February 11, 2009
Rather than helping to produce liquid fuel (ethanol) for vehicles, a better future for some of the nation’s farms may be in growing grass for use as a heating fuel, according to Jock Gill, president of Pellet Futures, a bioenergy consultancy.
Gill spoke Saturday in State College, Pa., at the 18th annual conference of the Pennsylvania Association for Sustainable Agriculture, in a talk entitled “Getting the Miles Out: Relocalizing Energy,” in which he envisioned a “community supported energy” model similar to the increasingly popular community supported agriculture. He advocated a shift away from an energy system that involves centralized control of production, then distribution through a vastly inefficient electrical grid, to a system that is more locally controlled – a more democratic energy system.Gill, a Vermonter, said that 10 million homes in the Northeast are burning oil for heat, using 7.2 billion gallons of oil each year. He touted a switch to burning grass “rounds” that are a quarter-inch thick and 1.5 inches in diameter. This type of fuel would be too large to burn in a biofuel pellet stove, but Gill cited a furnace that could burn grass rounds – the Pritchard S5000, which uses a steam-engine design. And for producing the grass pellets, he cited the “biomass extrusion presses” sold by BHS Energy, a Pennsylvania-based company.
Roger Samson and his colleagues at R.E.A.P.-Canada have done extensive research on grasses as biofuels. Gill recommended both Samson’s work and the book Beyond Oil and Gas: the Methanol Economy. Samson gave the keynote address at the Energy Grass Symposium in Vermont in November, in which he said “there are no technical barriers to [developing] the grass pellet industry.” He also asserted that there is “a policy crisis in biofuel development in North America which prevents the most efficient second-generation biofuels from emerging.”
Gill was not the only speaker at the PASA conference who was advocating a kind of do-it-yourself, grassroots style of energy production. Stacy Richards of the Energy Resource Center at SEDA-Council of Governments, a Pennsylvania-based development agency, said small- and medium-scale community wind projects create more jobs and more multiplier effects in the local economy than large wind projects with absentee ownership. She recommended a report entitled Energizing Rural America: Local Ownership of Renewable Energy Production is Key, written by David Morris of the Institute for Local Self-Reliance.
Matt Steiman of the Dickinson College Farm, which has four separate solar electric systems serving various purposes, walked his audience through the basics of setting up such a system. He also recommended the online courses at http://www.solarenergy.org.