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On one hand, Quebec’s farms annually spend around $80 million on non-renewable, 100 % imported fossil fuels for heating purposes. On the other hand, there are approximately 167,000 hectares of abandoned, underutilized lands in the province of Quebec which could be exploited. There is a clear opportunity to kill two birds with one stone.

Heating requirements in Quebec’s agricultural sector are mainly met by the use of propane, fuel oil and natural gas. Except for the latter whose cost has diminished with the abundance of shale gas, the price of petroleum products has constantly increased during the last two decades. In this context, the farms’ energy bill will most likely rise in the near future, especially considering the global increase in energy demand and the oncoming depletion of fossils fuels. Therefore, agricultural producers are looking for alternative energy sources. Biomass is one option.

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Price of petroleum products in Montreal

Towards self-sufficient farms

“The interest in biomass energy from agriculture is simple: farm activities already generate large quantities of biomass such as crop residues and plants,” pointed out Stéphane Godbout, a research scientist at the Research and Development Institute for the Agri-Environment. While most residues are left in the field to reduce erosion and recycle nutrients into the soil, some could be used to produce energy without harming soil quality. Crops grown for energy such as short-rotation coppices (willow or hybrid poplar) and perennial grasses (switchgrass, miscanthus or reed canary grass) could also be used. Since they require less soil management and fewer inputs than annual row crops, dedicated energy crops can be grown on low-quality soils and would not compete with arable lands already utilized for food production. The technical potential of Quebec’s agricultural sector in terms of surplus biomass residues and energy crops grown on marginal lands is estimated to 840,000 tons, which means about 12.6 PJ of renewable energy. This represents the double of the quantity needed to substitute all heating fuels consumed on farms in 2011.

pellets

Reed canary grass pellets which can be used as solid biofuels

Three pillars of sustainability

Besides increasing energy independence of farms, biomass energy would revitalize rural communities and reduce pollution. The replacement of fossil fuels by locally purpose-grown crops and residues to heat farm facilities as well as homes and institutional buildings could avoid the emission of 1 million tons of CO2-eq into the atmosphere. In addition, the introduction of new biomass fuels may create employment opportunities in rural areas. Perennial energy crops also show several ecological benefits. Since tilling occurs sporadically, the soil suffers less physical damage from machinery. Reduced chemical use helps protect surface and ground water from toxic compounds and excessive aquatic plant growth. Furthermore, the deep roots of energy crops can serve as filters to limit runoff and prevent erosion. They also enhance the structure of the soil by increasing its organic content. Finally, dedicated crops can create more diverse habitats, attracting a wider variety of animal species such as birds and insects.

The Blue Flame boiler

The Blue Flame boiler

Green burning

Although providing advantages, burning of biomass is often associated with emissions of particulate matter and gases which can seriously affect atmospheric processes and human health. For this reason, combustion systems have been well developed to reach a high quality and performance level and Quebec’s environmental laws fix stringent threshold values for air contaminants. Nevertheless, the scientific community is still worried by the use of agricultural biomass in combustion appliances since it has higher contents in ash and inorganic elements such as nitrogen, sulfur, chlorine, potassium and silica. These distinctive properties can lead to higher levels of particles, nitrogen and sulfur oxides and chlorine compounds in the flue gas as well as operational problems such as fouling, slagging and corrosion. A recent European study has however demonstrated that burning energy crops and residues can generate no more pollutants than wood combustion. “In Quebec, La Coop fédérée in collaboration with academia and research groups have been conducting combustion experiments with different kinds of forestry and agricultural materials in order to measure and analyze particles and gas emissions in our Blue Flame boiler,” said Cyrille Néron, the director of innovation at La Coop fédérée. “The objective is that combustion of certain biomass fuels is authorized by Quebec’s minister of environment.”

The agricultural biorefinery of tomorrow

Worldwide, the focus seems predominantly on liquid biofuels such as bioethanol and biodiesel to act as drop-in fuels and reduce the emission of greenhouse gases by the transportation sector. However, the main energy consumption in agricultural sectors such as greenhouse cultivation, swine and poultry production is heating and can represent up to 90% of a farm’s energy bill. “Combustion is too often considered as a less noble conversion process of biomass and yet it should be inserted in an integrated concept including gaseous, liquid and solid biofuels,“ indicated Stéphane Godbout. “The example of the Pomacle-Bazancourt biorefinery in France should become an inspiration.“ In the meantime, on-farm combustion of farm grown biomass can represent direct GHG reductions and money savings in the short term and indirect benefits on soils and rural communities in the long run.

 

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