Grass for Gas: Bioenergy in your tank

Baling switchgrass at Meach Cove Farm
Baling switchgrass at Meach Cove Farm

Grass is fuel for livestock. That’s pretty well understood at On Pasture. What we are going to explore here is the option of using it as a fuel replacement. If we can rely less on fossil fuels, we might be better off. Biomass grass crops are being seen to have a smaller carbon footprint and might be the way to do that.

While growing the crop and producing the fuel can be relatively straightforward, there are not currently extensive markets for the fuel. This presents a chicken-and-egg problem for the farmer and their potential customers. Farmers are hesitant to grow a crop with an uncertain market, and building owners and municipalities are not likely to install a heating system for which they can’t find a reliable fuel source. Close cooperation between fuel suppliers and customers is important, and long-term contracts can help build confidence between partners.

There are alternative markets for grass crops that can be used in the interim while a fuel market is established. These alternatives include fiber for paper products, animal bedding, compost for mushroom growers, resin in particle board, absorbents for environmental clean-up, and dairy rations.

Considering additional benefits to the farm can be helpful, too. For example, using grass to help clean up runoff from the farm, thereby helping to clean up local waterways, can be a valuable marketing asset. Improving wildlife habitat with grass crops, conserving open land, and utilizing marginal soils are additional benefits. It’s hard to put a dollar value on land stewardship, but these are services to both the longevity of a farming operation and to the greater community.

Switchgrass harvest at Meach Cove Farm in Vermont
Switchgrass harvest at Meach Cove Farm in Vermont

An important consideration for growers is the economic feasibility of growing grass for fuel or alternative markets. Dr. Sid Bosworth, researcher and professor at the University of Vermont School of Agriculture and Life Sciences, has developed a grass energy cost estimator you can download here. It’s an Excel file to help you determine the per-ton cost of production. By comparing the cost of production to market prices, a grower can determine whether producing and selling grass fuel makes financial sense. Working with the community may provide avenues to put grass energy into the tank.

In coming weeks we’ll share information on the how to’s of growing grass to make fuel.

Sarah Galbraith is the program manager of the Vermont Bioenergy Initiative, which draws the connection between diversified agriculture and local renewable energy production for on-farm and community use. Aiming to supply farm inputs and reduce fossil fuel consumption, this program supports research, technical assistance, and infrastructure development in emerging areas of bioenergy. Since 2003 the program has focused on biodiesel production and distribution for heating and transportation, oil crops for on-farm biodiesel and feed, grass for heating, and algae production for biofuels and wastewater management. The Vermont Bioenergy Initiative is a program of The Vermont Sustainable Jobs Fund, a non-profit organization which provides financing, technical assistance and other resources to Vermont businesses who develop products and services and create jobs in the fields of renewable energy, and sustainable agriculture and forestry.

2 thoughts on “Grass for Gas: Bioenergy in your tank

  1. I am generally opposed to using crops to make fuel. Being from the drylands of Eastern Colorado, I cannot put any figures in the cost estimate calculator. I have never used fertilizer or chemicals. I do know about mechanical costs and this procedure has several and usually producers estimate these too low.

    Taking the grass off is depleting the soil of organic matter and diminishing soil life. This old saying is still apt. “He who sells hay is selling his soil.”

    Methanol from corn is marginal and I believe this will be also. There will come a day when every acre will be need for human consumption. These acres will be best suited for cattle production.
    Chip Hines

  2. Grass for bioenergy is a chicken/egg issue. The other is without multiple buyers for the grass (switchgrass) there is alack of competition on price.

    For slightly less yield than switchgrass, producers could grow big bluestem which has far superior forage quality and palatability over switchgrass, providing alternative marketing options for grazing, as hay or potentially biomass.

    So far the grass biomass market simply is not offering enough financial incentive to make it worthwhile as a fuel IMO

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