Project to Commercialize Agricultural Biomass for Combustion Energy Year-End Status Report - December, 2011

This Status Report documents Working Group progress in assessing the feasibility of commercializing agricultural biomass for combustion energy, for the consideration of the Steering Committee. It identifies the activities undertaken by the Working Group and learnings from these activities i.e. what is known and still needs to be known on priority areas of focus. It also identifies outstanding priorities and how they will be addressed to allow for project planning.

Working Group: Technical

Chair: Rene Van Acker

Working Group Members: Annette Anderson, David Armitage, Robert Cumming, Helma Geerts, Bryan Gilvesy, Barry Hill, Don Nott, Linda Pim, Andrew Pollard, Phil Reinert, Ray Robertson, Mark Schwartz, Leanne Wilson/Justine Taylor

Reporting Period: 2010/01 to 2011/12

Working Group Purpose

(Copy from Terms of Reference)

The purpose of the Technical Working Group is to coordinate the analysis of technical factors related to commercialization of agricultural biomass for combustion energy in Ontario. The working group's input on technical feasibility from the farm to the aggregator will be a key consideration in the Steering Committee's overall assessment of whether commercialization of agricultural biomass should be pursued.

Activities Undertaken or Planned

Activities Undertaken or Planned

Completion Date of Activities Undertaken



Identify and describe individual activities e.g. forums, consultation with experts, review of research, development of fuel spec or model


Study, data, report, presentation, memo etc.


Ag Biomass Agronomy Forum


Summary report posted at: Agronomy Forum on Agricultural Biomass for Combustion Energy

Presentations posted at: Forums on Agricultural Biomass for Combustion Energy (2011)

The knowledge base on the key issues related to agricultural biomass production and harvesting is building quickly. Growers can and are addressing agronomic challenges. Biomass production is low-risk from the production perspective, but market certainty must be in place for farmers to make the leap to this new opportunity.

Ag Biomass Technology Forum


Summary report posted at: Agronomy Forum on Agricultural Biomass for Combustion Energy

Presentations posted at: Forums on Agricultural Biomass for Combustion Energy (2011)

Biomass end-users have a wide variety of technical requirements. A number of technologies for pre-processing biomass fuel to facilitate transportation, storage and combustion are available, from simple densification to torrefaction. Some technologies are already available and being used in Canada, such as commercial boilers for biomass combustion to produce heat; others appear to hold promise but are not yet developed to commercial scale, such as torrefaction.

Knowledge of the key technical issues in value chain development are reasonably well understood. However, without market certainty, biomass producers, technology providers and biomass processors are challenged to anticipate the needs of end users and take advantage of this new opportunity.

UofG study under the OMAFRA partnership agreement "Assessment of the Availability of Agricultural Biomass for Heat and Energy Production in Ontario" (Kludze et al, 2010)


Report posted at: Assessment of the Availability of Agricultural Biomass for Heat and Energy Production in Ontario


Caution over removal of ag residue for biomass due to sustainability issues; 1.1 million dry tonnes/year of residues would be available but only from select counties; dedicated energy crops hold greater potential; 5% of all tillable lands would yield over 2 million dry tonnes/year of biomass without affecting the production and supply of conventional crops.

Presentation & webinar – "Biofuel from Grassland,

Sustainable and Local" (John Bootle, Renewable Energy Resources, Vermont)


Presentation available from OMAFRA or


Focus of Renewable Energy Resources is switchgrass biomass for local (30mi radius) heat production; company operates mobile briquetter; many real life examples of institutional boilers capable of burning different types of biomass with automatic ash removal & no slagging issues.


Collaboration with OFA on "Transformative Project to Generate Energy for Ontario by Developing an Innnovative Agricultural Biomass Value Chain Sector" (funded by AAC)

Spring 2011

OFA consultant reports on agronomy, nutrient extraction and energy market analysis

Agronomy Study: Ontario is making significant progress in acquiring necessary information on successful cultivation of switchgrass, Miscanthus and poplar, but lacks agronomic info on reed canary grass and high-biomass sorghum. Other promising energy crops such as giant reed, hemp and Jerusalem artichoke should be considered in future studies.

Nutrient Extraction Study: Most of the nutrients of concern for combustion are water soluble and can be removed through field leaching. Industrial leaching, electrostatic separation (silica) and reverse osmosis could also be used. Including nutrient recovery, in particular leaching, improves the overall economics of biomass combustion.

