December 5, 2010

Grass for fuel fires hope, debate

A project to use unused farmland as a source for fuel pellets could have a $500 million impact.

By Tux Turkel tturkel@pressherald.com
Staff Writer

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The way the deal was put together also has disturbed Richard James, the owner of Lucerne Farms in Fort Fairfield. The largest hay grower in New England, James said he provided some of his grass to a county extension official, but didn't realize the scope of what was being proposed.

"I knew they were doing some research, but the next thing I knew, they were putting up a pellet mill a mile from us," he said.

James said he supports the idea of a new crop to help the county's potato farmers. He's not worried about direct competition -- grass for pellets is worth less than the high-quality hay he grows for horse feed. But James said he wonders if it makes sense to produce an alternative pellet fuel in a region that's so heavily forested.

"I can't believe we're going to be making pellets from hay, instead of wood," he said.

That question also is being pondered by the Maine Pellet Fuels Association, which represents the state's wood pellet mills and allied businesses. The industry is sensitive about facing more competition. Pellet mills already are operating at reduced capacity, as demand remains slow following the economic downturn.

Despite that, the association purposely omits the word "wood" from its name, according to Bill Bell, the executive director, because it recognizes that pellets can be made from other biomass sources. But Bell, who isn't related to Matt Bell at Northeast Pellets, also said his board members have reviewed the state-of-the-art in grass fuels and don't see it as a viable alternative to wood.

"We're open to innovation," Bell said. "We just share some skepticism about whether taxpayer money is being spent wisely here."

Staff Writer Tux Turkel can be contacted at 791-6462 or

tturkel@pressherald.com

 

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