Touring Sustainable Bioenergy in Virginia

Campus Biomass Heating Plant (photo credit Longwood University).

Last month, I had the good fortune to travel to Farmville, VA for a conference on sustainable biomass. Hosted by the Center for Natural Capital, the event at Longwood University featured an impressive array of presentations, and included tours of some local facilities who are “walking the talk.”  Here are some pretty pictures I snapped, along with a bit of travelogue.

The first stop on the tours was the new biomass heating plant on the campus there at Longwood.  I missed this tour because I was presenting on my recent research report, and engaged in discussion on bioenergy networking in the state and region.  But this excellent animated video does a great job of explaining the system.

A distant view of the steam plant at central Virginia's Piedmont Geriatric Hospital. They're installing a large new biomass boiler because heating oil, propane, and coal are too expensive (and more polluting).

Next stop for the tour (and first for me) was Virginia’s Piedmont Geriatric Hospital, the site of a biomass heating plant that has been in operation for several decades.

Located in a remote area of the state, the facility has never had access to natural gas pipelines. To heat the hospital’s buildings, historically they’ve burned coal and heating oil, but long ago they decided to switch to burning sawdust because it is so much cleaner and more economical.

Piedmont Geriatric Hospital Biomass Boiler - Testing Pelletized Switchgrass

Recently, the hospital has been aiming to further improve their sustainability with mixed warm season grasses instead of sawdust.  This form of energy crop is viewed by many as a way to help buffer the Chesapeake Bay’s tributaries from agricultural runoff like phosphorous. This practice has been shown to be beneficial to wildlife and soil carbon, as well. Read more about warm season grasses here.

Closeup of the boiler's "glory hole," showing the glowing particles of switchgrass, blowing due to the draft from the open door. My kid loves these pictures, "where the fire glows!"

 

While I was there, the boiler was consuming pellets made from Tennessee switchgrass, grown near Vonore, and processed at the FDC Enterprises Inc. Warm Season Grass Biomass Processing Facility near Fort Pickett, VA.  (See photo below right.)

This open-sided warehouse can safely hold 5,000 tons of baled grasses. Once or twice a year FDC Enterprises Inc. will bring their mobile pelletizer from the Midwest, grind and compact the grasses on-site so their end users in Virginia can have a high-quality biomass feedstock.  (Pellets are easily moved with augers and conveyors, so they can be used in highly automated systems, reducing labor costs and risks of injury and fires.)

FDC Enterprises Inc. Warm Season Grass Biomass Processing Facility near Fort Pickett, VA.

The Piedmont Geriatric Hospital will be installing a new, highly efficient boiler system to replace one of their older, less efficient biomass boilers.  The new system will be optimized to consume these refined grass pellets.  Everyone I spoke with was looking forward to the day in the near future when these grasses are grown locally.

Another possible consumer of these super-sustainable grass pellets is the Virginia United Methodist Church’s Blackstone Conference Center. VUMC’s new facilities manager, Sam McCracken gave us the tour.  He explained how the old oil-burning boiler was gobbling up his maintenance and operations budget. The old oil system had to be shut down every month to have the soot removed, by hand. He said the new system will be many times cleaner than the old one, less maintenance, and will save him tens of thousands of dollars a year in fuel costs.

VUMC's Peace Park, with a grand old White Oak tree, and historic boiler house in the background, which is being reconfigured to house a modern small-scale biomass boiler.

This picture shows a multi-lingual Peace Pole behind the Virginia United Methodist Church’s Blackstone Conference Center, shaded by a beautiful specimen grand White Oak, just outside the historic boiler house being repowered with a modern, small scale, highly efficient biomass boiler.

My last site visit for the day was a stop at the Lignetics wood pellet plant in Kenbridge VA. I knew I’d be driving past,  so I just dropped in the office and asked for a tour. I was very lucky to arrive while they were down for maintenance, so they were able to accommodate me.

The Lignetics Pellet Plant in Kenbridge, VA uses only mill waste and sawdust, and sells bagged product here in the United States.

Out of respect for proprietary concerns, this outside photo was the only image I captured, but this plant was really something to see: State of the art in automation and efficiency, they make wood pellets for the US market (not for export as are most wood pellets made in the Southeast today). Their raw material is exclusively sawdust and other mill residues, not roundwood or “whole trees.” To dry their sawdust feedstock they use only waste biomass (“fines” they call it) as fuel — never propane or diesel fuel (or natural gas like some other pellet mills use). So the climate benefits from the pellets from Kenbridge are very significant. Their products are not easy to find here in the Southeast, as their markets are mainly in the Northeastern states.

The day’s experiences left me feeling very proud of the many diligent, frugal, and patriotic Virginians who are making such strides to reduce their petroleum consumption.  These are exciting projects and facilities in VA, starting to show some benefits. We look forward to watching their progress unfold and how they might inspire others to improve upon their example.

In hindsight, I don’t think I could’ve planned a better commemoration of September 11th.

 

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