Sunday, 7 August 2011

A Biofuel That Makes Sense

I did promise some upbeat news from time to time, and here's some. There's been a lot of thinking and  innovation (some from Europe, more being designed and built in the Maritimes) about boilers that use agricultural and forestry waste to burn for space heating: poor quality grain, hay that's been spoiled, straw, and poor quality wood.  The most recent development comes from Nova Scotia  where a Pictou company has just started to manufacture hay burners and a machine to turn hay into pellets.

Biofuels have gotten a bad name recently and for good reason. There's no doubt that turning corn and soybean into ethanol and biodiesel in  developed countries has had a serious impact on food prices, which in turn disproportionately devastates the poor.  Biofuels like hay and straw, and grain that's been spoiled by moisture or disease are something quite different, they're simply not suitable for people or livestock. I think at this moment hay has some real advantages. Grain and the straw that comes from grain (its what's left after the grain kernel has been separated from the stock) is an annual row crop that has to be planted every Spring.  Hay (made up of various legumes and grasses) is a perennial crop that doesn't allow any soil erosion and can last for years.

The decline of the livestock industry in the Maritimes means there's a lot less demand for hay, and  once productive fields are already reverting to alders and spruce, not what much-needed tourists expect to see, and costly to renovate if and when farm incomes start to improve.

If farmers could derive some income from these  abandoned hay fields, and homes and businesses kept warm by a local product that could be delivered pelletized in bags, much like wood chips now, there would be a lot of benefits.

Biofuels are regarded as much more carbon neutral than petroleum products. Plants and trees use carbon dioxide to grow, and then release it when its burned or decomposed.

There are a number of people and companies throughout the Maritimes working to use what's generally called biomass (wood and plant waste). It's something we should all pay attention to.

Here's more on the hay burner.

Hay for Heating Homes: Clean, Renewable, Cheaper than Coal

As CEO and co-founder of LST Energy1 Jim Trussler is a man on a mission: to tout the benefits of growing and using hay, or rather concentrated hay pellets, to heat homes across North America. A Nova Scotia-based start-up, LST has built a patented device that turns hay into pellets that burn efficiently in a range of burners that the company is now manufacturing.

“The hay farmers of North America will one day out-produce the oil sands,” Trussler quoted Roger Samson, a biomass energy expert, while speaking at a TEDx2 event in Nova Scotia in June. They “can produce the energy equivalent of 7.2% of the world’s oil supply (82 million barrels of oil/day).”

Growing crops for energy has been blamed for driving up basic food costs in countries around the world. Examining the case of hay in North America, however, Samson and colleagues determined that there are 90 million hectares of land area suitable for hay production out of a total 450 million hectares of agricultural land across the continent.

Growing hay on this land and using the biomass for energy could done “without interrupting the food chain for animals, or for humans,” Trussler noted, producing enough heat for 69 million homes.

Hay Pellets for Home Heating

Trussler and his partner have invented and built a simple, straightforward device that takes in hay, grinds it up into a “sawdust-type consistency,” and turns that into concentrated, dense and stable pellets that can be burned efficiently and create no pollution. They’re also manufacturing a line of burners of various size and capacity for home heating.

Trussler pointed out that “the same thing can be done from leftover biomass from sunflower crops, as well as corn…or sugar beets, or potatoes.” “Even the skins and cores of apple make great fuel pellets,” he waxed enthusiastically. “But it’ll be mostly hay because we can grow an enormous amount of it.”

Why hay? One reason is what you get out of it, in terms of energy, compared to what’s put in to grow and process it. Hay pellets have a surprisingly high energy input-to-output ratio of 20:1. That compares to 10:1 for wood, 5:1 for biodiesel and an extremely low 1.5:1 for corn ethanol, according to Trussler.

One pound of hay will produce almost 8,000 BTUs, “that’s almost exactly equal to hardwood, and frankly, quite close to what coal produces when it burns, so it’s a fantastic heat source,” he noted.

Clean, Cheap, Predictable & Local

In addition, hay is cheap to produce and plentiful, requiring relatively little in the way of added inputs. And it’s supply is predictable. That holds out another substantial promise: low, steady, predictable costs for consumers. That’s a stark contrast to the cost volatility inherent in fossil fuels.

