Heating the Northeast with Ag

The Northeast Heating Expo opened with an agricultural seminar
By Luke Geiver | April 25, 2012

The Northeast Agricultural Biomass Heating Seminar kicked off the Northeast Heating Expo, held March 21-23 in Saratoga Springs, N.Y. Seminar attendees wanted to know one thing: how to make agriculture-based biomass in the Northeast more efficient, more economical, and above all, more viable.

Timothy Volk, a research director from the State University of New York College of Environmental Science and Forestry and a presenter at the event, summed up in one word the key to making perennial grass and crop-based biomass viable on all fronts: yield.

The event featured presentations and discussions related to developing grass and agricultural biomass as a viable heating fuel, the agronomic  and harvest influences on biomass production, how to best utilize grass pellets for thermal applications, and more.

“Driving down the price of production will create an impact,” Volk said of agricultural biomass for thermal applications. “But that isn’t the place we are going to make the greatest gains. Cutting corners on our management in order to squeeze five bucks an acre off the price is not, in my opinion, the way to go, because you are probably going to have other problems in the long run, or you are going to impact your yield.”

Jerry Cherney, a researcher from Cornell University, presented on the effects of agronomics and harvesting practices on feedstock quality, as well as the best ways to burn grass pellets. He named a number of practices that will improve or worsen feedstock quality. “You really can’t afford losing any yield,” he said. “We have to be able to deal with a product that is not so good.”

Mike Newtown, a researcher at SUNY Canton, explained his findings from research into several biomass boilers that could be used to fire agricultural pellets. Newtown found that low-ash pellets are rare, and that in most cases, agricultural biomass did the same job a wood pellet could do.

Closing the event, Dan Conable of Cato Analytics LLC, outlined five key areas grass and other agricultural pellet sectors need to focus on now and in the future: robust equipment, better yields, a better densification process for grass pellets, preprocessing for grass pellets or hybrids of wood and grass pellets, and standardization of grass pellets. All five areas need to be addressed, he said, but eventually the agriculture-based pellet industry will grow and succeed. “The industry will take time,” he said.

—Luke Geiver