Bob and May Miller decided to make something valuable out of what grows in no-longer-farmed fields in Delaware County, NY.
“There are thousands of acres growing up to weeds and briars,” says Bob Miller.
In 2008, the retired dairy farmers started Enviro Energy LLC, Unadilla, and began turning some of that grassy material into fuel pellets for heating buildings. Operated with son Mike and daughter-in-law MaryLou, the company now makes about 300 tons/year of those pellets plus wood pellets and several other pelleted products for smaller markets.
They pay $60/ton for round bales of 12%-moisture hay delivered to their processing plant. It’s harvested once a year, usually in August, and they ask area farmers for the poorest hay they can supply.
“We want the worst of the worst,” says Miller. “We tell them that if a goat can eat it, we don’t want it.”
Before starting the business, the family consulted with Cornell University agronomist Jerry Cherney, who sees great potential for burning grass pellets in a locally produced, environmentally friendly renewable energy system. Cherney has burned pellets made from several grasses, and found that they have almost as many Btus as wood pellets and emit up to 90% less greenhouse gas. The only drawback is their higher ash content, which prevents them from being used in some pellet stoves without modifications.
“We looked at the whole thing and decided that we could do it,” says Miller.
But learning how to make high-quality pellets came with a steeper-than-expected learning curve, mostly because the family wanted to make them without any additives or binders.
“It took a little longer to learn how to do that,” he says. “We were making some pretty crummy pellets for a few months.”
So far, the family has invested about $600,000 in a 40 x 60’ building, tub grinder, hammermill, pelletizer and other equipment. Pellets are bagged and stacked on pallets, waiting to be delivered or for customers to pick up. Buyers include homeowners and small businesses with pellet-burning parlor stoves or outdoor furnaces. Most are nearby, but the Millers have shipped pellets as far as Kentucky and Saskatchewan, and have done pelleting research for groups in several states.
Demand was strong at first because there was a shortage of wood pellets and grass pellets helped fill the void. But the supply of wood pellets has increased dramatically, and the price is depressed. That has slowed grass pellet sales and forced the Millers to expand into other markets.
This spring they began marketing grass pellets through garden stores as a mulch and soil conditioner. Their pellets are weed-free and expand to four times their original size when wet.
“We make them just a little bit different than we do for burning, and they’re an excellent mulch,” says Miller.
In addition to the grass pellets, they now make barley-straw pellets for algae control in ponds, kiln-dried pine pellets for use as horse bedding and cat litter and recently filled an order for organic fertilizer pellets.
“I know we couldn’t survive if we didn’t branch out,” he says.
Enviro Energy LLC makes “one of the premier grass pellets that we’ve seen,” says Gerry Ruestow, a bioenergy consultant working with the Catskill Grass Bio-Energy Project. A cooperative effort between Cornell Cooperative Extension and the Catskill Water-shed Corporation, the project was started in 2008 to evaluate the feasibility of using grass biomass as a heat source. Nine stoves and furnaces are being tested in public buildings in three counties. The Millers supply the pellets.
Ruestow says grass pellets are a “pretty consistent heat source,” but using them in some pellet burners is challenging because of the high ash volume.
“It’s taken patience to get some of these units to work,” he says.
He notes that pellet-stove manufacturers are now designing units that work better with grass pellets.
“When we first started, there were manufacturers who wouldn’t even talk to us about grass,” he says. “They didn’t want us to burn it in their appliances. Now we’re actually getting calls from manufacturers that are interested in the product.”
He and Miller see a bright future for the use of grasses as fuel. They think larger products such as briquettes may gain favor for outdoor burners, while pellets will likely prevail for parlor stoves.
“There’s a tremendous amount of interest, and with the oil situation in the Middle East, it’s looking better all the time,” says Miller. “It’s an emerging market, and I can’t even guess how fast it’s going to grow.”