Meach Cove Farms, a 1,000-acre organic farm in Shelburne, Vermont, is no stranger to exploring and using local, renewable resources to offset oil-based heating. After all, they’ve been running wood pellet boilers since 2007, are one of the state’s five test sites for seed trials of grass species, and have established important connections and collaborations with regional and national biomass experts and institutions, including SUNY Canton, Cornell University and the University of Vermont.
But when the farm received a Conservation Innovation Grant from the United States Department of Agriculture’s Natural Resources Conservation Service in 2011, its staff kicked things up a notch.
Researching Grass as a Fuel
The grant (60% farm contribution / 40% USDA matching contribution) is helping Meach Cove Farm research, purchase and evaluate a 100,000 to 500,000 BTU boiler capable of burning grass pellets for heat. The grant will also help the farm research and grow promising grass varietals, representing a major step forward in the search for renewable alternatives to fossil fuels. The trouble, says Christopher Davis, manager of Meach Cove Farms, was finding an adequately sized boiler that fit all of his criteria and increasingly strict EPA standards.
The Meach Cove Farms project builds upon previous research on grass fuel combustion heating systems conducted by the Cornell College of Agriculture, the Hudson Valley Grass Energy Group, the Environmental Protection Agency, the Biomass Energy Resource Corporation (BERC) and others, which shows that grass fuel has 80-90% of the energy content of wood and produces 70% less greenhouse gas emissions than fossil fuels. Recent studies also demonstrate that grass can be harvested and pelletized at costs comparable to fuel oil (approximately $2.50 per gallon).
Choosing the Right Boiler
Davis spent a full year choosing the right boiler. He knew he wanted one that would not only be efficient and affordable, but also locally supported. He says that although there are a limited number of wood pellet boilers on the market that can burn pelletized grass, most come with issues including high ash content and unacceptable particulate emissions.
So one by one, he had to rule out all 15 possibilities on his short list.
“German, Austrian and Swedish models are all very good, but there is no software or technical support here in the states. And many models state in bold, black letters on the warranty that the warranty is null and void if you burn anything other than wood chips or pellets,” Davis says.
In April 2013, Davis attended the Northeast Biomass Heating Conference & Expo in Saratoga Springs, New York. There, he met representatives from Renewable Energy Resources (RER), a biomass supply company that helps businesses and municipalities install and maintain renewable energy systems.
“I explained my project to the RER guys, and they said, ‘We think we can get you a boiler that will meet your needs,’” Davis says. That boiler was the EvoWorld 350c dual wood chip and pellet boiler.
“The guys at Evoworld were open to and supportive of seeing if their equipment could burn grass pellets, and they were eager to prove it out and help us troubleshoot along the way,” Davis says. “What’s more, the boiler was manufactured in Troy — only three hours from Meach Cove Farms. That was a big selling point. Many of the boilers I was looking at up to that point were manufactured overseas.”
Davis placed an order for the Evoworld boiler in September 2013 and took delivery in January 2014. To date, he has run it with great success on premium wood pellets. Heating season begins again in October, and Davis plans to begin test burning the farm’s store of standard (1/8” diameter) grass pellets this winter after boiler room certifications are completed. In addition, RER will soon manufacture 2” diameter “pucks” that Davis will test in the boiler.
Over the next year, Meach Cove Farms will collect and analyze the data Davis obtains from the boiler’s grass pellet combustion process, work with EvoWorld to put necessary modifications into production, and make data public so agricultural, commercial and small industrial consumers can benefit from reliable, efficient grass-burning boilers. Davis says the farm will continue to evaluate grass species and pellet/puck sizes over the next several heating seasons to help farmers select and grow the cleanest and most efficient grass species for commercially available heating equipment.
“Working with Evoworld has been very positive. They’re a ‘can-do’ company that offers the service and support that is helping us get our equipment ready to run,” Davis says. “They are open-minded, and they know that ours is not an easy project, but they are confident in their product and they convinced me. They want to make this work as much as we do.”