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Fostering Transition, Creating Jobs, Saving Money

by Bob Nuner
Sarah Galbraith manages the Vermont Bioenergy Initiative (VBI) of the Vermont Sustainable Jobs Fund (VSJF), known for sustainable agriculture programs such as “Farm to Plate.” The initiative was funded through a United States Department of Energy appropriation, secured by Senator Patrick Leahy in 2005. It expires at the end of 2015. Its goal is to create jobs in sustainable agriculture and sustainable energy, investigating new frontiers in bioenergy.
Currently, VBI is focusing on three areas of biofuels: oilseeds, grass and algae. Galbraith notes that while plenty happens in Vermont in sustainable energy, e.g., using anaerobic digestion or landfill methane to generate power, there are areas of market uncertainty where VBI can help reduce risk. Opportunities may be evident, but obstacles bedevil market development.
VBI’s most successful project involves oilseeds. About 16 Vermont farms make their own biodiesel from sunflowers, soybeans or canola. Ten growers near Alburgh are making their own fuel for their operations. This will be their fourth year, growing oil crops like sunflowers and processing seeds into oil and meal at UVM Extension’s affiliate, Alburgh’s Borderview Farm. One 800-cow dairy, Galbraith says, has slashed its fuel bill using oilseed-sourced biodiesel, and the farm also uses the leftover pressed seed meal as a nutritious, protein-rich feed ration. Alternatively, she notes, Jon Satz of Wood’s Market Garden in southern Vermont uses the leftover pressings from his 40 acres of sunflowers to build soil nutrients.
When petroleum prices spike, biodiesel makes particular sense, especially when it’s not a product of monocropping but an integrated element in farm activity. Vermont farms moving to home-grown biodiesel for their tractors pay about $2.50–$2.60 a gallon for their fuel, a cost savings, especially when fossil fuel prices climb.
Galbraith notes hopeful signs of large-scale customers getting on the biodiesel bandwagon. VBI’s intention is to help local entities, such as government or larger businesses, switch to biodiesel for both transportation and heating. Supplies would come from local farmers, keeping dollars in the local economy. “Signs are good that that’s going to happen in the next couple of years, based on who’s interested and who’s talking about it,” she says.
Another example of VBI’s market-risk reduction work is its research in grass as fuel. Galbraith remembers her years with the Biomass Energy Resource Center (BERC), when, “hardly a week went by that someone didn’t ask, ‘What about grass?’” given the many small plots of land that folks hate to see turning to brush. “These gears have been turning all along. At BERC, we didn’t have the answers, and it’s really neat to be in this role now, where I can put the answers together, and see, ‘does that work?’”
VBI works with the Vermont Grass Energy Partnership, of which BERC, Vermont Technical College, VSJF and UVM are members. That partnership has been looking at grass energy since 2007 or 2008, “getting all the experts in the same room to start to ask the right questions,” she says. “Is the combustion technology available? There was a partnership on the combustion technology back then. Now, the VSJF is partnering with an engineering firm to question what sort of model works well for the resource, looking at the state of the science, creating a language around the technology. Then, the next step is to do some economic feasibility work. Does it make financial sense?”
The signs seem hopeful: “The thing around grass that we have going for us is that we know how to grow grass very well here. We have the know-how. We also have researchers in Vermont who’ve been doing it for years, and can tell you exactly how to do it well, which species to seed, how to prepare the land, how to treat the crop, when to harvest, all that kind of stuff … We have the know-how; we have the resources and infrastructure.”
Galbraith notes that it takes three years to establish grass stands, and there are specific strategies for growing grass as fuel—among them, not over-supplying nutrients to the crop. At the same time, one needs to have appropriate technologies to handle grass pellet fuels. The market will have to do both simultaneously. VBI’s role is to work both sides of the equation, facilitating contracts so farmers can rest assured they’ll have customers for their crops as well as technical support, and potential grass fuel users can be assured of their fuel supplies through long-term contracts.
Finally, in algae, VBI is working with UVM and the private firm GSR Solutions, LLC, supporting lab-scale efforts to identify oil-producing algae strains.
“The entire crux of what we do here,” Galbraith emphasizes, “is to showcase that on-farm or local biodiesel production can happen in conjunction with sustainable agriculture.” The approach is a long way from the oft-criticized industrial ethanol industry and its attendant food-versus-fuel controversies. The production model promoted and pursued by VBI, Galbraith notes, is an operation on a very different scale with a very different impact on the local economy—one that encourages crop rotation, builds healthy soils, and focuses on on-farm energy production and use.