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Willow workshop fires up emerging bioenergy markets

Things are heating up in New York for consumers, entrepreneurial farmers and biofuel companies banking on shrub willow to fuel the Northeast's renewable energy future.

On Dec. 18, Cornell hosted a workshop on willow biomass heating and biofuels, attracting nearly 60 attendees from New York and Pennsylvania. They represented every corner of the emerging biomass energy market, from potential growers to manufacturers of harvesting and biomass heating equipment. The workshop, held at the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences' New York State Agricultural Experiment Station (NYSAES) in Geneva, N.Y., covered all aspects of growing, harvesting and using shrub willow and other perennial woody crops as a renewable fuel for heating.

"It's important to close the loop and connect researchers with end users. I'm always impressed by innovative facilities managers who stick out their necks to adopt new energy systems. Their persistence and dedication are often what's most important to a project's success," said Larry Smart, associate professor of horticulture, head of Cornell's willow breeding program and executive committee member of the Northeast Woody/Warm-season Biomass Consortium, or NEWBio project, led by the Pennsylvania State University.

Workshop speakers gave brief presentations on the practical applications of willow biomass research to successful commercial-scale heating with wood chips. Case studies from Cornell, Colgate University and East Lycoming School District in rural Pennsylvania laid out planning, financing and managing these projects.

"I came here to hear from the universities and schools, because this is the target market we're most interested in. Schools and colleges are an ideal fit," said Jonathan Barter, owner of Southern Tier Biomass LLC in Steuben County, N.Y., a fledgling commercial grass-based biofuel processor and seller.

In a cold, steady rain, the attendees examined customized willow harvesters, then toured the NYSAES willow wood chip drying barn and 750,000 Btu wood chip boiler, which heats two buildings on the campus.

Participant Bob Colligan of East Aurora, N.Y., hopes to start a business retrofitting single-stage outdoor wood boilers, he said. Heightened efficiency and emissions requirements for the residential boilers are problematic for current owners. "I'm trying to design a retrofit so people can still use their single-stage boilers, but burn half the wood and produce half the emissions. It's a win-win," he said.

Smart and his NEWBio partners said they believe growing willow will also be a win-win for the Northeast's rural economy. The New York State Department of Agriculture and Markets estimates that there are more than 1 million acres of marginal or unused farmland in New York alone. Willow grows well in poorly drained soil, needs few fertilizers or herbicides and can be harvested over the course of 25 winters without replanting. By growing willow, farmers could turn abandoned fields into profit without using acres needed for food or animal feed.

More biomass fuel choices - like willow - for the upstate New York economy would create new cash crops for farmers, and turn local residents into their customers, Colligan said. These customers could then heat their homes at a fraction of current fossil fuel costs, he said.

Yet some workshop attendees doubted whether the cost of biomass heating could ever compete against natural gas.

The answer surprised many attendees. "The analysis showed that, even at today's prices, using wood chips for heating is far less expensive than heating oil, and is even less expensive than using natural gas," said Smart.

Sarah Thompson is a freelance writer based in Trumansburg, N.Y.

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