University of Maine energy grass study scores grant

By Anna Simet | December 06, 2012

Researchers at the University of Maine at Fort Kent’s Center for Rural Sustainable Development have been granted more than $62,000 to gauge farmer interest in growing energy grass on a large scale, as well the economic and market feasibility to grow the grass in the St. John Valley in far northern Maine.

The grant, which was provided through the Experimental Program to Stimulate Competitive Research and the Sustainability Solutions Partners project, will fund a study purposed to determine whether there is stakeholder interest and opportunity, as well as the required physical, human, financial and technological capital to create and maintain a grass biomass industry in northern Maine in order to offset high heating costs and add value to the regional economy.

Building on research done last year to estimate agricultural biomass yield estimates in Fort Kent, this year, UMFK undergraduate student interns will perform further research into land resources in the Valley. In addition, project research will be conducted by UMFK faculty, collaborators from the University of Maine, the University of Maine Cooperative Extension and local stakeholders.

During the study, the research team will develop research questions, administer surveys, and lead focus groups to determine farmer perceptions and consumer interest, as well as compile additional research to answer questions about what human, financial, physical and technological resources would be needed and to determine whether those resources exist locally, or can be imported.  Previous work on the project resulted in two educational documentaries about grass biomass, and the research team plans to use them during consumer and producer outreach.

The team will also perform further research into the economic feasibility of local machinery production for the grass biomass industry, as well as research other alternative fuels, including the use of grass mixed with wood biomass.

Farmers and SSP collaborators will work with the interns to assess the feasibility of using local banks and the farm credit system to provide start-up and working capital for production. They plan to work with potential industrial producers to find funding through other appropriate financial sources, such as the Northern Maine Development Commission and the Small Business Administration.

Research results from the study, titled “Sustainable Heating in Fort Kent: A Biomass Initiative Case Study,” will be compiled and maintained at the Center for Rural Sustainability on the UMFK campus. The results will be disseminated by stakeholders interested in grass biomass production, interested community members, and by university interests.

The UMFK has multiple other projects underway in the biomass arena, including this past spring’s dedication of two biomass heating systems planned for the campus. That system will provide heat for 1.75 acres of floor space and is expected to save the campus nearly $1 million over the next decade. An additional biomass plant, expected to come online in late 2014, will power nine buildings on the main campus, as well as building on the adjacent Fort Kent Community High School campus.