Cooperative turns biomass into renewable energy
By Doug Rich
In January 2007 High Plains Journal featured a story about the Show Me Energy Cooperative in Centerview, Mo. At that time the farmer-owners of this unique cooperative were still conducting an equity drive to raise enough funds to begin their venture. Their goal was to produce an alternative energy source from renewable biomass resources in central Missouri.
Their equity drive was a success and so is their venture into alternative fuels. Today Show Me Energy Cooperative is in full production, manufacturing pellets from a wide range of biomass resources. The pellets they produce are being used by a coal-fired power plant, poultry producers in southern Missouri, and as a home heating source.
"We are still learning a lot of things, but I think the timeline was perfect for us," Steve Flick, chairman of the board at the cooperative, said. "Our mission was clear and focused."
What Show Me Energy Cooperative does is take the net energy value of the plant material and through an engineering process make a fuel pellet with an energy value around 8,100 to 8,300 BTU's per pellet. Flick said they leave 30 percent of the residue on the field and with an energy crop like a tall grass and they leave some around the fencerows for conservation benefits. Right now they are taking in a 50-50 mix of crop residue and energy crops.
"We think that will change with the Biomass Crop Assistance Program (BCAP) in the farm bill that will pay producers to grow energy crops and take them to a bio-refinery like ourselves," Flick said.
BCAP is designed to support agricultural producers in producing biomass crops and collecting biomass for sale to commercial-scale facilities that commit in writing to use the biomass to produce fuel or power.
With that in mind they are beginning a new equity drive to raise funds for an expansion project at their Centerville site. Flick said they had planned to expand some time in the next two years, but now they are going to expand in the next three months. This will be a smaller equity drive than their original drive, which was used to build their current facility.
Most of the material comes to them in large round bales. A small amount of wood and paper products arrive in live bottom trailers. From the time a large bale enters their plant at one end and comes out as pellets at the other end takes about 18 minutes.
"There are a lot of people who have talked about processing ag waste but no one has done it on the scale that we do," Flick said.
The biomass they use is not all energy crops like switch grass. Flick said one of their producer-members was rained out last year before he could plant no-till soybeans behind wheat. It was so muddy he could not even harvest the wheat straw. He decided to just let it go to weeds. The third week of September he harvested 5 to 6 tons per acre of good high-energy biomass material, a combination of wheat straw, ragweed, and foxtail.
"Not very sexy but it is biomass," Flick said.
Flick said they can take in 150 to 300 tons of material a day. They have storage for about 400 bales inside and store the rest on pallets outside. As part of their expansion plans they will build a facility that can hold 3,000 bales. Flick said if they take in bales that have been stored on the ground these bales go on pallets to dry them out.
"Rain does not bother them too much it is the moisture from the ground that bothers us," Flick said.
Everything that comes into the plant is tested and they won't accept anything with less than 6,000 BTUs per 1,000 pounds. Their original plan was to take in material from a 100-mile radius of their plant and that has worked out well. There have been a few surprises along the way, however.
The first surprise was all of the silica that comes in with the bales. Silica is extremely abrasive. When heated to extreme temperatures it can turn to glass and weld bearings together. Flick said they developed a process for taking the silica out of the biomass before it is put into the pelletizer.
The second surprise was all of the metal and foreign objects that come in with large round bales. They have collected everything from nuts and bolts to drive shafts. Flick said they remove about 1.5 pounds of metal an hour from the biomass.
"You would be amazed at how many cell phones we find in a ton of biomass," Flick said.
Last summer Show Me Energy did a test burn with 150 tons of pellets co-mingled with coal at the Sibley Power Plant. It was a success and they are now shipping most of their pellets to the power plant. Poultry producers in southern Missouri have replaced propane with pellets to heat their chicken houses. Each ton of biomass pellets equals 190 gallons of propane. Both of those markets buy pellets in bulk but they do bag the pellets for the home heating market. Anyone with a biomass or corn stove can utilize these pellets as a heat source for their home. The ash left over contains phosphate and potash and can be put on your garden.
"For about $5 a day you should be able to heat a nice sized home," Flick said.
In the future Flick said pellets may be used to dry grain. This is an agricultural resource drying an agricultural resource.
"All along we are reducing our environmental impact, not burning fossil fuels, and putting nutrients back into the soil," Flick said.
That was part of their vision when the Show Me Energy Cooperative was formed. The system was well thought out in advance and it has been very successful.
Doug Rich can be reached by phone at 785-749-5304, or by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.