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Winter 2009 Issue of the Finger Lake Sierran

Grass Pellets as a Sustainable Home Heating Fuel

by Patrick Brown
Member, Finger Lakes Group Executive Committee

Today much attention is being paid to biofuels for home heating. Although wood is plentiful, renewable and inexpensive (the price has doubled in many areas in the last few years) it has shortcomings for many. It is, labor intensive, messy and takes storage space. Therefore many "wood burners" have turned to pellet and/or corn fired heaters. This has led to wood pellets becoming expensive. Using corn has its drawbacks: variance in price, raising the price of and diverting corn used for food, storage can attract vermin and there is a combustion problem. Heaters burned for long periods on a low setting can develop globs of very hard residue in the ashes which is hard to remove.

These are some of the reasons studies and trials are underway to develop a "grass pellet" (i.e. a pellet formed by pressing chopped grasses into a form similar to wood pellets). A number of perennial grasses (i.e. switch) are being studied by Cornell. Penn State and other large agriculture colleges. They feel large scale production of these products will be of a benefit to agriculture and the rural economy, as well as ecologically attractive. The agricultural benefits are that these grasses can be grown on “marginal" agricultural lands with very low input of lime and fertilizers and no, or very minimal, pesticide/insecticide requirements, current farm machinery can be used, and since they are perennials, there is minimal soil disturbance and erosion. Unlike corn used for fuel, there is no diversion of food crops, tilling is minimal, and fertilizer and pesticide usage is less.

Switch grass cultivation will actually build up soils. 60-80% of their biomass develops in the root systems of the plant and the once a year harvesting of the above ground plant does not disturb this perennially growing biomass. The prairie soils were developed by the growth of very similar grasses. Native grasses grew on the windblown silts, which were the base soils of the mid-west, and as the root biomass grew and mixed in, loams resulted. Harvesting of the above ground plants was done by grazing animals and fires.

Development of this type of agricultural enterprise(s) does have its' drawbacks. Planting all grass in fields which are now mixed grasses, weeds and brush will do harm to certain birds, insects, and small animals. However there are many species of meadow/grassland birds which prefer grasslands for nesting materials, cover, seeds etc. Small rodents, and those who prey on them, do also.

Homeowners burning grass pellets will have to deal with the problem of the hard residue produced. Fortunately research indicates adding 20% wood pellets to the grass pellets will prevent this. This cannot be done with a stove set up to burn corn— the fuel "feeding" apparatus used in a stove set up to burn corn cannot accept wood pellets.

Currently grass pellets are not being produced for sale to the homeowner in NYS even though there are pellet stoves which can use them as fuel. There is a lot of money and research going into developing them as an environmentally friendly, locally produced product that may soon be available. With all of the advantages and the interest it has stirred, it will be interesting to see how grass pellet fuel develops.