Energy Market Analysis: Commercializing ag biomass will be economically and technically challenging due to logistical and cost impediments. Biofuel prices and carbon sustainability will be tied to natural gas markets and there is no shortage of cheap natural gas in the foreseeable future. Interim markets are needed until volumes, costs, chemical and physical properties and densification technologies make biomass more interchangeable with coal. The rural bio-refinery concept, built around biogas and other small scale processes, have potential.

OSCIA Ag Biomass Tours

2011/09 & 2011/10

Summary for Working Group under development

Info on biomass agronomy, processing, existing and emerging markets were discussed; evident that ag biomass commercialization is beginning to occur; limited markets are in place and developing primarily for biomaterials and animal bedding; growers visited indicated that these are higher value products than biomass fuel, although there is room for both.

Torrefaction Course through UofG – Dr. P. Basu, Dalhousie University


Day-long course offered to >50 entrepreneurs, researchers, ag producers, government

This technology is in its early stages of development, most of which is directed at woody biomass. Basic research & development is required on pre-treatment, particle size, temperature, rate of temperature increase, time of treatment, and air emissions. While considerable work is underway, KTT is challenged by proprietary processes.

Learnings from Inventory of Biomass Research projects


Inventory posted at: Agricultural Biomass Research Studies in Ontario

Research completed or underway is helping to inform ag biomass for combustion and emerging uses such as bioproducts development (e.g. bioplastics); inventory of research projects helps encourage sharing of information, as well as identification and prioritization of future research needs.

Work underway by Technical Working Group member organizations / companies e.g. Lafarge, OPG, Nott Farms, Greenfield


Postings at:

Cement 2020

Ontario Power Generation

GreenField Ethanol

Lafarge's Energy Farm initiative & Cement 2020 have several deliverables e.g. emission summary report, Energy Farm Final Report, Green(er) Fuels Task Force, Federal EcoEnergy Industrial Initiative and Municipal Waste Pilot Project.

OPG continues to evaluate dual fuel (natural gas and biomass) through fuel pre-screening, piloting, plant tests and commercial test burns, fuel characterization, and torrefaction research with industry partners; The expectation is that OPG's fuel quality requirements will be higher than other users.

Nott Farms has expertise in agronomy, storage and processing as they supply several different markets.

Greenfield is developing next generation biofuels from agricultural, forestry and municipal waste.

Phase 2 of OFA biomass project

2012-13 (in process)

Studies on pellet standards, densification options, bioprocessing opportunities, biomass processing, value chain development, biochemical analysis

Studies will help to fill several existing gaps in technical knowledge.

OSCIA field tours

Fall 2012

Profiling of advances in agronomy, processing and market knowledge

Building grower knowledge of biomass production across Ontario is essential to developing a commercial biomass industry.

Significant Findings on Each Working Group Area of Focus

Focus Area

What is Known

What Still Needs to be Known

Based on key Working Group tasks and deliverables as per the Terms of Reference

e.g. significant opportunities, challenges and barriers

i.e. critical information gaps

  • Agronomy (cultivar selection, rotational cycles, pest management, fertilization, yields, residue removal, harvesting equipment, logistics, etc.)
  • See attached Synopsis of Agronomy Forum
  • More opportunity for dedicated biomass crops than ag residues
  • Varieties are available to meet S. Ont. Conditions
  • Establishment of switchgrass and Miscanthus including propagation, weed control, nutrient requirements
  • How to maintain soil organic matter
  • Switchgrass and Miscanthus have low invasiveness potential
  • Basic agronomic knowledge of annual crops such as sorghum and hemp
  • See attached Synopsis of Agronomy Forum
  • Research on prairie cord grass, in particular, for use on cold and wet soils
  • Polyculture optimization
  • Weed control with registered product, post-emergent control
  • Susceptibility to disease and insects
  • Yields on different types of soil and heat units
  • Compilation of information on annual biomass crops like sorghum and hemp e.g. yields, environmental sustainability, harvesting logistics, breeding to improve the attributes of biomass feedstocks
  • For soil management recommendations to be included in OMAFRA publications like the Agronomy Guide, we need several years of Ontario data supplemented with data from other jurisdictions
  • Handling, storage, processing and transportation from farm to aggregator
  • See attached Synopsis of Technology Forum
  • Harvest timing and equipment
  • Storage options for baled biomass
  • See attached Synopsis of Technology Forum
  • Effect of harvest timing on yield, moisture and winter survival
  • Storage options for undensified biomass
  • Matching processing with market needs
  • Quantity and quality of available biomass
  • Approx. 1.1 million dT/yr of crop residues are available in Ontario.
  • If 5% of Ontario's cropland is used for dedicated biomass crops, approx. 2 million dT/yr of biomass could be available. At this level, it would not affect the production and supply of conventional crops
  • Better yield data as the Ontario experience grows; recipe for pellets and other forms of fuel
  • Fuel specs for different markets
  • Confirmation that quality standards can be met for some uses
  • Market demand (also addressed by Business Case Working Group)
  • Markets for biomass are emerging, in particular for biomaterials such as bioplastics and livestock bedding
  • Likely biomass use for biomaterials and bedding will be higher value than for combustion
  • Combined heat and power and small-scale uses like residential and institutional boilers are promising combustion opportunities.
  • Relative value of alternative uses e.g. livestock bedding, feed, anaerobic digestion
  • Biorefinery concept requires further development; high value uses and combustion may both be accommodated
  • Furnaces/boilers designed for ag biomass need to be readily available
  • More info on existing and potential combined heat and power systems from biomass

