Vermont Farmers Food Center Heats with Biomass

Rob Steingress (VFFC), Bill Kretzer (12 Gauge Electric) and Greg Cox (VFFC) perform final inspections before the initial firing of the boiler.
Rob Steingress (VFFC), Bill Kretzer (12 Gauge Electric) and Greg Cox (VFFC) perform final inspections before the initial firing of the boiler.

UVM Extension and others supported the recent installation of a 341,200 BTU/hr (output) multi-fuel biomass boiler at the Vermont Farmers Food Center (VFFC) in Rutland, VT.  The boiler heats the Farmer’s Hall building with the capability to use several alternative fuels to displace propane. The boiler was fueled primarily on wood pellets but was also able to feed and burn grass biomass pucks. This demonstration project carried a cost premium when compared to a typical propane heater installation.  That premium is paid back over time due to recurring fuel cost savings. A simple payback period of 2.2 to 8.0 years is feasible against a cost premium of $51,255 for the boiler depending on the fuel used and the amount of use. For more details about the project and the economic performance please see the report.

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Grass and “Ag Biomass” Competitive with Wood Chips

Chris Davis (Meach Cove Trust) prepares the boiler and combustion testing equipment for a trial run of the new fuel.
Chris Davis (Meach Cove Trust) prepares the boiler and combustion testing equipment for a trial run of the new fuel.

Recent testing at the Meach Cove Trust has demonstrated strong economic and technical feasibility of grass-based biomass combustion fuels.  The use of solid, densified, cellulosic biomass fuels has been well demonstrated with wood pellets in residential and light commercial systems and wood chips in larger, often centralized systems.  The Grass Energy Partnership of the Vermont Bioenergy Initiative has been exploring an alternative form of fuel; grasses densified in a specially developed processor to take the form of 1.5”-2.0” round cylindrical pucks.  Grass fuels may be produced on otherwise marginal agricultural land, sometimes in perennial production and even in buffer strips offering environmental benefit.  Additionally, fuel can be made by densifying agricultural residue or biomass harvested from idle pasture or fields.  We have referred to this fuel as “Ag Biomass”. The testing summarized in this report has demonstrated the technical and economic feasibility of such fuels.

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Oilseed Economics Update 2014

Yesterday we held our annual Oilseed Producer’s Meeting.  At this meeting, I presented an economic overview of oilseeds in Vermont.  Ina nutshell, Vermont has an installed on-farm biodiesel capacity of 600,000 gal/yr (5 sites) with a normalized initial cost of $1/gal of capacity (better than national average). Fuel can be produced for an average cost of $2.13/gal, and meal can be produced at an average cost of $340/ton.  The greenhouse gas emissions associated with this model are 60-100% better than US avg oilseed production (net sink) while the average energy return on energy invested (EROEI) is 4 to 1 (i.e. 4 gallons produced for every gallon used in production.  The model is on-farm production for on-farm use; i.e. cost avoidance.

This study made use of the Vermont Oilseed Cost and Profit Calculator, a tool we have developed over the years to collect all the enterprise costs associated with an on-farm oilseed operation that may turn the crop into meal, oil, and/or biodiesel.  It helps growers and others interested in the topic arrive at specific product costs and compare those costs to market prices.  We also have summarized three different likely oilseed enterprise scenarios in e report titled Vermont On-Farm Oilseed Enterprises: Production Capacity and Breakeven Economics. This work has had strong support from the Vermont Bioenergy Initiative of the Vermont Sustainable Jobs Fund and has been accomplished in close cooperation with the UVM Extension Northwest Crops and Soils Program.

Vermont On-Farm Biodiesel – Costs of Production

I recently co-authored a summary of the economics of on-farm biodiesel with Netaka White from the Vermont Sustainable Jobs FundThis report collects the economic and logistic learning from the past seven years of the Vermont Bioenergy Initiative (VBI).  The VBI has supported a wide range of sustainable fuel related efforts in Vermont.  Along with agronomic research by Heather Darby’s Northwest Crops and Soils team funding has supported efforts to streamline on-farm processing and production systems, improve safety, expand storage capacity and ultimately to expand adoption of sustainable fueling practices.

We showcase five Vermont on-farm biodiesel operations that use a variety of equipment to reach their different biodiesel and feed production goals.  We use data from these farms, collected over several years, to run a detailed economic analysis of a hypothetical 100,000-gallon per year on-farm biodiesel facility. A second hypothetical case based on a 13,000-gallon per year facility is also reviewed. Finally, we explain in ten steps how to estimate breakeven and profitability in both cases. The information and steps are applicable to any farmer interested in fuel and feed self-sufficiency or generating additional farm income. The analysis was done using the Oilseed Cost and Profit Calculator I developed under this program.

Pressing Costs2
This figure illustrates how the cost of production is distributed when seed is pressed to meal and oil.

In the two examples above, one a 100,000 gallon per year commercial enterprise, and the other a 13,000 gallon per year operation, both used representative sunflower production data from five Vermont farms. Over a range of crop production costs between $100 and $200 per acre, and yields between 1,000 and 2,000 pounds per acre, at current market prices the combined worth of the meal and the oil, or the meal plus the biodiesel are shown to be profitable.

COP Summary Table

Both scales of operation can also see a payback on their investment within a reasonably short time frame when selling meal and biodiesel or selling meal and using biodiesel to reduce enterprise expenses; 100,000 gallon per year payback is 6.4 years & 13,000 gallon per year payback is 9.4 years. This is based on current, relatively low fuel costs. Should diesel prices reach $5 a gallon, simple payback could occur in less than 12 months for the 100,000 gallon per year case and less than 3 years for the 13,000 gallon per year case.