BTEC webinar covers potential of agricultural biomass

By Matt Soberg | September 28, 2011

Presenters during a Sept. 28 webinar produced by the Biomass Thermal Energy Council and titled “Agricultural and Woody Biomass: Contrasts and Comparisons,” provided a thorough review of the potential for using agricultural biomass for energy in the U.S. Although wood is a prominent fuel for the production of thermal energy, agricultural residues present another feedstock source for the industry, according to the BTEC.  

Speakers included John Bootle, co-founder of Renewable Energy Resource, Paul Cerosaletti, senior educator for the Cornell University Cooperative Extension, Steve Flick, chairman of the board for Show Me Energy Co-op, and moderator Joseph Seymour, BTEC executive director.

Renewable Energy Resource produces briquettes from switchgrass for thermal applications. The company transfers grass from the “field to flue,” according to Bootle, with field inspection, harvest, transfer, compaction and delivery to the boiler as parts of their grass-to-fuel process. Bootle said that crop-derived biomass is important as a future thermal heat source due to studies projecting availability of agricultural feedstocks being significantly higher than wood. 

The benefits of grass biomass, according to Bootle, include faster carbon emission reduction than wood, low-cost sustainability, local production and local economic development. The timing of the grass harvest is important to combustion efficiency and emission issues, he added. 

Cerosaletti talked about the Cornell University Catskill Grass Bioenergy Project, which is a pilot project developed to analyze the “production to consumption” of grass biomass burning technologies. The installed grass furnaces and boilers have been successful for small businesses, achieving high efficiency and fossil fuel reduction, he said. 

 As part of a report about combustion technology and the future of biomass thermal energy, Cerosaletti said that agricultural biomass is a high-energy fuel with energy content that is 95 percent of wood. In analyzing boiler technology, however, Cerosaletti warned that problems have arisen through clinkering and corrosion.  Also, he said manufacturers need to maintain service after the sale when mechanical problems arise. 

For the grass-to-energy industry to overcome challenges, Cerosaletti said that, “just as people say eat local, we need to heat local,” meaning utilizing local resources, such as grass, when planning the future of thermal energy options. He added that the premise “build it and they will come” may hold true for the agricultural biomass industry. There is a need for a large anchor company or municipality to commit to agricultural biomass as a future energy source, and the result just might be a development of more widespread technology and markets.

Show Me Energy Cooperative, a Missouri-based agricultural business, is committed to establishing a model for producing biomass-based fuels. “This model may be replicated across the country by small producer-owned cooperatives that will provide a positive economic impact on the regions in which they are located,” Flick said.

The cooperative started about five years ago and consists of farmer stockholders. The cooperative purchases round bales and turns the grass into a pellet product for combustion purposes. Without affecting food supply for animals and humans, the group has benefited Missouri by increasing the value of farmland, creating green collar jobs and advancing rural economic development.

This was the ninth webinar in a 14-part series hosted by BTEC and is funded in part by the Forest Service’s Wood Education and Resource Center.

Seymour said that those interested in the agricultural biomass industry may find it beneficial to review the presentation, “Growing the Role of Agriculture in the Biomass Thermal Energy Supply Chain,” which is an interview with Tom Richard, director of Penn State’s Institutes of Energy and Environment, that can be found as interview #4 at

BTEC is a nonprofit that provides biomass energy advocacy, governmental relations, education, outreach and research. WERC works with the foresting industry to achieve sustainable forest production through training, technology, and education.