Wednesday, 16 January 2008

Growing Heat

Growing heat

February 2008 Rural voice column by John Beardsley

Ontario’s greatest energy need isn’t for gasoline for vehicles but for thermal energy to heat our homes and businesses and to power factories. Right now many Ontario greenhouses are heated with American coal . Our dependence on natural gas and fuel oil is massive. Switchgrass production offers the opportunity for Ontario farmers to grow an alternative crop and reduce greenhouse gases at the same time.

If you can grow hay, you can grow switchgrass; it is a tall grass native to Ontario and the prairies. It is a small seeded crop which is established in the same way as alfalfa. Roger Samson from REAP-Canada says switchgrass can be cropped on a field almost indefinitely once established (REAP is the acronym for Resource Efficient Agricultural Production, a nonprofit research organization which has been working on sustainable agriculture projects for over twenty years).

This alternative biofuel crop can be grown on marginal crop land with 2600 corn heat units or less; basically wherever corn is less productive. This would encompass a lot of land in Grey Bruce and Dufferin counties as well as parts of eastern and northern Ontario.

Switchgrass can grow on droughtier soils but also on less well drained soil where alfalfa doesn’t do well, so actually if you can’t grow alfalfa for some soil type and drainage reasons you may have more luck with switchgrass.

The crop is fertilized in the spring with 60 pounds of nitrogen, then allowed to grow all year, cut in November and left out until May when it is baled by a large square baler. The grass is left out to weather naturally so as to reduce the amount of plant by-products which interfere with clean combustion of the switchgrass. The crop yields 4-5 tonnes per acre.

Sampson says right now natural gas heats homes for about $11 a gigajoule. If farmers were paid $90 dollars a tonne for the switchgrass, and processing and transportation costs were added in, he figures pellets could be delivered for $8 a gigajoule. But to kickstart the industry he would like to see the provincial and federal governments providing subsidies equivalent to those provided to the ethanol industry.

One homeowner featured on a video on the REAP-Canada site said he heated his home for $400 per year, which was a huge savings from the $2,000 he paid previously for electric heat

Most corn stoves can burn switchgrass and the furnace marketers claim the stove/furnace pays for itself in a very short time frame, usually less than three years. Initially the stoves required more physical effort of carrying bags of fuel pellets to the furnace and loading them manually into the fuel hopper attached to the furnace. Many people will want the simplicity of traditional fossil fuels and so there are houses set up with feed tanks next to the furnace which automatically feed the furnace. These tanks are then filled by a delivery truck with an air blower system currently used on feed trucks to conveniently deliver the fuel as needed

Quebec is planning on growing almost five thousand acres this year due to a grass buffer strip cost share program and the promotion of switchgrass as an alternative fuel crop.

The big advantage of switchgrass versus cellulose ethanol is the cost to process the crop into useable fuel. A cellulose ethanol factory would cost $300 million to get built whereas a switchgrass pelleting plant could be built for as little as $3 million for a facility that would produce 30,000 tonnes of pellets per year.

Another advantage that switchgrass has over fuel oil is that the plants can be built near the crop production areas to lessen their transportation costs for the bulky raw switchgrass bales. This also provides local employment, and tax revenue for rural municipalities.

With a small shift in agricultural land we can replace the entire fuel oil sector, which is a limited resource, with a renewable sustainable fuel source. Information on the REAP-Canada site estimates a 4% shift in farmland would replace 39% of our energy needs. This is far superior to the amount of land needed for liquid biofuels which would replace far less gasoline and diesel. Plus it can provide farmers with a sustainable income to increase rural prosperity. REAP-Canada would like to see more discussion amongst farm groups and government policy makers to embrace this ecologically and economically sound heating fuel alternative for the province. For more information check out REAP-Canada’s website



dpease said...

Before farmers rush out to buy switch grass seed, they might look at the results of a warm season grass trial in North Dufferin.

Michael Jones said...

Forget Wingham,

Elora's the place to be,
Farm living's the life for me,
Land spreading out so far and wide,
Keep Toronto, just give me that countryside.
Heads up from Michael Jones!!!