“The crop yields are predictable from year to year to year; it doesn’t really depend that much on the weather, and it requires so few inputs that the costs are well-known and quite low,” Trussler noted.

“And so consumers can look forward to having a consistent supply of heating materials at consistent prices, and that’s something that you can’t get from fossil fuels. And frankly, that concerns a lot of us, and businesses, because of the unpredictability of that.”

At current prices, consumers could cut their home heating costs in half by installing the sort of equipment LST is manufacturing and burning concentrated hay pellets in them to heat their homes, Trussler said.

Then there are the environmental advantages. Burning hay pellets in an efficient burner has the same lifetime GHG footprint as wind, according to an Ontario government study.

Burning hay pellets for home heating as opposed to the current mix of home heating fuels in North America would cut greenhouse gas emissions by 90%. What’s left is almost completely reabsorbed in next year’s crop, according to Trussler.

Boosting Local, Rural Economies

Finally, going down this path would also have significant, positive impacts in terms of rural economic development, stimulating local economies by boosting rural incomes and job growth. And it would preserve land, according to Trussler.

Much of the money flow associated with this business model would be kept within the local community, he notes. “It’s not going to be a business where you’re going to ship this stuff across the country; it just doesn’t make any sense.” In addition, farmers could supplement their income by qualifying for carbon credits.

In terms of preserving land, “we have excess capacity farmland, and it’s just going dormant. If we’re not careful, that dormant farmland will just turn back into bush and not be easily usable for agricultural purposes again,” he said.

“If you put hay crops on it, it saves it from any erosion problems, and keeps it in tip-top shape until you do want to use it again for agricultural purposes, and it pays for itself while you’re doing that.”

Rural Nova Scotia hay projects fertilize grassroots energy industry

A grassroots green energy industry is being cultivated in rural Nova Scotia as people warm to the idea of burning hay as a new biofuel.

The catalyst for the renewed interest in the ancient crop is the design and manufacture of a multi-fuel furnace by LST Energy Inc. in Pictou. Their furnace avoids a common problem that comes with burning hay.

As it burns, nutrient-rich hay releases minerals that melt and merge into rock-like formations called clinkers, which douse the fire and must be constantly removed.

Farmer and inventor Gus Swanson, one of three partners in LST Energy, designed a furnace to agitate the fuel and prevent the formation of clinkers.

His two business partners are Jim Trussler, a chartered accountant who heads the company, and Philip Landry, the owner of SteelPro Mechanical Services in Pictou, where the furnaces are being made.

"We are just getting started and we’re just getting the first ones out," Trussler said this week.

The company has had more than half a dozen orders for the industrial-sized furnaces that are being built and shipped to farms in Nova Scotia, Ontario and New England.

Two of them are due to be delivered soon to West Nova Agro Commodities Ltd. in Lawrencetown in Annapolis County.

One furnace will be used to burn hay as a supplementary source of fuel for drying grain. The other will be hauled around the Valley to various locations to promote and test the use of hay pellets or briquettes as an alternative source of fuel.

West Nova Agro Commodities is a community-owned enterprise with about 90 farmers and community members as its shareholders. It operates a grain elevator and is seeking to diversify its business, explained general manager Jonathan McClelland.

McClelland and his board are working to develop a local market for low-grade hay that could be made into pellets and burned for fuel. This would encourage farmers who already make hay for livestock to bring fallow fields back into production for a second hay crop for biofuel.

But before they can produce the pellets, they need to stoke the demand.

As part of their market research, West Nova Agro Commodities will transport the industrial-sized demonstration furnace inside a container and park it at test locations for a couple of months, said McClelland.

"We could, say, go to the Bridgetown Town Hall or a local poultry farm or a Canadian Tire store, hook the furnace up into their hot water heating system and show people how it works before they have to make a big commitment."

As well as letting people take the furnace for a test run, potential purchasers could learn from other people who have tested the furnace.

McClelland and Trussler say burning locally sourced hay promises to reduce fuel and transportation costs and greenhouse gas emissions for early adopters of the new technology, while putting something back into the local economy.

Their efforts should also demonstrate how agricultural ingenuity can stimulate grassroots growth in rural Nova Scotia.

Rachel Brighton is a freelance journalist and a former business editor and magazine publisher.

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