17 März 2005

Cornell scientists explore grass as a new biofuel

Have you ever considered burning grass – no not smoking it, but burning it – as a solution to the energy crisis? Well, the folks from Cornell University’s Department of Crop and Soil Sciences and its Cooperative Extension have. They talked about the pros and cons of grass as a bioenergy source for Upstate New York at a demonstration last week in Varna.

Transforming grass crops into pellets to burn in stoves is an idea that’s still in its infancy stage, although Jerry Cherney, professor of agriculture at Cornell, hopes to turn more people on to the idea. It takes 70 days to grow a crop of grass pellets. It takes 70 million years to make the fossilized grass in fossil fuels, as Cherney is fond of pointing out. He also points to the skyrocketing increases of heating oil prices.

Grass is an (almost) ideal solid biomass energy source, Cherney argued. Grass pellets emit up to 90 percent less greenhouse gasses than conventional energy sources, have an energy output:input ratio that can be as high as 15:1 and have 96 percent of the BTUs that are in wood.

Pellets made from grasses like timothy and orchardgrass or weeds such as goldenrod are currently being tested in pellet stoves at the Cornell Mt. Pleasant Research Farm. (Reed canarygrass pellets are being tested in experimental residential-sized pellet boilers in Sweden.) These stoves were kept brightly burning on a bitterly cold Wednesday afternoon as Cherney pedaled his pellets to a room full of farmers looking for a fix.

One farmer in the audience, Carl Blackmer, grows hay for the horse industry on his 2,200 acre farm that straddles Lexington and Ontario Counties. But not all his hay is of high enough quality to sell to the feed industry. “It depends on the weather – the rainy weather really lowered the quality this year.” Blackmer has been selling it to the mushroom industry for compost but “is looking for opportunities to get more return than we’re presently getting,” Blackmer said.

Although “pelleting grass will probably be economically marginal” as a cash crop, Cherney said, it can significantly reduce overhead by cutting a farm’s energy costs. Perennial grass production is an efficient use of low-cost marginal farmland; it can also be used on the considerable acreage of unused or under utilized agricultural land in the state. Although much of this land is reverting back to woody growth, some of it is in the conservation reserve program but is not suited to growing row crops.

Cherney believes that grass has the potential to become a major affordable, unsubsidized fuel source capable of meeting home and small business heating requirements at less cost than all available alternatives. But first the concept of burning grass has to gain greater commercial acceptance, much like wood pellets had to when they were first introduced to the market. “No stove company in North America is seriously interested in dealing with grass right now,” Cherney admitted with some disappointment. “Dedicated grass systems will likely come from Europe.” Older style wood pellet stoves that are currently being used to burn grass pellets are not effective when it comes to burning relatively high ash fuels, like grass pellets.

Jim Kurtz, who sells the popular wood-pellet burning line of Harman Stoves at his Montour Falls Greenhouse and Garden Center, agreed. “There’s a lot of things that aren’t being done that should be done,” he said, pointing out how the shape of the grass pellets doesn’t make for an even feed and the large amount of “fines” or dust that builds up. Until a stove comes along that can deal with the residual “klinkers,” the concept of burning grass will remain a smoke dream.

Also at the demonstration were representatives from the NY Ag Innovation Center, which offers extensive one-on-one project consulting, and Alternative Federal Credit Union, which offers a variety of services and resources for people interested in starting or expanding a small business.

Another presentation will be held March 21 and April 2. For more information or to register, contact Jeni Wightman at 255-4230 or email jw93@cornell.edu.

Source: Ithaka Times, March 16, 2005.

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