Date: September 14, 2011
Green thumbs drive green energy
By Don McCabe, vice president, Ontario Federation of Agriculture
At its core, agriculture provides the food, fuel and fibre we all need to survive. And as the agriculture and food industry continues to innovate and diversify, there is a growing trend to use crop production to generate energy. This shift to green energy options, from the products of primary production, is no real surprise - farmers have always been resourceful and committed to protecting the environment.
Biomass is one of the newest sources of green energy that could transform Ontario’s agricultural industry, introducing new field crops that bring new market opportunities. As a renewable energy source, biomass refers to any plant matter used to generate electricity, usually by direct combustion. In Ontario, miscanthus and switchgrass are perennial grasses often used as biomass energy crops. Once harvested, these crops are processed into pellets to create an efficient form of fuel that is easy to transport.
While this is an exciting new opportunity for farmers and for the production of green energy, it is still a new area of agriculture that needs a closer look to understand how it fits in Ontario’s agricultural landscape. That’s why the Ontario Federation of Agriculture (OFA) is examining the use of agricultural biomass for combustion purposes at co-fired facilities with natural gas or combined heat and power furnaces. The most efficient use of biomass is to extract all its valuable components and nutrients before combustion, this maximizes the farm gate value, but needs further research to refine the process. Biomass combustion is a new and evolving green source of energy and electricity.
OFA’s current research is examining three important areas of biomass production:
• Review of studies on agronomic practices
• Nutrient extraction and recycling
• An economic assessment
For growers to take advantage of some of these new biomass crops, current agronomic practices may have to be adjusted. Ontario farmers must learn about growing conditions, crop selection, yield and environmental impacts of biomass crops. That’s why the OFA is studying agronomic practices to better understand what it takes to grow these crops, and offer valuable information to farmers interested in this type of green energy production.
Biomass crops contain a high level of nutrients like nitrogen and potassium that are great fertilizers for soil, but can be harmful to the thermal combustion process. Studies are underway to devise a process to remove these important nutrients and recycle them back into the soil.
Like any new business venture, growing biomass crops requires a plan and cost analysis. And OFA is assessing the economics of this new market opportunity, looking at the production, processing, transportation and end market use of biomass crops. This green energy crop has a lot of potential, but will also be competing with some of our existing energy sources, especially natural gas. In fact, natural gas is likely to remain the preferred fuel source for electricity generation for the next 25 years, making biomass a more expensive option. However, biomass is a more environmentally friendly energy source and will provide greater benefits to farmers and our overall society.
Energy, especially reliable, renewable sources, is among the top lobbying efforts of the OFA right now. OFA supports biomass production and will continue lobbying the provincial government for its support. In the meantime, OFA continues to research this green energy source and the role it can play in opening new market opportunities for Ontario farmers. For more information please visit OFA’s website ofa.on.ca. The innovative spirit that drives Ontario's farmers means biomass crops are likely to find their way into the diverse mix of agricultural products that feed, cloth and fuel us all.