Hutterite colonies leading the masses with biomass heating

IISD, colonies and Providence College are proving biomass heating technology to be viable

Andy Martin (l) of Providence College discusses cattail biomass with Dimple Roy (c) and Richard Grosshans (r) of the International Institute for Sustainable Development. IISD and the college, along with several Hutterite colonies are proving biomass heating to be practical.

Manitoba’s Hutterite colonies are leading a made-in-Manitoba farm heating movement.

“With the provincial ban on the use of coal for space heating in Manitoba, a good number of Manitoba’s Hutterite colonies have recently upgraded or converted their heating systems from aging coal-burning systems to cleaner biomass boiler heating systems,” says Richard Grosshans, bioeconomy lead for International Institute for Sustainable Development (IISD)’s water program.

According to Grosshans, some of these biomass systems require processed biomass, such as commercially available fuel pellets. These fuel pellets are stored in a silo and are slowly fed into the building’s boiler system as needed.

Several Manitoba colonies have installed large-scale biomass boiler systems with an adjoining fuel storage building equipped with a “walking floor-type” biomass feed system allowing them to use a variety of bulk biomass fuel such as wood chips, sawdust, shredded cattail and grass, shredded pallets and even demolition waste.

With a hydraulically operated walking floor system the biomass feedstocks (wood chips, sawdust, shredded cattail and grasses) are piled onto the conveyer system and the material is slowly moved or metered into a system of augers that moves the biomass into the boiler system as needed.

“Biomass boiler systems are efficient and clean burning and are required to install proper filter systems to prevent particulates and ash to meet provincial emissions standards,” says Grosshans. “These systems are highly automated and for the technology savvy, they can even be operated and monitored via a smartphone application.”

A quick scan around Manitoba indicates there are a variety of biomass boiler systems, feed systems, and fuel sources in use at the province’s many Hutterite colonies. Larger boiler systems with walking floor feed systems can utilize a greater variety of fuel sources, while smaller systems typically need higher-quality wood material.

In the case of some colonies, there is an existing wood manufacturing facility on the colony or nearby the colony, so there is an abundant supply of premium high-quality kiln-dried wood waste and sawdust that is available.

Success brings increased interest from others, and in response to the need for processed fuel pellets, Grosshans says IISD has been collaborating with Greenwald Colony, Biovalco, and the Prairie Agricultural Machinery Institute (PAMI) on the BRG Manufacturing fuel pellet facility near Stead, Manitoba.

The IISD has a particular interest in promoting the system’s ability to use the province’s ample and reharvestable supply of cattails for the betterment of Manitoba’s waterways, especially the health of Lake Winnipeg. Via naturally occurring or human-applied source points, agricultural lands are one of many source points that contribute phosphorus to Lake Winnipeg algae blooms.

Cattails prefer to grow on the fringes of waterways as well as ditches that water passes through and these plants are known to absorb phosphorus from the waters around them and store phosphorus in their roots and stalk. The cattail harvest takes the phosphorus out of the watershed system the plants grow and thrive in and into the biomass pellet process for heating. After the pellets are burned, there is still an ability to recycle the phosphorus from the ashes. Meanwhile, the harvested cattail plant regrows from its roots.

“IISD and Biovalco worked with the BRG Manufacturing fuel pellet facility to switch to using wood waste from manufacturing for the production of high-quality fuel pellets,” says Grosshans. “They also developed a premium cattail-wood-grass blended fuel pellet with excellent burn characteristics that can be used in various boiler heating systems.”

To date, the BRG Manufacturing fuel pellet facility has produced over 6,000 tonnes of fuel pellets to generate over 12,000 tonnes of CO2e of offsets through coal replacement fuel switching.

“During the winters of 2015-16 and 2016-17 fuel pellets were used for space heating in larger-scale boiler facilities on several Manitoba Hutterite colonies and at Providence University College, as well as in residential pellet stoves at the Living Prairie Museum and on several farm buildings,” says Grosshans. “Initial results and analysis indicate these pellets produced by the manufacturing plant are a premium fuel blend with excellent burn characteristics, low ash (three per cent), and high-heat energy (19.8 GJ/T).”

During the winter of 2016-17, IISD worked with PAMI, Greenwald Hutterite Colony, and Miami Hutterite Colony to use coarsely shredded cattail bales mixed with shredded wood waste in walking floor-fed biomass systems on the two colonies. This important proof of concept demonstrated using coarsely shredded bales is much more efficient and cost effective than producing processed fuel pellets from baled material such as cattail and grasses.

“As the colonies have made the decision to switch to biomass heating, we have identified many direct added benefits,” says Grosshans. “We are hearing that biomass systems are much more efficient with consistent drier heat and require much-less hourly and day-to-day monitoring of the system. In addition, the lower cost of biomass heating compared to coal allows for better heating and therefore improved ventilation in barn buildings, improving the air quality and health conditions of livestock. ”

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