Is Ag Biomass Here to Stay?

By Dan Arnett | November 20, 2012

When observing U.S. alternative energy during years to come, the real question that must be asked is, “Is agricultural biomass going to be a significant contributor, or just another good idea?”
According to the U.S. DOE's Billion Ton Study, agriculture-derived biomass has to be part of the picture if we are going to achieve our goals as a country. That is the one point that is fairly easy to agree upon. Beyond that, however, there are many questions surrounding agricultural fibers.

Agricultural biomass encompasses a wide range of plant fibers. These plants can have drastically different physical and chemical properties when compared to each other, and even more so when compared to wood fiber. One of the most significant lessons we learned when we began processing native warm season grasses was that just because it is ground up and looks similar to sawdust, does not mean that it will behave in the same manner as sawdust. Simply put, agricultural biomass is not wood.

While discussing agricultural biomass, let’s take a moment and discuss agriculture itself. It must be observed and appreciated that the challenges and realities of agriculture in our country can vary greatly from region to region. Sometimes even 20 miles can make a stark difference in the appearance and resource availability of the countryside. For example, here in northwest Pennsylvania, our average field size is relatively small, at approximately 15 acres. Driving just 30 minutes to the west puts you in another world, with larger fields, changed weather, different drainage and flatter land.

Utilization provides another contrast with woody biomass, as there seems to be several concepts of how best to collect and process a certain agricultural biomass for each unique source. One thing that must be kept in mind is that the utilization concept must recognize and allow for any current uses of the fiber and its coproducts. One great example is a project planner proposing to use corn stover, collecting the fiber before it hits the ground and expecting the harvester to slow the ground speed in order to allow for this. This is not an acceptable scenario to the vast majority of grain producers.

Currently, the thermal conversion of agricultural biomass―whether in baled, ground, or densified form―is best suited for consumption in commercial and more rural residential applications. This is where most of the earliest adoption has occurred. These markets have a vested interest in supporting agricultural products, which results in relatively more patience and willingness to work through the associated challenges of warranty issues, more ash, and different ash chemistry.  While a few leaders in the biomass and pellet appliance industry have openly embraced agricultural biomass fuel and have started working with it, there is still a lot of work to be done. Understandably, a large portion of these appliance manufacturers have not invested the significant resources necessary to test and adapt appliances to agricultural fields.

One of the most effective steps that can be taken to encourage the growth and development of agricultural biomass, both as a concept and as a crop, is to promote the growth of a profitable market for it. This can be achieved by dedicating resources to increase the number of people purchasing and using both small- and large-scale combustion  appliances that are capable of utilizing the fiber.
Is ag biomass here to stay? Yes. Will we use it in the most effective and efficient manner we are capable? We shall see.

Author: Dan Arnett
Biomass Coordinator, Ernst Conservation Seeds
Vice Chair, BTEC Board of Directors