Overall Assessment

(Provide an assessment (or preliminary assessment if more needs to be known) of the (technical, economic or environmental) feasibility of agricultural biomass for combustion energy. To do this, synthesize the information above on What is Known and What Still Needs to be Known and summarize the observations of the Working Group on biomass feasibility)

The formation and ongoing activities of the steering committee and its working groups have facilitated collaboration and the initiation of work on topics and issues pertaining to agricultural biomass in Ontario. This has been a good model for provincial consideration of a new and complex agricultural opportunity.

There is a rapidly expanding body of knowledge with respect to the technical information required for growing, storing, processing and using agricultural biomass in Ontario. The report to date identifies areas where unknowns remain but there are many ongoing and newly initiated projects that will add knowledge to help fill these gaps. There has been very good institutional and grower-group collaboration on these issues, including OMAFRA, OPG, OFA, OSCIA, Ontario Forage Council, Ontario Greenhouse Vegetable Growers, Lafarge, Queen's University, University of Guelph, Natural Resources Canada, producers and processors, for example. Despite the acceleration of knowledge on biomass, it takes many years to fully develop an emerging new agricultural opportunity. In order to make specific, reliable recommendations to growers and processors, information and best management practices must be fully compiled and synthesized, and long-term field research continued. Market development will be key to the continued growth in this new agricultural sector.

Outstanding Priorities

Outstanding Priorities

How and When Priorities Will be Addressed

Consequences if Priorities are not Addressed

Identify priorities that still need to be addressed to complete or validate the Working Group's assessment of feasibility (one row per priority)

Identify the activities required to address the outstanding priorities and provide the target completion date for each activity (yyyy/mm)

List the impact of not responding to the outstanding priority

  • Long-term research on optimization of crop varietals
  • On-going research by research institutes, OMAFRA, plant breeders, etc.
  • Lower productivity
  • Summary of biomass agronomy knowledge
  • OSCIA cooperators to meet and share info
  • OSCIA in collaboration with UofG and OMAFRA to undertake over winter, 2012
  • Information will remain piecemeal; producers will not benefit from the accumulated knowledge developing
  • Compilation of information on the potential of annual biomass crops e.g. sorghum. Info is required on agronomy, yields, suitability for different climatic and soil conditions, combustion properties, and opportunities such as transitioning pasture land to perennial biomass crops
  • This will be proposed as a priority for upcoming OMAFRA-sponsored research
  • The basic picture of biomass potential will be incomplete.
  • Understanding of land use compatibility issues such as weed management during establishment and risk of fire; best management practices are required
  • This will be proposed as a priority for upcoming OMAFRA-sponsored research
  • These issues can cause problems with neighbours and municipalities. Solutions must be found to mitigate these threats
  • Development of fuel spec which will affect agronomy, storage and processing
  • OPG, Lafarge and OFA are developing fuel specs
  • Tap into knowledge of NRCan
  • Collaboration between markets, aggregators and growers as quality info becomes known
  • Continued uncertainty about biomass quality standards that need to be met and the practices required to meet this standard
  • Comparison of processing / densification options suiting end uses
  • OFA expected to address in Phase 2 biomass projects (2012-13)
  • Less certainty for value chain development
  • Examination of how ag biomass will be integrated into farming systems
  • Discussions with Working Group and Bill Deen
  • Address at Growing the Margins (Mar. 2012)
  • Could potentially be integrated into summary of biomass agronomy knowledge
  • Growers will not have the benefit of collective knowledge to optimize their biomass systems
  • Identification of commercially available boilers suited to ag biomass, meeting emission standards
  • NRCan has and is undertaking research; speakers invited to Growing the Margins to address these issues
  • Markets cannot develop without accessible, reliable combustion technology; emissions are an important consideration in assessing the feasibility of developing the industry

