When Andrew Plant sees agricultural fields in Maine sitting idle, he worries that another farm has gone under. He also envisions an alternative that could literally and figuratively fuel farms in the state and give them a future.
That alternative is energy in the form of perennial grasses planted, harvested and sold to make compressed biofuel pellets. Grass pellets, also being studied in Europe and Canada, have the potential to establish a new bioenergy industry in Maine, create a valuable crop for Maine farmers and reduce energy costs for state residents.
And from where Plant sits in Aroostook County — a vast agricultural region in which so many farms have been abandoned in recent decades because of high operating costs — there’s no time to waste.
“It’s about finding an alternative crop to improve the economic climate for farmers while developing a resource that can be used by the general population — economic development and an environmentally friendly, renewable resource,” says Plant, a University of Maine Cooperative Extension educator based in Houlton. “Aroostook County has gone from producing 150,000 acres of potatoes in the 1950s to 50,000 today. Just driving any of the major traffic routes through the county, you see the old farmlands sitting idle, becoming useless or being developed as house lots.”
For the past two years, Plant has been researching the use of perennial grasses or straw left from small grain rotations as solid fuel crops. The development and commercialization of such sustainable energy crops could give farmers another source of income and lower-cost energy.
Now Plant and Michael Bilodeau, director of UMaine’s Process Development Center, are spearheading a Biomass Engineered Fuel Project, a $1.65 million initiative recently funded by the Maine Technology Asset Fund linking UMaine research and development with Maine farmers, energy consumers, companies and entrepreneurs to develop and commercialize biomass fuel. In the next four years, the project will focus on the manufacturing efficiencies of converting energy crops to solid biofuel, and testing that biofuel for performance, combustion efficiency and ultimate commercial potential.
The goal is to prototype a commercial-scale demonstration facility in Aroostook County — the first of its kind in the Northeast. Grass pellets will be beta tested in commercial biomass systems in the state. Several Maine companies have expressed interest in operating biofuel production facilities and licensing the technology.
The pellet and boiler technology will be refined to find what works best in homes. With a commercial demonstration mill in Maine, a grass pellet product for household sales could be possible five years later.
Aroostook County farms are signing on to be “biomass growers,” planting energy crops as part of their rotations, or on fallow ground they have around the farm.
UMaine researchers say the annual economic impact of a single commercial pellet mill in northern Maine is expected to be between $17 million and $23 million. With potential for 25 pellet mills statewide, the overall economic impact is projected to be more than $500 million annually, possibly replacing more than 100 million gallons of home heating oil each year.
“We don’t see much of the dollars spent on imported oil,” Plant says. “But if we consider something locally grown, harvested, processed and utilized, almost every dollar involved stays in Maine.”