Conservation biomass demonstration shows potential

By Erin Voegele | September 07, 2012

A demonstration project completed by The Earth Partners LP, Applied Ecological Services and Poet LLC has shown that biomass from native grasses, grown for conservation purposes, can successfully fuel a boiler to create heat and power.

According to Chas Taylor, The Earth Partners’ director of business development, the project began several years ago when his company, AES, Poet and the Nature Conservancy formed an exploratory partnership. The goal was to evaluate the possibility of growing native grasses for conservation purposes, harvest the resulting biomass, and use it to produce energy. Under this unique business model, the production of biomass heat and power would actually land restoration efforts.

All three companies contributed to the planning and development of the project, Taylor said. On an operational basis, The Earth Partners structured the deal, managed the partnership and coordinated the economic aspects of the project. AES, which is a joint venture of The Earth Partners along with Canada-based Brinkman and Associates Reforestation Ltd., grew, harvested and baled the grasses. Poet picked up the harvested biomass, ground it, handled it and burnt it in the boiler at its ethanol plant in Chancellor, S.D. Since this was a test project, the biomass was not pelletized. However, Taylor noted that the material may have been processed into pellets if it was shipped longer distances.

Poet evaluated the characteristics of the biomass. “We tested the ease in handling the material and moisture content of the fuel. As makers of renewable fuel, we think it’s important to also explore multiple options for renewable power sources,” according to Fran Swain, POET business development and scouting manager. “This conservation biomass is especially intriguing because of its inherent sustainability and conservation story.”

While the companies have not yet determined what the next step in the Midwest demonstration project might be, The Earth Partners is also pursuing conservation biomass projects in other regions of the U.S. According to Taylor, market factors in the U.S.—particularly the low cost of natural gas—makes pursuing commercial-scale biomass power projects in the U.S. difficult. His company is working to ensure it is prepared to contribute to the U.S. marketplace when the time is right. In the meantime, Taylor said The Earth Partners working to develop conservation biomass projects on degraded lands in the southern regions of the U.S., pelletize the resulting biomass, and export those pellets to Europe.