DOE: Biomass powers military base in upstate New York

By U.S. Department of Energy | May 15, 2017

Fort Drum, a U.S. Army installation located in northern New York state and home to a 60-megawatt biomass power plant, is a leader in its support of the U.S. Department of Defense’s priorities to enhance energy security and the use of renewable energy. The ReEnergy Black River facility, operated by ReEnergy Holdings LLC, converts woody biomass into low-cost energy and provides all of Fort Drum’s electricity needs through a behind-the-fence direct interconnection, ensuring access to reliable and renewable electricity even in the event of a grid outage. The facility is supplying power to Fort Drum under the terms of a 20-year renewable energy supply agreement that commenced in the fall of 2014. At the time of the agreement’s signing, the facility was the largest renewable energy project in the history of the U.S. Army. 

Logging residues—non-commercial components such as tree tops and branches—are processed for delivery as part of harvesting operations and provide the primary feedstock to power the ReEnergy plant. The low-grade residues are collected sustainably, leaving enough woody debris behind to provide forest habitat and maintain important nutrient and hydrologic features. Another component of the fuel mix is shrub willow—a key addition that would not have been possible without funding from the U.S. Department of Energy’s Bioenergy Technologies Office. Over the past few years, over 7,300 tons of willow have been delivered to ReEnergy facilities. 

Shrub willow is a short-rotation woody crop capable of producing large amounts of renewable biomass (4–5 dry tons/acre/year), while providing important ecosystem services like reducing soil erosion; reducing nutrient pollution in streams, lakes, and groundwater; and creating wildlife habitat. It also can be grown on underutilized or marginal lands, stimulating rural development and job creation. Despite the wide array of energy security, environmental, and rural development benefits, large-scale expansion has been restricted due in large part to the cost of production. Harvesting operations have historically represented the single largest cost factor, amounting to nearly 30 percent of the total costs over the crop’s life cycle, which has focused attention on an opportunity for technological improvement. 

To improve the economic viability of harvesting shrub willow, CNH Industrial, a global manufacturer of agricultural equipment, started collaborating with the State University of New York College of Environmental Science and Forestry in 2004 to design a reliable, efficient, low-cost harvesting system. In 2009, BETO competitively awarded SUNY-ESF $1.33 million—which was matched by a cost share of the same amount, bringing the total project funding to $2.67 million—to help develop the potential of this new harvesting equipment. Based on CNH Industrial’s existing standard self-propelled New Holland forage harvester, the new harvesting system is equipped with a novel cutting header specially designed to cut and chip woody crops in a single pass. The result yields quality, consistently sized chips in half the time for one-third of the cost, when compared to harvesting methods used in the past. This video depicts the forage harvester in action.

This project marks a significant step forward in demonstrating the commercial viability of short-rotation woody biomass crops. It has since helped expand the shrub willow biomass industry in upstate New York, creating new opportunities for farmers via the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Biomass Crop Assistance Program. The reliability and efficiency of the equipment have provided assurance to growers that shrub willow can be harvested economically, while the quality of chips produced meets the specifications needed for use in biomass power operations. In fact, ReEnergy has signed 11-year contracts with local growers to purchase shrub willow produced on about 1,188 acres in central and northern New York State to help power two of their renewable energy facilities. The Fort Drum facility and one other operation in northern New York—ReEnergy Lyonsdale in Lewis County—support hundreds of jobs in local rural communities and provide a reliable source of energy to support the mission of Fort Drum’s 10th Mountain Division.

This project is part of BETO’s Feedstock Supply and Logistics program area, which sponsors work to develop technologies to reduce the cost of harvesting, processing, and transporting our nation’s abundant and diverse forms of biomass resources. This success also helps to reduce U.S. dependence on foreign oil, spur the creation of a domestic bioeconomy, and support jobs in many rural areas of the country.