Plainview Growers’ Biomass System And Alternative Fuels Are Funded By Grants

Plainview Growers' Biomass System And Alternative Fuels Are Funded By Grants

Northeastern growers ushered in the new year by firing up alternative energy systems. These include biomass burning boilers for heat and wind turbines to generate electricity.

In January, Arie van Vugt, owner of Plainview Growers fired up his new 500-hp Crone boiler from Holland in Allamuchy, N.J. While he is burning wood pellets this year and next, he will be planting 200 acres of miscanthus grass and harvesting his own fuel to pelletize and burn.

“Arie and his sons are independently minded,” says Peter Stuyt, vice president of Total Energy Group, who worked with Plainview on the project. “Their goal is to take themselves off the grid, grow their own crop and add pelletizing. They are talking about buying another boiler already.” In addition to supplying the boiler technology, Total Energy Group has been providing growers access to equipment to produce their own fuel, as well as connections to fuel sources.

“Of course we all want to sell biomass burning boilers to greenhouse growers, but first we need to make sure they will have fuel to burn,” Total Energy Group’s Vice President Gregory Gawne says. “We spent all of 2008 promoting our densification equipment (pellet line) all across the United States and Canada. We focused on five main groups of fuel sources–agricultural residues, packaging byproducts, prupose grown crops, construction and demolition materials and the wood industry. Being able to establish feedstocks has allowed us to travel to some states that may not have been able to source enough alternative fuel for densification. Anywhere there is a large waste stream that has carbon value, we can give them an alternative to a landfill.”

 Stuyt says he’s proud Total Energy Group is able to contribute to the industry and energy independence of our nation. “It’s a joke that the majority of our fuels comes from countries that are unstable and even hostile to us,” he says. “Long term, our view on this with oil and gas price fluctuations, is anything new that comes online will go to power plants that are gas fired and every single one takes a huge part of the supply. The price is less flexible. Our biofuels are still competitive with where oil is now, especially when you start growing it yourself. If you have 200-300 acres to do that, you’re in the game already. That’s the ultimate goal.”

Van Vugt expects his return on investment to be four years.

Stoking More Fires

Also last month, Bob Rice, president and CEO of Bio-Fuel Technologies, was finishing up five biomass boiler installations in New England, including Geremiah Greenhouses, J. DeFrancesco & Son and Montgomery Rose. With these boilers, growers have the versatility to burn the fuel that’s available at the least cost, whether it is coal, wood, corn, manure, walnut shells, coconut shells, food wastes or agricultural wastes. “I don’t care what you want to burn, we can do it,” he says.

While recent installations have been boilers that produce 10 million BTUs (British Thermal Units), Rice sees great opportunity to supply smaller boilers that produce 65,000 to 3 million BTUs and would make the technology more accessible to smaller operations. Bio-Fuel Technologies also has partnered with a company that specializes in high pressure steam-powered turbines to generate electricity. Growers can use the steam from the boilers to do this, cogenerating heat and electricity.

Look Before You Leap

Jim Rearden, CEO of Trueleaf Technologies, works with growers on both conventional heating systems and those using alternative fuels. He and his partners ask grower clients probing questions before they commit to an alternative fuels systems.

“From my perspective, we’re a heating engineering company and believe the least cost way to effectively condition a greenhouse is the right way. When the best decisions are made, we do what it takes to integrate controls, selection valves, mixing, pumping and water storage,” Rearden says. “We’re in favor of anything that’s profitable, efficient and sustainable.”

Related to the heightened interest in alternative fuels, Rearden says growers are best served looking at their facilities and utilizing the energy they have versus running around looking for corn and wood to burn.”The hysteria bothers me. If you jump into urban waste and wood pallets, that’s dirty fuel to begin with, and there’s variability in the fuel source. Alternative fuel may not be sustainable if it pollutes. Is burning sawdust green?” he asks “Corn was hot but it became expensive and cost as much as natural gas. If you’re installing the infrastructure to deliver the fuel, store it and keep it in condition, you’re doing all the things done by a utility company, when you should have been growing plants, working on marketing and pricing strategies and things that are more germane to what growers ought to be doing.”

Alternative fuel is not just new equipment but a whole new department in the company with staffing and infrastructure, a driveway for vehicles to deliver masses to burn, he adds. “Who’s to say you couldn’t invest the money and get a huge return and improved crop without having to get into the utility business? Start in the greenhouse and look around. Could you save the same money by investing in energy curtains and a better control system? It’s a much bigger question than a lot of growers are framing it as.”

John Bonner of Eagle Creek Wholesale in Mantua, Ohio, who invested in a biomass burner, created another division of the company supplying wood to themselves and other growers along with mulch to landscapers. “When you make a decision to commit to alternative fuels, there are secondary effects,” he says. “We had to buy a loader for wood and spend $10,000-15,000 more for labor, but if the people are here anyway, that’s not a bad thing. Alternative fuel is not turn-key like a gas valve. There are things to deal with. Don’t bother if you think it will be simple.”

Rice also is working with a company to offer carbon credits. In this scenario, a company that purchases carbon credits would pay the grower a certain amount to support the alternative fuel system. “Those who buy carbon credits would write checks for the installations,” he says. “We will take care of our grower customers who have installations first and then the ones who are installing.”

For more on installing a Bio-Fuel system,

Going For Grants

In our February issue, we presented an article on Pleasant View Gardens’ new biomass boiler at its Pembroke, N.H., location, which is expected to reduce heating costs by 85 percent. The company received a $500,000 grant from USDA to put toward the $2 million project. President Henry Huntington says he expects a return in investment within four years. The Huntingtons will be burning locally supplied wood instead of fuel oil.

