Perennial Grasses to BioFuel: A community perspective
Engineering Technology Educator,
East Peoria Center,
727 Sabrina Dr.,
East Peoria, IL 61611
Graduate Student, Bioenergy PSM
The interest in local biofuels continues to evolve: Energy prices continue to be erratic and generally increasing. The public sector willingness to purchase “green” energy continues to grow. On the farm side, many farmers and landowners are seriously considering the opportunities high yield perennial crops offer for increased profit margins over conventional crops. These and other factors are driving increased public and private support of biomass utilization research and development. Developing the biomass marketing system on a community level will provide the bridge between individual biomass to home heat and utility scale biomass systems. “Community level marketing” means that local farmers grow the biomass, local processors producing pellets or briquettes, and local home owners, businesses, and institutions utilize the biomass for heat and power generation.
We are examining the entrepreneurial opportunities for community scale biomass production, processing, and utilization. Wood, buffalo dung, corn, and other similar materials have been burned for heat for centuries. Many of these are not practical for Midwest farmers to produce in sufficient quantities to be profitable. However, some of the perennial “energy” grasses such as switchgrass, tropical corn and Miscanthus x Giganteus have shown the potential to produce biomass yields that could make money.
Is there a market for the raw biomass? Research suggests, and entrepreneurial start-up business have shown, that biomass can compete in the energy “bridge markets” of home heating, coal boiler co-firing, and gasification. Many small scale examples can be cited of farmers growing biomass, harvesting, processing to pellets or briquettes and utilizing for heat or selling the products. A few pellet manufactures are contracting biomass and marketing biomass pellets to utility companies and small institutions for co-firing in coal boilers, and to retailers for the home heating system market.
Will our Illinois climate conditions allow very large quantities of baled biomass to be stored under minimal shelter (or no shelter) until used, or are other types of storage needed? Do we have access to the types of grinders and pellet mills suited to these biomass feedstock, or will the characteristics of the new feedstocks require redesign of the equipment? How do we work together to develop the supply chain needed to capitalize on the pellet and briquette fuels bridge market? These are the types of questions that researchers and entrepreneurs are working to answer.