Doug Otto 2017-04-27 01:59:43
The many challenges of rural development, environmental sustainability, and energy independence will continue to be a national priority regardless of the pressing political urgency of the day. To tackle these challenges, institutions such as the State University of New York College of Environmental Science and Forestry (SUNY ESF) have drawn support from the U.S. Department of Energy and other partners to research and facilitate the commercialization of shrub willow and other woody biomass crops. Research on woody biomass crops for renewable energy and environmental applications has been prolific and revealed that these crops can be converted into different forms of renewable energy and environmentally friendly products that offset the use of non-renewable fossil fuels. Co-firing harvested wood chips with other fuel sources, called gasification, can produce heat and electricity from direct combustion. Fossil fuel energy is still required to produce biomass crops. However, for every unit of fossil fuel energy used, about 15 units of renewable electricity are produced, or about 30 units of renewable heat and electricity through cogeneration. Wood pellets, liquid biofuels, biodegradable plastics, and other green products can also be produced from woody biomass. In addition to the environmental benefits, the end uses of woody biomass provide local and regional economic benefits, including income for landowners and jobs in the local community, when these crops are converted into renewable energy and products. The production cycle for shrub willow is relatively straightforward. After site preparation and planting with a special willow planter, the plants are cut to ground level, called coppicing, when they become dormant after the first growing season. Coppicing encourages vigorous growth and more stems per plant. Willow can grow up to ten feet in a single growing season, and a well-established root system helps the plant grow back quickly. After that, the crop can be harvested once every three to four years. A mature crop is 15 to 20 feet tall with stems that are one to two inches in diameter. Maintenance is drastically reduced after the crop is established, and each harvest yields about 25 to 30 wet tons per acre. Harvesting shrub willow is the most expensive operation in the biomass production cycle. Research suggests that it accounts for about 30% of costs over the +20-year life cycle of the crop. In the past, willow harvesting operations had problems with equipment durability, chip size, and other technical details, adding even more cost to the equation. CNH Industrial participates in studies of renewable energy crops and the equipment needed to produce and harvest them. The company’s innovation team has been working with willow, along with other biomass crops such as eucalyptus, in south Florida and Brazil, and with poplar in Europe and the U.S. Northwest, where poplar is also used for pulp. The company has also partnered with Iowa State University and Penn State University on miscanthus, and with Penn State on corn stover. In addition, for more than 13 years, CNH Industrial has partnered with SUNY ESF to research and optimize the logistics of transporting biomass materials. SUNY ESF’s research played an integral role in the development of the New Holland 130FB coppice header. The header has been tested with the New Holland FR Series forage harvester to improve the logistics related to the transport of woody biomass. This system efficiently cuts and chips one double row of willow in one pass, and the willow chips are blown into collection vehicles, such as trucks or dump wagons. This one-step process reduces costs and helps producers harvest willow and other short-rotation woody crops for biomass applications faster and more efficiently, while expanding the use of their expensive harvest equipment. This makes it a mutually beneficial arrangement that will strengthen the supply of renewable energy feedstocks into the future. As institutions and companies develop more useful and innovative equipment for perennial biomass crop producers, they help to develop opportunities to lower delivery costs for willow and other short-rotation woody crops and make bioenergy crops more profitable. Soon enough, these economies of scale will deliver benefits that address the ongoing challenges of rural development, environmental sustainability, and energy independence. ASABE member Doug Otto, P.E., Special Projects Manager, New Holland Agriculture, New Holland, Pa., USA, email@example.com.
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