Landmark Vermont Farm Tries Grass Pellet Heat
SHELBURN, Vermont It cost Shelburne Farms about $1,000 a year to mow grass that doesn't end up as hay for the animals and simply goes to waste. Now staff at the historic farm have come up with a use for it: turn it to pellets and burn them to heat the massive main barn.
A boiler room is a strange place for a party, but the only things missing Friday were cocktails and canapes as staff from the farm, a historic landmark and environmental education center, joined representatives of the Grass Energy Collaborative and others to watch grass pellets get loaded into the barn's furnace.
Grass as fuel is not new. Burning it got Great Plains pioneers through many a tough winter in the 19th century. What is relatively new is the idea that grass pellets could be manufactured for maximum heating efficiency and sold commercially.
"This is a small step toward a much bigger future," Jock Gill, president of the non-profit collaborative, said of Friday's test burn.
The hope at Shelburne Farms is to gather grass from the farm, as well as neighboring farms, use a special machine to turn the grass into pellets and burn it much the way wood pellets are burned in boilers now.
The advantages, said Marshall Webb, special projects coordinator at Shelburne Farms, include projections that grass pellets will cost about half what wood pellets do. The grass is dried by the sun, rather than with energy-intensive processes used for wood pellets, he added. Perhaps most important, the grass pellets can come right from the farm, Webb said.
Robert Bender, president of South Burlington-based Chiptec Wood Energy Systems, said pellets can be used well as fuel for combined heat and power systems that provide space heating as well as that needed to run a small electrical turbine.
Webb said that would dovetail well with Shelburne Farms' vision.
"The ultimate goal by 2020 is to be powered completely by renewable energy," he said.
The Gas Energy Collaborative, which includes people who have been involved with other biomass fuels and a Cornell University professor who has been experimenting with grass pellets, issued a white paper detailing what it believes are some of the promised benefits of grass pellets.
One is cost. A ton of grass pellets produces 14 million British thermal units of heat, versus 16 million for a ton of wood pellets, the paper said. But it added that wood pellets cost about $200 a ton, where grass pellets will be able to be sold for $100 a ton.
Put another way, the cost per million Btu for fuel oil is $23.47; for electricity, $39.73; for wood pellets $17.86 and for grass pellets provided by a producers' co-op to farmers who grow the grass, at $10.20.
Source: Associated Press