Ontario’s new Green Energy Act has prompted a lot of new interest in the generation of renewable energy, particularly within the agricultural sector. The potential to diversify farming operations or supplement incomes through power generation, has many farmers taking a serious look at these new opportunities. Over the last 2 or 3 years, a growing interest in using perennial grasses (e.g. switchgrass, big bluestem and miscanthus), as a solid biofuel has been in part, driven by the need to replace the coal currently used for power generation with a more environmentally friendly fuel.
Recently, the Ontario Power Generation (OPG), issued a call to gauge interest in supplying up to 2 million tonnes of pelletized biomass to the Nanticoke generating station as a replacement fuel for coal. Additional solid biomass fuel markets include Ontario’s large greenhouse sector, and residential customers with pellet stoves. While these markets present an opportunity for our agricultural sector, there are some significant questions that need to be addressed. Perennial grasses have been grown in southern Ontario as part of land reclamation and environmental stewardship programs, but not as production crops on the scale needed to satisfy OPG’s needs. Research is underway to answer basic questions like: What are the yields of the various grasses being considered? What agronomic practices need to be developed to ensure good crop establishment, growth and harvest? What systems need to be in place to handle and transport this significant amount of biomass, and what will the cost of these systems be? Of course, the most important question is whether growing biomass for energy is economically viable for all parties involved? As more research and analysis is done, the answer to these questions will become more clear in the near future. Stay tuned!
Guest blogger Jim Todd OMAFRA Transition Crops Speciailist