Grass Pellets Make Their Vermont Debut

Sure you’ve heard of burning wood pellets for home heating but how about grass pellets? The Grass Energy Collaborative (GEC), a new organization committed to developing grass energy as a renewable biofuel, tested grass pellets as fuel with a day-long burn in the furnace of the Farm Barn at Shelburne Farms in Vermont.

The collaborative, with membership representing universities, researchers, technology pioneers and environmentalists, is investigating pelletized grass as a fuel with benefits for land stewardship, economic development, a healthy environment and energy independence. At a time when energy concerns are a hot topic, even making it to President Bush’s State of the Union speech last week, the prospect of an energy source that is affordable, sustainable and secure has captured the imagination of potential users, as well as farmers who see it as a possible new profit source for their farms. Proponents of grass pellets as fuel describe a process where farmers would cut grass late in the season, typically from land that had been left fallow or was planted as a buffer strip to prevent pesticide and silt runoffs into streams, bale it and put it through a pelletizer to produce half-inch diameter pellets. The pellets can be burned in commercial heating systems, such as the ChipTec gasifier that is in use at the Farm Barn. Present for the inaugural burn were the founders of the Grass Energy Collaborative (GEC), President Jock Gill of Medford, Mass., and Peacham, Vt.; Jerry Cherney, a professor of agriculture at Cornell University who has been researching grass biomass for more than 20 years; Averill Cook who installed two pellet heating systems that have been using wood pellets on the Farm in the last year; and GEC Treasurer Marshall Webb of Shelburne Farms. Professor Cherney donated the pellets, made in Canada from grass harvested from land owned by Cornell University, for the burn. Gill began looking into alternative energy sources after he and his family made plans to move to a historic house in Peacham and found that, as it had no insulation, it was going to be prohibitively expensive to heat. Lucky coincidence brought him into contact with heating system entrepreneur Cook, grass energy researcher Cherney and Webb, special projects coordinator at Shelburne Farms and a long-time champion of ecological causes. Shelburne Farms is a 1,400-acre working farm, national historic landmark and nonprofit environmental education organization whose mission is to cultivate a conservation ethic by teaching and demonstrating the stewardship of natural and agricultural resources. The Grass Energy Collaborative was incorporated in Vermont as a nonprofit in December of 2005. Its purpose is to demonstrate the viability of grass as a renewable energy source and to promote grassland stewardship for a healthy environment, economic development and energy independence. Webb said that Shelburne Farms is committed to switching to renewable sources of energy, and producing as much of that energy as possible on the farm. Grass energy, he said, could conceivably replace the 20,000 gallons of propane and 24,000 gallons of fuel oil currently used annually for heating, as well as a significant portion of approximately 675,000 kilowatt hours (kWh) of electricity. During late summer of this year, The Grass Energy Collaborative will harvest approximately 300 acres of grass on Shelburne Farms and land nearby, press it into 1/2-inch diameter pellets, and store these pellets in silos owned by Meach Cove Trust in Shelburne. The grass pellet fuel will be burned in a few commercial heating systems, one of which will be the ChipTec gasifier located in the Farm Barn. Next heating season, Shelburne Farms hopes to heat the Farm Barn entirely on pellets made from grass harvested on the farm. All the participants stressed that the technology is in its development stage and that Friday’s burn was designed to show if modifications were needed to the Farm Barn furnace to efficiently burn this fuel. More extensive two-day tests are scheduled. Members of the collaborative are also hoping to raise funds to develop a portable pelletizer that could be moved from farm to farm. The Grass Energy Collaborative has touted its pelletized grass fuel as an answer to several problems, including the $600,000 per minute being spent on foreign fossil carbon energy, the need for strategies that will mean long-term economic viability for the 350,000 mid-sized farmers in the U.S. who work 40 percent of agricultural land and are at risk; the non-point source pollution of streams and lakes from sediment, fertilizers and pesticides; the risk inherent in control of the fossil fuel supplies by sometimes unstable foreign governments; the inefficiency of centralized power plants; and the negative net energy return on some current fuels, such as gasoline.
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