Finding An Alternative

The alternative fuel trend has been around for while now and many growers have tried several fuels to heat their greenhouses. Some have proven efficient and effective, but others aren’t working out as well. We checked back in with Walters Gardens, Zeeland, Mich. The operation has used a biomass burner to supplement natural gas heaters for three years. Here’s a Q&A with Jim Bakker and Susan Martin of Walters Gardens Inc. on how the experiment has gone and what the future holds for alternative fuels.

Q. What alternative fuels are you using (corn, wood, etc.)? What kind of fuel does it replace?

A. Originally, we intended to use corn for fuel in our biomass burner. After working through some difficulties with that and trialing some alternatives, we settled on burning wood pellets. They work very well in our biomass burner, burning with little ash, smoke, smell or waste. Our biomass burner supplements our natural gas heaters. The amount it is used each winter depends on the price of natural gas. This year, natural gas is more expensive so we’ll be using the biomass burner quite a bit more than last year.

Q. Where do you get the materials from?

A. The wood pellets used in our biomass burner are a byproduct from furniture made in a neighboring city, brought in by the semi load, so there is no extra packaging of which to dispose.

Show Me The Money

In June, USDA Rural Development’s Renewable Energy and Energy Efficiency program dispersed funds to 20 individuals and businesses for renewable or efficient energy systems. The grants totaled $1.52 million.

“This funding is part of USDA’s ongoing effort to help farmers and businesses invest in technology that will improve their efficiency and their bottom line,” Agriculture Deputy Secretary Chuck Conner says. “Investments such as these help conserve energy, as well as help small businesses.”

For example, JRT Focus Farms Ltd. in Rock Rapids, Iowa, has been selected to receive a $37,267 loan and $37,266 grant to add a geothermal system for the farm’s shop and office to make the farm’s operations more energy efficient.

More information on programs is available at a local USDA Rural Development office or by visiting USDA’s Web site at

Q. Have you seen a cost savings versus traditional fuels? If so, how much? How do you see this type of heating impacting your future heating budgets?

A. During an average winter, we use the biomass burner from November to April to supplement our natural gas heaters by about 15 to 20 percent when they are running. It helps by doing a “peak shave” to even out the draw and keep the furnaces from firing as often. The combination of the use of the biomass burner, the energy curtains in our modern greenhouses and a reduction in greenhouse temperatures has resulted in a 13 percent per-day savings in energy costs. This is despite the fact that the cost of natural gas increased by 25 percent per CCF in the year of record. How the biomass burner will impact our future heating budgets will depend on the cost of both natural gas and wood pellets. It varies annually based on these costs.

Q. We’ve reported on energy grants Walters received while working with grant writer Chris Byrnes at Viability LLC. Did you receive any other grants or funds for alternative energy? If so, from where?

A. No, I don’t think we’ve applied for any others since that time.

Q. What new equipment did this project require? Who was the supplier?

A. Quite a bit of new equipment was required for this project. In addition to the actual biomass burner and a building in which to house it, we also had to purchase a storage facility and delivery system for the fuel, heat exchangers and a multi-cyclone dust collecting system for air quality purposes. This equipment was purchased through multiple suppliers. The biomass burner was purchased from Decker Manufacturing in Canada.

Q. If you had to do it again, would you do the same thing? What would you do differently?

A. We’ve learned our fair share along the way but overall we feel it was a good investment. When we originally trialed burning corn in a smaller biomass burner, it was very easy and burned well. Unfortunately, this did not translate when we used it in the full-size burner. We had to change out many pieces of equipment in order to adapt the system to burn something other than corn, so of course there was quite a bit of cost associated with that. The wood pellets are burning very well for us now, but if at some point in the future they become too expensive, we will likely have to adapt the system again to burn something different.

It’s important to understand that the biomass burner is a long-term investment; it takes a number of years to recoup your costs, and that depends on the fluctuating price of fuel. One must be patiently optimistic and flexible to pursue such a project. In the end, it is worth it.

Q. What is the fuel of the future for greenhouses? Why?

A. It would be impossible to predict one particular fuel that is the “fuel of the future” because conditions are constantly changing and the cost of fuels are different every year. When we began our biomass burner project, corn cost about $1.75 per bushel. Next year, that same bushel of corn is projected to cost $7.50 per bushel. Who could have predicted that? The bottom line is that you have to be flexible, have several back up plans in place and roll with the punches.

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