Farm to Fuel: Biomass Feeds into Virginia’s Rural Economy

August 22, 2017

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Growing Bioeconomy Markets: Farm-to-Fuel in Southside Virginia
Growing Bioeconomy Markets: Farm-to-Fuel in Southside Virginia
Valerie Sarisky-Reed, Deputy Director, Bioenergy Technologies Office

Author: Valerie Sarisky-Reed, Director, Wind Energy Technologies Office (Acting) (former Deputy Director, Bioenergy Technologies Office)

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Biomass has the potential to supply a significant portion of America's growing energy needs while increasing energy independence, diversifying sources of domestic revenue, and adding over a million jobs to the workforce. Rural communities are uniquely positioned to benefit from this industry. Farmers would gain valuable new markets for their products, which would feed into the local energy infrastructure, providing heat, power, and fuels to nearby communities. So is it possible to turn this vision into reality? Virginia thinks so. 

In Southside Virginia, a perennial energy crop industry is taking root in and around Nottoway County thanks to a partnership between Virginia Tech’s Conservation Management Institute, FDC Enterprises Inc., the Virginia Tobacco Indemnification and Community Revitalization Commission (VTICRC), local landowners, and Piedmont Geriatric Hospital (PGH). For several decades, the hospital heated their facility with sawdust sourced from local mills. However, as the price of fuel oil increased and the quality and availability of sawdust began to wane during winter months, PGH was interested in finding a more sustainable alternative. Their solution brought considerable cost savings to the Commonwealth of Virginia—$43,000 a year—and enhanced key ecosystem services in the surrounding county.

Boiler at the Piedmont Geriatric Hospital
The boiler at the Piedmont Geriatric Hospital is now fueled with switchgrass, producing steam to heat the facility and saving the hospital $1300 a day compared to heating oil.
Photo courtesy of FDC Enterprises Inc.

Beginning in 2006, PGH began experimenting with using processed warm-season grasses as part of their boiler’s solid feedstock mix. Their efforts paid off, with the staff observing steam output even greater than anticipated. During these runs, PGH also saw a significant cost reduction. What’s more, this cost was fixed—meaning that, unlike with other fuel sources, there were no surprise price jumps. These successful tests marked the beginning of the cooperative farm-to-fuel venture between FDC, PGH, and the VTICRC to establish a network of local landowners who would grow dedicated biofuel crops and build a permanent processing, storage, and distribution center within Nottoway County lines to deliver high-quality, boiler-ready feedstock. And so, a market for switchgrass grown by Virginia farmers was born.

FDC Enterprises, perennial grass biomass processing facility near Fort Pickett, Virginia.
FDC Enterprises, perennial grass biomass processing facility near Fort Pickett, Virginia.
Photo courtesy of FDC Enterprises Inc.

Expanding acres of perennial land cover within these communities has also helped meet some of the county’s environmental goals. Perennial grasses have extensive root systems—some reaching depths of 14 feet. These roots hold in the soil, preventing erosion and buffering pollutants from entering nearby waterways. In areas that fall within the Chesapeake Bay watershed, bioenergy production could synergize with efforts to reduce nutrient loading and sediment pollution. Wild grasses also feed and provide habitat to native birds and pollinators—many of which are threatened or endangered.

The collaboration between FDC, PGH, and others helped create a new market for energy crops, like switchgrass in Virginia.
The collaboration between FDC, PGH, and others helped create a new market for energy crops, like switchgrass in Virginia.
Photo courtesy of Virginia Tech

Moving forward, FDC plans to expand their efforts in the area, helping farmers integrate perennial energy crops onto their land and find new markets for their products. In 2015, The Antares Group Inc., in partnership with FDC, received $9 million from the U.S. Department of Energy’s Bioenergy Technologies Office to develop sustainable landscape design practices that would enable the strategic integration of perennial grasses into existing agricultural landscapes. 

Saving Virginia taxpayers nearly $1,300 a day, all while providing farmers with a new cash crop and enhancing the environmental profile of the local community, is a win-win-win. The Virginia Department of Environment Quality think this collaboration is a winner as well and awarded the team the Governor’s Environmental Excellence Gold Medal in 2017. The incredible effort of this collaborative team represents a major success for the bioeconomy and demonstrates the tremendous potential of our nation’s abundant biomass resources. 

Shannon Zaret and Joe Pomerening contributed to this article. 

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