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Wednesday, March 4, 2015 |  Madison, WI: 18.0° F  A Few Clouds
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The promise of prairie pellets
Dane County could lead nation in developing new biofuel source
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Pam Porter, with Jonathan Barry and Mark Doudlah in a field
of switchgrass: '[It's] a great opportunity for Madison and Dane County to
strategically build a renewable-energy system.'
Pam Porter, with Jonathan Barry and Mark Doudlah in a field of switchgrass: '[It's] a great opportunity for Madison and Dane County to strategically build a renewable-energy system.'
Credit:Nicole Miller

Amid fields of corn and soybean near Evansville, Wis., Mark Doudlah grows nearly 1,000 acres of native prairie plants. He harvests the seedpods and isolates the seeds from about 125 species. A few years ago, he also began pelleting and burning the chaff.

"We can't willy-nilly just take the waste outside and spread it around," says Doudlah, president and general manager of Agrecol Corp. "So, we decided to pellet it and burn it to heat our facility. The pellets have replaced the [liquid propane] gas that we used to use, and taken care of the disposal issue that we had."

Biomass pellets, which are so benign you can literally eat them, are a promising source of heating fuel, one Doudlah and others hope the state adds to its portfolio of alternative energy solutions. Not only are the pellets environmentally friendly, but facilities that burn them stand to reap significant cost savings.

Agrecol is a case in point. Founded by Bill Graham in 1991 as a small seed company, it's now the second largest producer of native grasses in the United States. The harvested seeds are processed in a 30,000-square-foot facility, the one Doudlah converted to bioheat.

In just under three years, Doudlah calculates, the whole system - including the biomass grinder, pelleter and boiler system to burn the pellets - paid for itself. Even better, the switchover has made him immune to fluctuations (mostly increases) in the price of heating fuel.

Doudlah's enthusiasm for biofuel runs so deep that, about a year ago, he hired consultant Pamela Porter, owner of Madison's P Squared Group, to assess its chances of succeeding on a larger scale. Porter, who focuses on renewable energy projects, was quickly on board.

"There's this big conversation happening about renewable energy. And there's a great opportunity for Madison and Dane County to strategically build a renewable-energy system to heat buildings using crops and forests in a sustainable way," says Porter, formerly an aide to County Executive Kathleen Falk. "The whole county could be a national example."

Porter secured a grant from the Wisconsin Department of Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Protection to gather some data and crunch some numbers. Joining this effort were Doudlah, Canadian bioheat expert Roger Samson and former Dane County Executive Jonathan Barry, who has long been active in business development.

Recently, the study group issued a report (see the related downloads at right). Its conclusion: Yes, prairie-pellet biofuel can work. And among the group, there's a real sense of urgency as global carbon emissions continue to climb.

"I really want to see things get done," says Porter. "I think we don't have much time."

The report lays out strong economic and environmental arguments in favor of biomass, including that switchgrass yields more net energy per acre than ethanol-destined corn. It goes on to describe four successful bioheat case studies in Wisconsin: Agrecol, for one, but also an elementary school, a state penitentiary and a privately owned greenhouse. All saw their fuel costs drop significantly, on the order of 15% to 60%. The average reduction was 42%.

And while economic drivers are likely to play the biggest role in convincing other facilities to convert, the environmental benefits are also impressive.

"This fuel is carbon-neutral. It has lower greenhouse gas emissions [than fossil fuels]," says Barry, who raises grass-fed beef on his farm in Primrose township. And because biomass can be harvested in the fall, it provides habitat for migratory birds and other wildlife throughout the spring and summer.

Moreover, the deep roots of prairie grasses hold soil in place, keeping Wisconsin's topsoil from washing away, while protecting water quality. This is especially important for Wisconsin farmers with so-called marginal and highly erodible lands, much of which is now enrolled in the federal government's Conservation Reserve Program.

As Isthmus recently reported ("Fallow Farmland Proves Unsustainable," 7/11/08), participation in this program, which pays farmers to keep the land out of production, is declining. With corn selling for around $6 per bushel, it no longer makes economic sense.

But with a bioheat market in place, notes Barry, these farmers would have a third - and better - option. He says growing biomass for heat "looks to double, or maybe triple, income that farmers are getting from CRP."

Should biomass production take off, Doudlah plans to be ready. He is currently developing seed mixes designed to maximize energy yields per acre. "We don't want yet another monoculture, even if it's switchgrass," he says. "We want a prairie."

Such efforts, explains Barry, are part of a grander vision: "The idea is you don't waste anything. Urban construction waste that's going into a landfill should be diverted and pelletized and burned, instead of landfilled. Urban wood waste, which often ends up in landfills, is a candidate for energy generation." Same with residues from agricultural products, like corn stover, soybean hulls and oat hulls.

Says Barry, "We need to start developing an ethic [to utilize] these renewable resources to the greatest extent practicable."

It's true you can't put biomass pellets in your gas tank. But in fact, the majority of energy consumed in Wisconsin, like most other states, goes for heating.

Burning biomass could free up large volumes of natural gas currently being used to generate heat, so it can be used for other purposes, chiefly electricity production. Power plants fueled by natural gas are considered cleaner than coal-fired plants.

And developing the bioheat industry could also help build the infrastructure needed to support another promising biofuel: cellulosic ethanol. This is a liquid fuel made from biomass, instead of corn kernels.

"They'll need a feedstock that is cost-effective and can be delivered to the bio-refineries around the region," says Porter. "We need to start building that feedstock supply chain now. We can't wait until the scientists have said, 'We've figured it out! Now, everybody grow this.'"

Porter thinks it's possible to "jumpstart this market by using these cropping systems now for heating, and when cellulosic ethanol comes along, then perhaps these same feedstocks can be directed toward that new fuel."

To make it work, growers will need long-term contracts to ensure a market for their biomass pellets, and folks looking to install biomass boiler systems need to know there will be pellets to burn. But Porter is optimistic these sorts of agreements can be reached in the near future.

"The governor said that Wisconsin should get 25% of its energy from renewable sources by 2025," she says. "He signed on to the Midwest Governors Association's historic accord, which calls for a carbon cap-and-trade system to be established in the Midwest. There's going to be a presidential election soon.

"I mean, things are happening in the policy arena. Goals and statements are being made. This is a chance to make something happen on the ground in Wisconsin with our wood and cropland."

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