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Agronomy Day 2009

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Tour B

Make Biomass Pay Now: Bridge Markets for Illinois Biomass

Ted L. Funk
Ted L. Funk
Extension Specialist, Agricultural Engineering
Agricultural Engineering Sciences Building
332E AESB, MC-644, 1304 W. Pennsylvania Ave.
Urbana, IL 61801
(217) 333-9313
Gary Letterly
Gary Letterly
Natural Resources Educator
Christian County Unit
1120 N Webster St.
Taylorville, IL 62568

The evolution of interest in local biofuels is multifaceted: Recent history of high energy costs, a growing sector of the public willing to purchase “green” energy, and public and private support of biomass crop research and development.   These developments coincide with an era when farmers and landowners are considering high-yielding perennial crops that will provide a margin of return comparable to conventional row crops but with fewer recurring input costs.  The good news is that there exists a “shortlist” of crops—from native to somewhat exotic ones— that will grow on Illinois farmland.

Using biomass for heating fuel is certainly not a new concept – people have burned wood and buffalo dung for centuries.  But to imagine a M idwestern farmer transitioning from small grain farming to producing wood for fuel may be a stretch.   Regional experts in wood co-product utilization suggest that there is little or no excess wood fiber material nearby that c ould feed future demand for cellulosic-ethanol feedstocks.  This leaves producers in the prairie with an interesting option : Grow tons of biomass as a least-cost-producer, or continue to grow traditional row crops of corn, soybeans, and wheat.  Biomass as solid fuel for heat and power is the “bridge market” between fossil fuels and advanced biofuels.

We know biomass can compete in the energy bridge market applications of home heating, coal boiler co-firing, and gasification.  To sweeten the pot, the 2008 Farm Bill contains near-term incentives for producers to get biomass crops into the market.  Farmers in nearby states are successfully growing biomass crops and utilizing common perennial grasses that are harvested and manufactured into fuel pellets.  There are a handful of pellet manufacturers who are contracting and marketing their biomass pellets, to utility companies to be co-fired in coal boilers, and to retailers for home heating systems (pellet stoves).   Small institutional sites are developing plans to utilize, in their new or retrofitted heating plants, solid fuel that comes from a variety of biomass sources.  In 2009, farmers who wanted to invest resources in biorenewables were scrambling to find sources of Miscanthus x Giganteus rhizomes.   The future looks good, too:  Back-of-the-envelope cost assessments of pelletized perennial grasses compare favorably with natural gas, and look much better than propane as a heating fuel.

Around the world, biomass producers and end-users are learning little by little how to move biorenewables into the markets traditionally held by fossil fuels – coal, oil, and natural gas.  What Illinois needs is the regional information, in the form of localized systems thinking, that will let us make the best use of resources we have.   For example, can we harvest very tall perennial grasses using the same types of equipment we use for hay harvest, without modifications?  Will our Illinois climate conditions allow very large quantities of baled biomass to be stored under minimal shelter (or no shelter) until use, or are other types of storages needed?  Do we have access to the types of grinders and pellet mills suited to these biomass feedstocks, or will the characteristics of the new feedstocks require redesign of the equipment?

Perennial grasses are baled and then processed by grinding and pelletizing into a storable product for direct combustion.Perennial grasses are baled and then processed by grinding and pelletizing into a storable product for direct combustion.

Fossil fuels have spoiled us with their high energy density, that is, how much energy is in a small volume of fuel.  Gasoline, diesel, and jet fuel are wonderfully energy-dense materials.  Even wood pellets are much less energy-dense than coal, and grass pellets have less energy per unit volume than wood.  The challenge of low energy density fuels is not insurmountable, but it presents a new mindset: We must learn how to handle really large quantities of materials that are not so easy to ship and store.

For now, there are some markets “right around the corner.”  The most visible market is pellet fuel, and research is underway to assist in forming the supply chain that includes growing, harvesting, transport, grinding, pelletizing, conditioning the pellets, and moving the product into the marketplace.

change and challenge