Alternative Fuels Are Gaining Momentum With Growers

Slideshow: Alternative Fuels

Fuel oil prices were becoming too expensive and natural gas wasn’t an option because it was not being piped into the area. So Grower Direct Farms, a wholesale greenhouse operation in Somers, Conn., began looking seriously at alternative energy sources for its facilities more than a year ago.

Wind. Solar. Geothermal. The list of energy source options available stretched beyond the fossil fuels growers historically had used. Renewable resources were becoming more viable, Grower Direct Farms found, and the more growers were gravitating toward them the closer newer options were to becoming mainstream.

For Grower Direct Farms, biomass was the renewable resource of choice and wood chips became its fuel. Now, the operation primarily uses wood chips to heat its greenhouses, and fuel oil is its secondary source. And like most growers who’ve moved to alternative energy systems, Grower Direct Farms largely made the transition because of rising fuel costs.

“Energy is one of the most important areas of our business in terms of the cost of our product,” says Sam Smith, sales manager at Grower Direct Farms. “Not just in the way we heat our greenhouses, but the fuel we put in our trucks to move our product, the electricity we consume to light the product we grow and just to do basic things like run our offices and computers.”

Heating greenhouses is one of a grower’s most costly expenses, though. And the more burdensome fossil fuel costs get, the more growers are turning to alternative energy solutions.

“Energy usage has been and will continue to be an area of concern for growers,” says Randy Monhemius, an Ohio-based business program specialist for USDA’s Rural Development program. “I believe growers are looking to save money, or at least manage costs better through the installation of energy-efficient improvements or renewable energy.”

From Propane To Wood

Rick Webb, owner of Webb Perennials in Logan, Ohio, was one grower looking for cost savings when propane approached $2.50 a gallon last year. Propane simply isn’t affordable for his small operation when it’s over $2 a gallon, Webb says, so he sought relief in the form of biomass.

Nearby Hocking College hosted a biomass workshop that introduced different systems to him. Webb got a few ideas, did some research on his own and tried to determine which wood form would produce the best, most-efficient heat for Webb Perennials.

“I’ve done a fair amount of research looking at different options,” Webb says. “The (wood) chip system would have been nice if my operation was a little bigger. I was looking at a system but then we got up to like $120,000 potentially and I still didn’t have a front-end loader to handle them.”

Eventually, Webb settled on logs and he installed a wood gasification boiler to accommodate them. His system is not automated–he loads logs into the boiler by hand–but automation did not make financial sense for Webb because he only needed to heat a facility that’s less than a half-acre.

“I live in an area where there’s a lot of firewood,” he says. “It’s Southeast Ohio–90 percent forested area. There is a lot of firewood available. By the time I finished and built a barn to store wood, I only put $32,000 into it.”
Midway through the process, Webb Perennials was awarded an $8,000 USDA Rural Energy for America Program (REAP) grant. It ultimately paid for one-fourth of Webb’s system.

Now that Webb’s system is up and running, he’s using wood as his primary fuel with propane as the backup.

“If I don’t get out in time to stoke the wood boiler, the propane kicks in,” Webb says. “I’ve used 300 gallons of propane (as of January 5) and I probably would have used 3,000 gallons so far. I have my wood delivered and split. We stack it here. And I’ve figured the equivalent to 3,000 gallons in propane costs $1,000 in wood.”

Sold On Solar

Ron Marlin, like Webb, used propane to heat his 21,000-square-foot greenhouse facility at Marlin Plant Kingdom in Greenfield, Ind. But a $39,000 heating bill last winter was enough to motivate Marlin to explore alternative heating options. Solar energy had always intrigued him, so he began devising a plan to put solar panels on his property.

Check out photos from Webb Perennials and Marlin Plant Kingdom at

“I started out with engineers from Purdue (University) and explained my theory,” Marlin says. “I wanted to heat water, store it in tanks and then run it back through hot water exchangers at night. I was merely looking to cut my heat bill 10 percent. That was my goal.”

Marlin found solar panels in California through a Northern Indiana company, and he determined he wanted to heat about 5,000 gallons of water for his system. Then, he called a septic tank company about storing his water. And Marlin Plant Kingdom now has two 2,300-gallon above-ground tanks with stone insulation that keeps Marlin’s water warm.

“I plumbed the system so I can turn on two valves, pump the water from the tanks through the (solar) panels and back into the tanks,” Marlin says. “Then, through the valving system, I can shut that off. I can also pump the water through my heat exchangers at night. I was told when the panels were sized to the tank, I could get water as hot as 140 degrees. I haven’t done that yet, but I have had water as high as 130 degrees coming back out of the panels.
“Solar seemed like the best way to go because we were just looking for an offset, not total heat,” Marlin says.

Back To Biomass

Biomass is a popular choice today, but growers have had varying experiences with biomass systems regarding their maintenance and reliability. Grower Direct Farms’ Smith says his operation has had a positive experience with its system so far. But he’s heard varying accounts on biomass based on the source used and the level of investment made.

“We probably would have a lot of trouble here if we didn’t commit to burning high-quality fuel that’s consistent in size, moisture content and ratio between hard wood and soft wood,” Smith says. “Those things contribute to the efficient and predictable operation of a boiler.”

The biomass equipment Grower Direct Farms ultimately purchased was more expensive than competing equipment the operation had priced. And that concerned Grower Direct Farms at first. But once its system got up and running, Smith and others realized they had made a good choice.

“Our chief concern now is having a consistent, reliable, quality fuel source,” Smith says. “Sometimes, I think some of these [systems] are causing more trouble than they need to. Sometimes, less-than-ideal equipment is selected to begin with, and sometimes growers compound the problem by attempting to burn low-quality fuel.”

If wood chips, pellets, logs or another renewable resource separates itself as the highest-quality fuel, Smith expects to see significant market shifts.

“These projects are going to exert market forces we haven’t experienced before,” he says. “At a certain point, when you put up enough facilities that are burning wood chips, the price of wood chips is going to change.”

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