Bioenergy project offers farmers strong role in green economy

By Agri-Pulse staff

© Copyright Agri-Pulse Communications, Inc.



WASHINGTON, June 4, 2014 - Heading into its second decade, the Vermont Bioenergy Initiative (VBI) is enhancing its efforts to reach out to small farm operations, launching a communications campaign that its leaders say will expand the development of a viable biomass-to-biofuels industry in Vermont that uses local resources to supply a portion of the state's energy needs.

"Here in Vermont, we are fortunate to have a renewable energy geophysical character which can be leveraged to create an energy future supporting an enviable and sustainable way of life," said Jeffrey Frost, a consultant and 20-year veteran of energy, economic and greenhouse gas emissions analysis.

Together we can feed the Bees"

Frost said the lessons learned, policy lessons applied and advances being made in Vermont work across the United States and, in many cases, globally.

In late April, the initiative launched a new website, which is offering a growing series of written and video resources in the emerging fields of bioenergy. The site provides an in depth look at several of the VBI's major programs: oilseed production and biodiesel operations with case studies, research, and educational videos; energy from grass; algae for biofuel; and wastewater management. The site also offers information on other biofuels being produced and used in Vermont.

The website is an extension of the VBI's role providing research, technical assistance and demonstration projects for the renewable energy industry. It complements a state goal of meeting 90 percent of its energy needs with renewable energy by the year 2050.

Active since 2003 - there was virtually no biofuels market in the state a decade ago - the initiative is an outgrowth of the Vermont Sustainable Jobs Fund (VSJF), an agency established by the state legislature back in 1995 to accelerate the development of the state's green economy through early-stage grant funding, technical assistance and loans to farmers, entrepreneurs, businesses, networks and others.

Energy feedstocks and fuels currently being researched and developed through the VBI include oilseeds such as sunflower, soybean and canola for producing biodiesel and food-grade oil, livestock feed and organic fertilizer. The initiative also promotes the production of microalgae, including green algae and diatoms, for making oil, fuel, feed, food and fertilizer.

Biomass such as bulk wood pellets and perennial grasses, including switchgrass, big bluestem, reed canary grass and miscanthus, is also promoted for the production of pellet fuel combustion and, eventually, cellulosic ethanol.

“The point of VBI is to bring on-farm fuel production from an idea to a commercialized opportunity that farmers can take to the bank, and things are certainly moving to that end,” Sarah Galbraith, program manager, told Agri-Pulse. “VBI's models for on-farm bioenergy production   be it grass for heating fuel or sunflowers for biodiesel   are all aimed at providing opportunities for farmers to reduce their input costs or add products to their farm. These opportunities improve business viability, thereby supporting a robust sustainable agriculture economy.”

The VBI is tailored to the small operations and rural businesses that populate the state. But Galbraith says it can serve as a model for other states.

“It's our hope, and that of DOE, that the models we develop will be applicable to rural areas around the country,” Galbraith said. “These rural areas are often at ‘the end of the pipeline' and are subject to higher and more volatile costs for energy.

“The VBI model shows that rural communities can produce some of their own energy, thereby improving their energy security and benefitting from more predictable and affordable energy prices,” she added. “Any farm in any part of the country can grow and process their own fuel, using the best practices developed by the VBI.”

She also noted efforts in other states to use locally grown grass for heating fuel or sunflowers, canola and soybeans for biodiesel, citing as examples CenUSA, a five-year program launched at Iowa State University in 2011 to investigate the creation of a Midwestern sustainable biofuels and bioproducts system, and NEWBio, a Penn State project promoting biomass development.

Among other VBI program outcomes is a reduction in fossil fuel consumption by Vermont farms, homes and businesses; the support of job growth and the rural economy through renewable bioenergy production; and well as promoting farm and community self-sufficiency. Officials also say the initiative helps Vermont prepare for - and mitigate the effects of   climate change. To date, some $3.6 million in federal funds has been secured for biofuels research, development and demonstration projects in Vermont, which has leveraged an additional $2 million in matching cost share funds.

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