Agricultural biomass heating seminar held in N.Y.

By Luke Geiver | March 22, 2012

Attendees at the Northeast Agricultural Biomass Heating seminar, held in Saratoga Springs, N.Y., in conjunction with the Northeast Heating Expo, included experts and novices focused on the topic of perennial grass and crop-based biomass used for bioenergy.

Most attendees wanted to get a grasp of a key core of themes: 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 SUNY College of Environmental Science & Forestry and presenter at the event, summed up the key to making perennial grass and crop-based biomass viable on all fronts. “Yield is important, yield is important,” he said. “Yield is really important.”

The event featured presentations and discussions related to developing grass and agriculture-based biomass as a viable heating fuel, the agronomic  and harvest influences on biomass production, how to process and handle agricultural biomass, how to best utilize grass pellets for thermal applications, and the production economics of agriculture-based biomass used for heating applications.

“Driving down the price of production will create an impact,” Volk said about 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.”

During a summary that highlighted the themes of the day-long discussions, both Jon Montan of the St. Lawrence County Planning Office and Dan Conable of Cato Analytics LLC, re-emphasized the focus on yield per acre in making a profit from an agricultural biomass heating application.

Even with yield dominating the event, several other issues related to agricultural biomass were brought up. Mike Newtown, a researcher at SUNY Canton, explained his findings from research into several biomass boilers that could be used to fire agricultural pellets. During his combustion research, Newtown found that some appliances were better than others, that it was difficult to find a low ash pellet, and that in most cases, agricultural biomass did the same job a wood pellet could do. But his research also showed that most boilers today are not equipped with system diagrams or operational directions translated to English. Newtown noted that most residential appliances that will utilize a pellet need to become true gasification combustion systems, and the best applications for grass pellets are commercial scale.

His research efforts didn’t, however, include testing grass-based pellets in a commercial boiler because most commercial operators were unwilling to run their boilers on a pellet infused with high chlorine content, he said.

Speaking about how to burn a grass pellet, Cherney said the issue today isn’t about “clinkers,” created in boilers during use, but rather the emissions that stem from the grass-based pellets. Although testing the emissions is difficult because of the number of factors that can change during testing, the grass-based pellet sector needs to establish a set of standards to allow for comparison with other pellets, Cherney added.

To end the event, Conable outlined five key areas grass and other agricultural pellet sectors need to focus on now and in the future. First, he said the industry needs to focus on using and creating robust equipment that can handle what is available now for perennial grass feedstocks and not for what will be available in the future. Second, he again called for attention to better yields. Third, Conable said the industry needs to focus on creating a better densification process for grass-based pellets to allow better handling and storage. Fourth, he spoke of the need to find ways to preprocess grass pellets and even create hybrids of woody and grass pellets. Last, he reiterated the thoughts presented by Cherney, calling for a standardization process that can be used by grass pellet developers. 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.