Green Fingers I Wish

Monday, November 06, 2006

Grasses to be turned in to fuel?

The native grasses growing in the area's barren farm fields may be heating homes in a few years - and providing local farmers with an unexpected cash crop, a local wildlife biologist says.

All that's needed are machines that turn the grass into fuel pellets, and a Lackawanna County organization is already working on that.

The grass pellet fuel is cheaper and cleaner than oil and wooden chips, said Scott Singer, of the Natural Resources Conservation Service.

Canadians and Europeans have been warming their homes for years by burning grass pellets, said Singer. But the pellets are not sold yet in the United States.

Planting more grasses like switch grass, big bluestem and Indian grass, which all can be made into pellets, will benefit farmers, wildlife and the environment, said Singer, who is based in the NRCS office on Sawmill Road.

Those grasses, native to this country, can grow in many types of soil, and they can survive both droughts and floods, the scientist said.

"They're very tolerant of extreme conditions," he said, adding that they use just half the amount of water and nutrients as plants used for making hay.

For flood-prone areas, farmers can plant native grasses such as Eastern gama grass and coastal panic grass, Singer said.

During winter, farmers can leave the grasses outside.

Snow and rain wash away the chlorine, potassium and silica that don't burn well, said Singer, adding that the grasses become better fuel.

After two years, the grasses reach their mature height of 8 feet. During spring, they'll be ready for harvest because the weather dries them.

That saves time for farmers, who can pack the grasses into bales right away. That's much faster than hay, which takes days to dry, said Singer.

One acre usually yields 2 1/2 to 3 tons of grasses, said Singer, adding that it can also range as high as 10 tons.

The grasses grow back on their own, so farmers don't need to plant seeds again, the scientist said.

Also farmers don't have to worry about erosion. The grass roots, which can reach 10 feet deep, hold the soil in place, said Singer.

Birds and other animals benefit, too, when farmers grow more acres of grasses, the biologist said. The vegetation gives cover to wildlife during most of the year.

During spring, new grasses will grow and replace the harvested ones.

Some area farmers already have the grasses growing in fields that the state and federal governments pay them to keep from farming or selling.

People have planted 7,961 acres of native grasses in the two counties since 1999 as part of the Conservation Reserve Enhancement Program, according to federal statistics. That's the area of about 35 Bloomsburg Fairgrounds.

Landowners and renters get paid every year for maintaining parts of their land as wildlife habitats.

To stay in the program, participants must leave the grasses alone for 10 to 15 years.

Several years from now, some people can leave the program when their contracts expire.

Their acres of native grasses will be ready for harvest. Singer plans to tell them about the benefits of making grass pellets.

Grass pellets, like wooden ones, are burned in stoves.

Both types of fuel cost between $150 and $300 per ton, but prices for the wooden ones have been rising, said Singer.

Seventy-five to 100 pounds of grass pellets can heat a 2,000-square-foot home for more than a day, said Singer.

Two to 5 tons of grass pellets can heat that home for an entire year, he added.

For now, most stoves can burn wood but not corn or grass. That's because the latter produce a different type of ash that the stoves cannot handle.

However, American manufacturers are making more stoves that can burn grass, said Singer.

Stoves that can burn grass cost between $2,000 and $4,000, and furnaces and boilers cost between $5,000 and $10,000.

Singer plans to install a grass-burning boiler in his Millville home.

Source:- Mercury News


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