Additional Notes/Comments

(Enter additional comments, not summarized in other areas of this report, but critical to understanding the status of the project in terms of its timelines, resources and deliverables)


(Identify the resources used by the Working Group to arrive at their assessment (e.g. reports, websites, key experts consulted) )

Synopsis from the Agronomy Forum, February 2011


What we currently know / understand

What we still need to know / gaps

Perennial grasses
  • Over the long term, perennials present more opportunities than crop residues; annuals also have a role
  • Switchgrass is suitable on lighter, well-drained soils; Miscanthus prefers heavier soils
  • Prairie polycultures provide biodiversity benefits and benefit from long-term stands
  • Plug establishment methods for Miscanthus and suitable seeding methods for switchgrass
  • Most weed control issues can be addressed
  • Harvesting timing, equipment and methods
  • Miscanthus (sterile crosses) and switchgrass have low invasiveness potential
  • Impact on soil carbon / soil quality
  • Minor use registrations of herbicides not yet available
  • Better understanding of weed control at all stages, especially post-emergent grasses (C3 perennial grasses)
  • Miscanthus hybrids and propagation methods that reduce costs, decrease the variability of stand establishment and enhance genetic diversity
  • Miscanthus and switchgrass establishment, harvest and yield on poorly drained, cold soils
  • Optimal use of cover crops
  • Optimal mix of polycultures and yields
  • Use of perennial grasses as part of long-term rotations
  • Technical aspects of storing undensified material
  • Effect of harvest timing on moisture, yield and winter survival
  • Monitoring crop susceptibility to diseases and insects
  • Effect on alternative uses
  • Reliable markets
Short-rotation woody biomass
  • Good potential on marginal lands, fast growing, easy to propagate, good site adaptability, good breeding potential
  • Weed control (first year only)
  • Challenges related to accessing plant stock as well as planting and harvesting equipment
  • High establishment costs
  • Difficult to return the land to another crop after growing willow
  • Life-cycle assessment (in progress)
  • Reliable markets
Crop residues
  • Crop residues have a place but have sustainability, logistical and cost challenges; soil compaction, trampling and biomass quality are issues;
  • Residue removal may be increased by using cover crops, other organic soil amendments, etc.
  • What percentage is practically and sustainably available for removal given the need to maintain soil organic matter and nutrients, erosion protection, and long-term productivity of the land, while being cost-effective

Synopsis from the Technology Forum, April 2011

What we currently know / understand

What we still need to know / gaps

  • Agricultural biomass types of higher interest are woody and herbaceous energy crops in terms of fuel quality, yield and cost. Crop and industrial residues are also readily available and lower-cost, but fuel quality is low
  • Torrefied biomass has advantages: Is hydrophobic and dry, is not biologically active, higher density, higher energy density, is friable, provides cost savings in transportation, handling and processing. Market is driven mainly by utilities, with potential for residential and industrial heating
  • On its own, torrefaction will not significantly reduce sulphur, chlorine and alkali concentrations in biomass
  • Gasification (production of syngas), is not generally seen as promising at the present state of the technology
  • Combined heat and power (CHP) is particularly attractive due to efficiency of overall energy use
  • Combustion systems using biomass are commercially available in Canada at sizes from two kilowatts to 500 megawatts. Almost all Canadian-manufactured boilers are designed for wood (need modifications to burn agricultural biomass)
  • Woody biomass has low ash content, very low sulphur
  • Combustion temperature significantly affects total yield of ash from biomass
  • Cost is higher than coal
  • Ontario's Feed-in Tariff Program price for biomass is not attractive
  • No commercial combustion technologies for small-scale power generation are available
  • Challenges for biomass users include how/where to use the waste heat and how to create biomass fuel infrastructure
  • What can be done cost-effectively to address fuel quality issues i.e. high chlorine content, sulphur, high percentage of alkali metals, ash fusibility (ash melting point is low for herbaceous biomass compared to wood), emissions from combustion, moisture, high ash, alkali and halogens, emissions and fouling?
  • Torrefaction presents outstanding research questions (e.g. most experience is with torrefied wood); results from only pilot-scale plants are available; uncertainties about large-scale torrefacton processing
  • Demonstration gasification projects, mostly in Europe, tend to focus on woody biomass; North American experience is limited
  • How to address challenges for processors of ag biomass: cash flow and storage requirements (given seasonal availability of raw feedstocks, seasonality of pellet use for space heating), abrasiveness of agricultural biomass (silicates reduce die life)
  • Impact of different storage options on biomass quality

For more information:
Toll Free: 1-877-424-1300
Author: OMAFRA Staff
Creation Date: 28 August 2012
Last Reviewed: 22 January 2014