With heating oil over $3 per gallon, it would cost $600 or more every 40 days for Matt Dedrick to heat the buildings on his farm in Lansing, N.Y. The central New York winters can be long and bitterly cold, and the expense of heating oil or propane can become oppressive.

During an average winter, Dedrick would use 1,000 to 1,200 gallons of fuel. Estimated at a conservative $3 a gallon, the bills could be $3,000 to $3,600 for one winter.

A10714_2_fullHowever, Dedrick hasn’t had to think about commodity pricing on heating oil for years; 200 gallons of heating oil lasts him several years. How is that possible? He’s using biomass residuals – the stems, stalks and grains – from his crops to generate heat. He grinds these “leftovers” into pellets, then burns them in a boiler designed to handle the pelleted product.

Dedrick first started pelletizing biomass residuals in 2008. Most often he uses the stems and stalks from a sunflower crop, but he’s also used cornstalks, paper, hay, straw, buckwheat cleanings and sunflower meal (the byproduct of the oil extraction process). A good percentage of the material he uses is small enough to feed through the auger in his furnace. “I blend some other grain cleanings, such as cracked corn and weed seeds, and burn those too,” he said.

To utilize the material, he first breaks it down with a hammer mill. Then it’s run through a pellet mill, which presses the material into a pellet shape. The pellets are then allowed to cool and harden. Next, he spreads the pellets out over a basic screen and sets the screen on top of a 5-gallon pail. Once dried, the pellets are stored or used immediately.

Dedrick can produce 200 to 400 pounds of pellets per hour. He’s in the process of building a second mill to operate in tandem with his current equipment to increase production. With the pellets, he’s able to heat 3,600 square feet and all the domestic hot water for his home.

“It takes approximately 4 tons of pellets to heat a house for an entire heating season, though more would be needed if additional spaces like barns were heated as well,” said Elizabeth Keokosky, a biomass advocate at Community Biomass Energy. Since grass pellets produce nearly the same Btu per pound as wood pellets, it’s easy to estimate the amount needed to heat a home or other buildings.

For every 1.5 tons of biomass grown, you get an equivalent 1.5 tons of pellets. Depending on the size of the pellet mill, Keokosky estimates that an individual can produce 1 to 2 tons of pellets per hour.

Why biomass?

The capital investment for this renewable energy source is less than with other systems, and in some cases the components needed for a pellet mill or the boiler already exist on the farm.

The capital investment for this renewable energy source is less than with other systems, and in some cases the components needed for a pellet mill or the boiler already exist on the farm.

Combustible biomass pellets have been gaining traction as an alternative energy source for several reasons. First, biomass pellets can produce nearly the same Btu per pound as wood pellets with less of an environmental impact. It takes millions of years to produce fossil fuels and decades to grow a crop of trees, but only 70 to 120 days to produce a crop yielding biomass residue.

Combustible biomass pellets are also the least expensive form of alternative energy. “Of all the renewable energy alternatives available, including solar, wind and digesters, pellets made from biomass residuals require much less capital investment to get started,” Keokosky said. In many cases, the parts needed for a pellet mill or the boiler component already exist on the farm.

Crops grown for use as biomass pellets also have the potential to offset the loss of crops in rural areas. “For example, in New York, crops raised for their biomass could offset the loss of dairy farms, and it could replace cotton or tobacco in other areas,” she said.

Keokosky and Community Biomass Energy have also experimented with crops that have overtaken fallow fields. “Our experiments have been with goldenrod and weeds, specifically from fields going to brush,” she said.

Prior to producing pellets on your farm, check local and state regulations, as the guidelines can vary dramatically from state to state. “We’ve been a bit discouraged by New York state policy that hasn’t given as much consideration to ag pellets as they have other alternative energy, but that is not the case in all states,” she said.

“New York considers the use of pellets as research in development, because when burned the pellets emit more particulates than other fuels,” Keokosky explained. “Smaller systems like Matt’s, which are producing less than 500,000 Btu, are small enough that they do not need to meet New York state regulations.”

The boiler used by Matt Dedrick on his Lansing, N.Y., farm was designed specifically to burn the pellets created from his crops' "leftovers."

The boiler used by Matt Dedrick on his Lansing, N.Y., farm was designed specifically to burn the pellets created from his crops’ “leftovers.”

Interested in learning more?

Individuals interested in learning more about using biomass residuals as heating fuel can find additional information from a number of sources. An annual Northeast Biomass Heating Expo & Conference was launched in 2009. The 2014 event was held April 9-11 in Portland, Maine. Details can be found at http://nebiomassheat.com.

Other resources include information on producing pellets. Penn State University is one of the most active educators on pelleted biomass and offers many workshops. Learn more on the university’s website at http://bit.ly/1mPEX0a.

Additional information is available at http://bit.ly/1lFVIKR and http://www.pelheat.com.