Grass Growth

Farmers discuss their transition to fuel pellet developers
By Luke Geiver | April 25, 2012

When Enviro Energy LLC’s founder, Bob Miller, began making pellets in upstate New York, he was a farmer. The same can be said about Kevin Sumner and John Brown, both with Hudson Valley Grass Energy in New York. All three individuals presented a history of their paths from farmer to fuel pellet developers during the Northeast Agricultural Biomass Heating seminar held March 21 in Saratoga Springs, N.Y.

They all highlighted the growth of the perennial grass and agricultural-based pellet sector.
Miller explained how his team engineered a pellet manufacturing facility capable of switching from one feedstock to another in a matter of two hours. The operation, he said, was built with waste parts from junk yards. “We didn’t really know what would work, but we were thoroughly convinced of what wouldn’t.”

Although Miller makes his operation sound amateur, his facility in New York has not only paved the way for others in the region, but it has also attained a high level of success providing bulk pellet options from both grass and woody biomass.

In Pennsylvania, Ernst Biomass is working with switchgrass to make its pellets. “What we tried to do with Ernst Biomass was fill in the gap between the concept of grass energy and realizing it on a commercial scale,” said Dan Arnett, manager of Ernst Biomass. The company is building a pellet mill and aims to answer a series of questions, including whether the market will support switchgrass pellets, what the price point will be, and what the required capital will be for building a commercial facility, in comparison with the financial returns.

Ernst Biomass is also building its facility to meet the heating needs of the region. The plant will produce 35,000 tons of pellets per year from both switchgrass fiber and wood fiber, and will also experiment with a hybrid of the two. Several presenters during the conference noted switchgrass for its difficulty as a pellet feedstock, so Arnett gave a summary of the benefits, including its prevalence.
Sumner and Brown presented a $150,000 portable pelleting system for biomass that can be used onsite at farms and energy crop plantations.

The operation can produce one to two tons per hour, and the pair has tested the system at 10 different farms, making pellets out of feedstock ranging from perennial grasses to soybean stubble. “Our goal was to use U.S.-made equipment,” Brown says. Most of the equipment used on the system was new, except for the truck, the genset and the pellet mill, all of which were refurbished. “Our cost is essentially how much diesel fuel you use in the generator and we use roughly 13 to 14 gallons of diesel per hour.” On a per-ton basis at one hour of operation, Brown estimates the total cost for the system at $83 per hour.

It seems all agricultural pellet projects come with a trial-and-error period. “It’s been a continual process of finding the weak link in our chain,” Sumner said of his project. “We upgrade it.”

—Luke Geiver