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Power from trash and biomass could save cash and carbon, feasibility study shows

The proposed Cornell University Renewable Bioenergy Initiative (CURBI) could produce $2 million a year in energy using campus-area renewable resources to heat and power a significant portion of the Cornell greenhouse complex, according to an 18-month feasibility study by the engineering firm Stearns and Wheler GHD.

The $250,000 study, co-funded by the New York Energy Research and Development Authority, recommended that CURBI be built close to the Guterman greenhouse complex on Tower Road to pipe heat directly into the greenhouses, replacing fossil fuel use from Cornell's central combined heat and power plant and reducing Cornell's carbon footprint by an estimated more than 9,000 tons per year.

The study assessed the engineering, economic and environmental viability of a proposed four-acre research and operations facility encompassing five pioneering energy technologies that would use organic waste from 57 campus waste streams and biomass from nearby Cornell farms and forests.

CURBI is designed to be a fully operational demonstration project that would provide significant renewable energy to Cornell and reduce greenhouse gas emissions, while at the same time serving as a venue for cutting-edge research by Cornell faculty from multiple disciplines and as a site for education and outreach opportunities.

"The feasibility study confirms we can build a renewable energy tech platform with several different but complementary technologies so that communities, institutions, business leaders and farmers with access to significant amounts of biomass or organic waste could compare options while faculty will be simultaneously working to advance renewable energy technologies designed for our region," says Drew Lewis, director of operations for the Cornell University Agricultural Experiment Station (CUAES).

The study first surveyed Cornell's resources, calculating a wide variety of biomass, ranging from such organic wastes as food waste from campus and animal bedding, to dedicated wood and energy crops grown in a sustainable manner on land owned by the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences (CALS) and operated by CUAES within a 25-mile radius of campus. Those lands could sustainably produce about 16,000 dry tons of organic matter annually, the study estimates.

According to the nearly 200-page report, CURBI will further commercial applicability of several technologies, including high-efficiency direct combustion, dry fermentation, anaerobic digestion and slow pyrolysis, a process which produces heat, combustible gases and a valuable byproduct called biochar. Biochar is generating attention at the White House and in Congress because it enriches soil and locks-in carbon in its charcoal-like structure; that makes slow pyrolysis potentially a carbon "negative" energy technology, sequestering more carbon on balance than it releases into the atmosphere during production. There is tremendous research interest in biochar, but currently no production capacity exists in the United States, the feasibility study found.

The report notes that CURBI's 32,000-ton annual input stream will fluctuate from day to day, which poses engineering challenges. Some weeks, CURBI will have tons of "dry" matter (woody or field crops) while at other times it will have more "wet" food waste or animal manure. That kind of "real-world" problem needs to be solved to pave the way for renewable energy development in the Northeast, says Michael Hoffmann, CUAES director and associate dean in CALS.

"Consistent with the Cornell Climate Action Plan, CURBI would help to reduce Cornell's use of fossil fuel," says Hoffmann. "But more important than that, CURBI will enable us to demonstrate how renewable energy could work in upstate New York with smaller, locally owned and operated energy systems that can handle a variety of inputs."

Lauren Chambliss is assistant director for communications for CUAES.

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