Grower Direct Farms owned by Leonard Van Wingerden in Somers, Conn., received $1.35 million in USDA Rural Development funds to install a wood chip burning boiler to replace six oil-fueled burners, according to the Connecticut Greenhouse Growers Association. While $500,000 was a grant, the remaining $850,000 was a loan made possible through the agency’s Renewable Energy Systems and Energy Efficiency Improvements Program (RE/EE).

The 2008 Farm Bill made energy a priority with dedicated funding through 2012 and the grant cycle is beginning again for 2009. RE/EE has been expanded as Section 9007: Rural Energy for America Program (REAP). For REAP, the Farm Bill provides $55 million for 2009, $60 million for 2010 and $70 million for 2011 and 2012. Under the expansion, hydroelectric source technologies will be eligible, along with energy audits. Loan limits have been increased, too. Grant application deadlines have not been posted yet. For more information, visit www.rurdev.usda.gov/rbs/.

Stuyt says funds have been available but hidden away in government departments. He would like to see leading industry trade organizations dig these resources up and make them available to members. It would be up to growers to follow through with the application process. “My hope is the process will be more accessible and simplified to make it attractive to smaller operators–getting money to places it will do the most good” he says. “Otherwise, money will be going to multimillion dollar operations.”

Wind Catchers 

While most of the installations have related to heating, more growers and retailers are harnessing wind to generate electricity. Hyannis Country Garden, a full-service nursery and garden center on Cape Cod, invited the public to a dedication ceremony for its Northwind 100 Wind Turbine, which is expected to cover 92 percent of its electrical needs. The champion of this project is Diana Duffley, who owns the business with her brothers and sister. Her dream began five years ago when she visited ocean and land-based wind farms in Denmark. Amazed, she said, “Wow! Look at all these little farms running on wind!”

But she knew initiating something like this on the cape would not be easy. Wealthy residents have been fighting a large-scale 130-turbine project proposed by Cape Wind Association to generate 420 megawatts of electricity from wind in Nantucket Sound. “There are a lot of wind haters on Cape Cod, but what I saw in Denmark energized me to do a wind project and get people used to the idea of wind power,” she says. “I think the turbines are quite graceful and beautiful, but others think it will look like an industrial complex.”

It was a daunting process because there were no bylaws on how to install a wind turbine locally. Duffley also invested a lot of time in community outreach and working with Cape and Islands Self Reliance Corporation. She even floated helium balloons to demonstrate the height of the proposed turbines and conducted noise tests and flicker studies to assure neighbors the turbine blades would not create shadows over any home or business.

The turbine was manufactured by Northern Power in Barre, Vt. It’s about 120 feet tall with rotors extending 34 feet and powered by a passively cooled permanent magnet, direct drive generator, eliminating a gearbox and transmission. The $420,000 project includes $300,000 for the turbine, $100,000 for design, installation and maintenance, and $20,000 for legal and insurance costs. To pay for it, Duffley secured a $225,000 grant from Massachusett Technology Collaborative, a $47,500 grant from USDA and a commercial loan for $150,000.

This turbine could power 25 homes. While Hyannis Country Garden uses 200,000 kilowatts of electricity a year, the turbine is expected to generate 186,000 kilowatts. On windy days, the retailer will be able to export green kilowatts into the utility grid and receive full credit for them. Duffley will also be able to sell green kilowatts to other companies. “Companies that use coil, oil and gas and need a green portfolio have to purchase green green energy,” she says. “I can sell them kilowatts for 3.5 to 4.5 cents and collect $7,000 a year.”

Duffley’s next green initiatives include solar roof panels, powering tractors with biodeisel fuel and starting a plastic container recycling program. Beyond economic incentives, green energy seals the deal with the green consumer. “We sell green and we are green,” she says. “It was one of the greatest things that ever happened. Every day another positive thing happens. I can’t stop smiling every time I see the blades turning.”

Duffley will be part of a panel facilitated by Jeff Warschauer of Nexus Greenhouse Systems discussing alternative power at OFA’s Short Course on Sunday, July 13, in Columbus, Ohio. For more information, visit www.ofa.org.

Grower John Bonner of Eagle Creek Wholesale in Mantua, Ohio, also is installing two wind turbines after gaining two years experience with a biomass burner for heating. One unintended consequence of the alternative fuel system was a 25 percent increase in electricity usage. “The first turbine will cover 40 to 50 percent of our electrical needs and with a second one, 80 percent will be covered,” he says, adding that he secured grants from USDA and Ohio Department of Development that should cover up to 80 percent of the costs. 

Multiple grant sources can increase the odds of receiving funding. “When we apply for one, we have the other write a letter of cooperation, stating they are reviewing the proposal,” Bonner says. “The granting agencies demand to know you will complete the funding.”

Reflecting on his experience with the biomass heating the past two years, Bonner says he takes a long view for the return. “Don’t evaluate it in a three-year period but over 25 years,” he advises. “If you evaluate it that way, you’ll be really happy. It’s strictly an investment. Let’s say you save 20 percent over 25 years as an internal rate of return. If gas increases and electricity goes up, and I think we can safely say they’re going to, we’re going to evaluate the investment as a good investment.

More important than the heating and electric bills is the opportunities and competitive advantages created. “The low-cost heating creates opportunities for us to grow things others don’t want to grow because of heating costs,” Bonner says. “We’re generating more revenue per acre now. We’re growing more ferns, Easter crops and long crops in the winter. We’re getting 7 to 8 percent more revenue per acre per year because of it.”

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