Friday, October 01, 2004

Will that be gas or grass in your furnace?

By John Spears Toronto Star, January 7, 2001 Page: B5, Business Edition

Put another blade of grass on the fire, dear, pellets made of switchgrass could become a new home-heating fuel.

Wild grass that once covered the open spaces of Ontario could heat the homes of 21st century Canadians, says a Canadian research group. It is teaming with a Quebec-based stove manufacturer to market a new home-heating system fuelled by pellets made from
switchgrass. The wild grass can grow anywhere in southern Ontario and much of southern Quebec. Even better, it grows in soil that is of marginal quality and withstands a wide range of conditions - from harsh drought to the soggy conditions that plagued Ontario farmers last summer.

Patrick Duxbury is part of the grass-heating research team at Resource Efficient Agricultural Production, or REAP-Canada. It’s a non-profit organization based in (Ste. Anne de Bellevue, QC). Duxbury says people have been heating their homes for years with wood pellets, made from sawmill waste and research so far shows that switchgrass pellets can perform better than wood. “There’s no plant species that’s more efficient at intercepting light,” he says. Light is energy, so it means that switchgrass is very good at storing energy, which is released when it is burned. The grass is harvested, then chopped up and fed into a machine that compresses it and extrudes pellets. The finished pellets are not far off the dimensions of a cigarette filter. The grass also burns clean, so it doesn’t release pollutants or high levels of greenhouse gases. And it doesn’t require as much drying as wood, so it takes less energy to produce. Don’t think of harvesting the stuff that’s growing in your backyard, though. Switchgrass is a tall plant. “I was out at the end of last season harvesting switchgrass growing over my head,” Duxbury says.

Mark Drisdelle of Quebec-based Dell-Point Technologies has been working on how to make switchgrass-pellet technology a commercial proposition. Since wood-pellet stove technology is well-developed, it’s mostly a matter of fine-tuning existing equipment to handle grass. Grass pellets, for example, have a higher ash content than wood. The economics work something like this: Drisdelle says heating a 2,000-square-foot home for the cold months would take about 150 bags of pellets weighing 22.7 kilograms each, or 3.4 tonnes in total. How big is that? One tonne of pellets would be contained in a 1.2-metre cube. REAP figures the pellets can be manufactured for about $90 to $125 a tonne - less than $470 a season, not including delivery.

Because the grass can be grown all over the place and pellet plants can be fairly small scale, the researchers envision a number of plants scattered across southern Ontario and Quebec, to minimize transport costs. Finding investors willing to put money into pellet plants is the part of the puzzle they figure they need next. As for the stove, Dell-Point Technologies is advertising one on its Web site for $1,995 (U.S.), or $3,013. The stove can connect to a forced-air or hot-water radiator system to heat a house. In theory, they could run the hot-water system as well and even generate electricity. Analysis by REAP claims that heating with grass pellets could be 30 per cent cheaper than heating with oil or gas and would cut greenhouse gas emissions by 90 per cent. One of the drawbacks of pellet technology is that people who are used to oil, gas or electric heat don’t want to be hauling bags of pellets to the stove all the time. Stove manufacturers have tried to overcome this by designing automatic, computer-controlled electrical systems to run the stoves. (The system can run for days on a car battery if the electricity fails.) A large storage bin sits by the stove, which needs to be filled only occasionally. A computer-controlled system monitors temperatures and an augur feeds pellets into the furnace as needed.

For Duxbury, the goal is to provide a clean, low-carbon heating technology that can replace less environmentally friendly forms of energy. One target is Quebec, where about half the population heats with electricity generated by water power. Replacing electric heat with grass would mean more Quebec electricity could be exported to the northeastern United States, where dirty, coal-fired plants now supply much of the power, Duxbury says. Thinking big, Duxbury notes that if all the arable land in Alberta were turned over to switchgrass, it could produce 200 million tonnes of pellets - the energy equivalent of 600 million barrels of oil. That’s about 20 million hectares.

Obviously, switchgrass isn’t going to run wheat and cattle off the Prairies. But Duxbury does note that each summer about 8 million hectares lie fallow across the prairie provinces. That’s fertile ground for switchgrass, which would not rob the soil of nutrients and would protect the land from erosion. Tom Adams, executive director of Energy Probe, says pellet fuels are worth a look from consumers. “The pellet-fuel system has reached the point where homeowners can leave behind the atmospherically damaging fossil-fuel industry for meeting their heating needs,” he says.


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