The Local Bias of Biomass

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In a recent LSP podcast (episode 84), James Barbour provided a nice explanation of why an energy system based on biomass has a lot to offer local economies.

“Biomass sitting on my lot may be worth a lot to me as fuel. But what’s it worth to someone in Chicago? Nothing, because it wouldn’t make sense to haul it there,” Barbour told me after a field day last month on the Don and Helen Berheim farm near Benson.

He went on to explain that, depending on the situation, hauling crop residue or grass for a small- to mid-sized energy system more than 20 miles is stretching it as far as economic feasibility and energy efficiency, and “certainly at 50 miles you’re getting at the edge of reasonable.” Even when you bale corn stalks or forage tightly, they don’t measure up in the density vs. volume department. The ability of oil and natural gas to be piped is one reason they’re such popular sources of energy; even coal, with its dense mass, is relatively cheap to transport.

Barbour knows what he’s talking about—he’s a staff scientist with the Biomass Gasification Project at the University of Minnesota-Morris. He was at the field day showing off a miniature version of a UMM gasifier which officialshope will eventually provide 80 percent of the school’s heating and cooling needs utilizing plant material such as corn stover and prairie grass.

There was a lot of interest in this technology at the field day—farmers, natural resource professionals and other interested parties had gathered at the Berheim farm to learn more about the Chippewa 10% Project, which, as we’ve mentioned in this blog previously, is a new initiative that’s seeking ways of making the planting of perennial plant cover profitable for farmers in the Chippewa River watershed. Using biomass such as native prairie as an energy source could be one effective way for doing just that.

As Paul Wymar, a scientist with the Chippewa Watershed Project, makes clear in the LSP podcast, switching  just a relatively small percentage of row cropped land over to perennials such as native prairie could have a significant positive impact on water quality in the area.

The organizers of the Chippewa 10% Project are also seeking out environmentally friendly land uses that have a significant positive impact on the local economy. Local food systems are one way to do this. But as Barbour explained, biomass is another potential kick-start for Main Street, despite its inability to be transported great distances.

As it happens, it’s actually that inability of biomass to be hauled hundreds of miles that might make it a perfect candidate for energizing rural economic development.

“If the biomass is being produced locally and processed locally and used locally, it means all those changes in money stay in the community,” said Barbour. “To be able to keep our energy money here in the region would be a big help in re-building our communities, in re-building our economies.”

When I asked Barbour to lay out a “what if” biomass scenario, it went something like this: there might be an institution or heat and power utility in a community that offers a consistent market for energy. Local farms would haul prairie grass to a storage/pre-processing facility in a local town, much like how they are hauling corn and soybeans to elevators right as you read this.

The material would then be aggregated and taken to a regional facility where it would be turned into fuel. All the jobs connected with such a localized system— farming, transportation, storage and fuel production—would stay local, keeping the wealth generated local. And this doesn’t even count the economic activity created from businesses that would, for example, provide seed and otherwise help farmers get prairie systems established.

This isn’t too far-fetched. In a previous blog, we featured a farmer in southeast Minnesota who had set up a system where he eventually hopes to use homegrown prairie grass as a source of biomass fuel to heat his greenhouses. He has invested in used equipment to process plant material into dense pellets, and has gotten some of his neighbors interested in using biomass to provide heat on their farms.

Eventually, local farmers could bring their grass and other biomass material to this centralized pellet mill, and drive away with usable, affordable, homegrown fuel. Such a system could create a great incentive for planting more perennial plants in a farm community.

Before we get too carried away, there are a few realities that bring us crashing down to earth. One is that we’ve a ways to go before there is a consistent demand for biomass as an energy source. Part of that is a technical problem. For example, the firing up of the UMM gasifier has been delayed significantly because of mechanical and design problems, among other things. We simply haven’t invested as much research and development into utilizing grass and other biomass as an energy source as we have in say, corn-based ethanol.

And it must be kept in mind that a lack of consistent markets for biomass is a major disincentive for any farmer who might be considering investing time and money in switching from corn (which is supported by government payments) to native prairie (which can take up to three no-income years to get established). And how can we expect a private firm to invest in a facility that burns prairie grass when so little is available in the region?

Public and private entities are hard at work here in Minnesota grappling with such “chicken or the egg” questions. It will be interesting to monitor, for example, efforts  to get Minnesota River Valley farmers to raise native prairie for the Koda Energy biomass project in Shakopee.

The environmental benefits of planting perennials already provided an incentive to get at the bottom of such tough questions. Now sustainable rural economics adds further fuel to the fire.

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