Council. Yet the regional plans are also supposed to look ahead and provide guidance on those projects and developments that promise to bear fruit in the near and long term. This is where renewable energy from grass biomass crops fits in. As I and others have pointed out in previous blogs, a well-conceived research and development plan for grass energy that leads to full-scale commercialization is essential.

Perhaps the best home for such a research and development plan will be the Biomass Heating Roadmap for which a Request for Proposals (NYSERDA RFP#2329) is currently on the street. When the Roadmap is completed, I would like to see it integrated with both the REDC plans and the New York State Climate Action Plan. I hope that the topics covered in this piece will be addressed at a special agricultural biomass session preceding the Northeast Biomass Heating Expo next March in Saratoga Springs, New York. This an exciting time for grass energy but we all must diligently participate in these opportunities to set agendas and influence policy if we expect to make significant progress.

Many readers of this blog have attended the annual conference for people working on the biomass heating sector, “Heat the Northeast with Renewable Biomass” that has been held in Manchester, New Hampshire for the past three years.  This year the meeting is coming to New York State, with the New York Biomass Energy Alliance one of the hosts.  Because the conference gets most of its income from companies that have appliances and other biomass heating products to exhibit in the conference trade show, there will be a particular focus on getting the people who make buying and installation decisions for that equipment to the conference, which has been renamed Northeast Biomass Heating Expo 2012.

To make sure that the concerns of those of us who are working hard to figure out how to commercialize agricultural biomass in heating applications are getting adequate attention, a sub-group of the Expo planning committee has come together to plan a one-day seminar on the use of agricultural biomass in heating applications on March 21, the day before the Expo opens.  The seminar will be treated as an extra conference event, with a special registration rate for those who are attending both this seminar and the entire conference as well.  For registration information, click on this link: http://www.heatne.com/index.html

The Northeast Agricultural Biomass Heating Seminar will take place in the same location as the Expo, the City Center in Saratoga Springs, NY, from 10:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m. on Wednesday, March 21.

The Seminar Steering Committee is looking for input and suggestions on program content, so that the day’s program will align with critical areas of interest for those who are working to expand biomass thermal energy in our part of the country.  Please click this link to participate in the Steering Committee’s survey on possible program content.

The heating season is upon us. The project has had a lot of issues this summer and especially this fall. The flood that resulted from the hurricane was devastating. We lost the furnace at Brookside Hardware. It was totally submerged and all the electrical and electronic controls were ruined. We had been looking forward to resolving an issue with this furnace and getting a full season of data from the site.

I have been busy visiting the sites to make sure that all the units that remain are ready for the season.This points up a frustration with the equipment.As this equipment is developing I find that all parts are proprietary to each manufacture. The oil and gas heat industry standardized long ago. oil pumps, ignition transformers, blower belts, gas controls thermostats are all universal.This reminds me of the early days of the automobile. The only standard part in the early days of the internal combustion engine were spark plugs and that was because there were no US made spark plugs. They were all imported.That is why plugs had metric threads way before US auto makers embraced metric fasteners.

The adoption of biofuel heating devices will be hindered, especially in rural areas, by the manufactures dealer networks. I still find the dealers and the manufacturers more interested in sales than service. At this point I have not found any units that I could recommend as the sole heat source for a home or business.This is the Northeast people. Consumers can and will not be satisfied waiting days for repairs because the parts need to be ordered.
Will this situation improve? Sure, but the growing pains are holding adoption back. It is improving but fast enough for me.

More next month when this great weather inevitably ends.