Making Money Grow From Trees

Switchgrass Pellets

Recently, we wrote about Senator Angus King’s proposed Biomass Thermal Utilization Act of 2013 (or “BTU Act”—see article here).  While we await progress of the bill, the discussion of fuel crops—crops grown with the purpose of being used for biofuel—arises and, we think, could use some attention.

There are many benefits to using biomass including saving both money and the environment.  That’s not all though; biomass has the ability to generate money, and inspire the economy by providing employment, saving consumers money (compared to prices of traditional forms of heating), and reducing foreign oil dependence.  According to this article by the Kennebec Journal, 78 cents of every dollar spent on heating oils leaves the US.  Wood pellets are half the cost and most, if not all, of the money stays in Maine.

Corn is used as a fuel crop in the Mid West, however, growing corn can be a nuisance and the ethanol yield isn’t always justified by the effort and resources expended (It takes 26.1 pounds of corn to make one gallon of ethanol).  Corn is not a perennial crop; it requires replanting annually, and to be ready for harvest, it requires a warm temperature, rich soil (which means excessive amounts fertilizer) and regular, even watering.

When referring to fuel crops, we’re focusing on varieties of plants that Maine climate is conducive to, such as Switch Grass and Miscanthus.  Both are relatively inexpensive to grow, as they are hearty, requiring minimal fertilizer.  They produce a high yield and heat very efficiently.  The University of Maine has already worked to convert plants to fuel, which can be read about here. Similar in climate, Canada has grown thousands of acres of fuel crops for many years.  When pelletized, they are excellent fuels with virtually undetectable differences from wood pellets.

If the BTU Act passes, this could mean positive changes for Maine’s economy.  It will provide a significant tax credit to acquire a biomass stove/boiler, which could be the difference for residents who have difficulties affording to heat their homes. The unintended impact on agriculture would be growing fuels for local and export usage.