Renewable energy production options are growing thanks to expanded farm equipment capabilities for harvesting biofuel feedstocks like shrub willow.
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Harvesting is the single most expensive operation in the production of shrub willow biomass, accounting for about 30% of costs over the life cycle of the crop (20-plus years). In the past, willow harvesting operations typically encountered problems with equipment durability, chip size, and other technical details.
So when John Posselius, innovation engineering director for New Holland Agriculture, learned that willow grown for bioenergy was being harvested with forage harvesters, he knew that his company could offer a solution. New Holland Agriculture has been building commercial self-propelled harvesters for corn, sugar cane, and other commodity crops since the 1970s.
The company has 120 years of experience developing and manufacturing agricultural equipment. Increasingly, it is focusing that expertise on renewable energy. In 2006, the company established a Clean Energy Leader strategy to promote renewable fuels, emissions reductions, and sustainable agricultural technology.
Posselius and his team helped develop a single-pass cut-and-chip harvesting system for woody bioenergy crops like shrub willow and hybrid poplar for use primarily in the Northeast but which is now sold worldwide. The system was developed in collaboration with NEWBio researchers at the State University of New York College of Environmental Science and Forestry (SUNY-ESF) and others, with support from the U.S. Department of Energy and the New York State Research and Development Authority.
IIn 2004, Posselius contacted Dr. Timothy Volk, senior research associate at SUNY-ESF, who researches the use of short-rotation woody crops for bioenergy. The system they developed is based on the 130 FB woody-crops cutting header, now available through the New Holland’s dealerships, which can cut and chip shrub willow or hybrid poplar grown for bioenergy in one pass. The harvesting system has been helpful in the operations of growers enrolled in the USDA’s Biomass Crop Assistance Program (BCAP).
The header was designed specifically to harvest willow and poplar more efficiently and to work with New Holland’s line of self-propelled forage harvesters with limited modifications to the harvester. Plants are cut at the base and run through the machine; the chips are then blown into an accompanying truck or wagon. The result is a system that can chop 60 to 80 green tons or more per hour of consistently sized chips, doubling the harvester’s output while cutting costs by a third.
The header was introduced commercially in 2009, when it won an AE50 award from the American Society of Agricultural and Biological Engineers as one of 50 most innovative products to enter the market that year. Since then, New Holland has sold a number of the harvesting systems, most of them in Europe, where woody crops are more commonly grown for renewable energy. There are about a half-dozen now in the United States; one of them is owned by Celtic Energy Farm in northern New York, where much of the willow is currently being grown for bioenergy.
The new header system gave producers and end users such as biopower facilities more confidence in shrub willow as a feedstock: 500 hectares of the crop were enrolled in the BCAP project in northern New York State in 2012.
The header is a big step forward in the commercial profitability of biomass crops. It opens up opportunities for farmers, especially those who run very expensive harvest equipment, such as a $500,000 forage harvester, for just a short part of the year. Most agricultural base units can harvest several types of crops but that usually requires a specialized head designed for each specific crop.
“With virtually no modification [to the harvester] and by adding a new header like the 130 FB coppice header, we can extend the hours per year a customer can use their harvester. It’s a win for everyone,” Posselius said.
But the economics are critical to adoption of the harvesting system. Although a producer buying a forage harvester along with several different heads might get a better price from the dealer, the cost of a coppice header still runs between $80,000 and $120,000.
“The 130 FB has to be something that our customers can afford,” Posselius said. “What he gets for the chips has to cover his costs and get some profit; the same thing for the customer who buys the chips. So everyone has to make a profit. It’s what makes financial sense to all three—New Holland, the customer, and the person who buys the chips or switchgrass bales.”
In addition to shrub willow, New Holland participates in studies of other renewable energy crops and the equipment to produce and harvest them. The company’s innovation team has been working with biomass crops such as eucalyptus in South Florida and Brazil, and poplar in Europe and in the Northwest, where it is also used for pulp. It has worked with Iowa State University and Penn State University on miscanthus, and with Penn State on corn stover. Both of these crops hold great potential as bioenergy feedstocks in the Northeast.
New Holland is also developing modifications and kits for mower-conditioners so they will function better in heavy biomass crops, and equipment to improve switchgrass baling.
The company has adapted its MegaCutter, a disk mower-conditioner that can also pull a baler, for use with miscanthus. Another piece of equipment, the Cornrower, is an adaptation to the corn chopping header on a combine which handles the stover separately from the grain. The operator chooses the number of rows of stover and stalks to chop and windrow; the remaining stover is left for soil improvement. The harvested stover can be used as feed or for use in a cellulosic energy plant.
A well-functioning supply chain for willow and other short-rotation woody crops includes efficient production, harvest, transport, and delivery to a biorefinery or other end user—and profitably for everyone. The cost of those operations compared to the price received for biomass is one of the challenges facing the development of feedstock supply chains.
With advances like the single-pass system, that supply chain is steadily improving. Commercial production in New York State is creating fertile ground for innovation by growers. The state Department of Energy recently awarded SUNY-ESF another grant to continue working with New Holland to further optimize harvesting and logistics of willow and hybrid poplar.
As companies like New Holland make more useful equipment available to perennial biomass crop producers, they help reduce costs and make bioenergy crops more profitable. Equipment like New Holland’s 130 FB coppice header is one step in cutting costs and helping producers harvest faster and more efficiently, while expanding the use of their expensive harvest equipment. This makes it a mutually beneficial arrangement, which will strengthen the supply of renewable energy feedstocks into the future.
- Research Summary: Characteristics of Willow Biomass Chips Produced Using a Single-Pass Cut-and-Chip Harvester
- Double A Willow Strengthens Biomass Supply Chain by Providing Willow Plantings to Biofuels Industry
- Research Summary: Triploid Hybrids of Shrub Willow Yield More Biomass Than Diploids and Tetraploids
Susan Harlow, freelance journalist
John Posselius, Innovation Engineering Director for New Holland Agriculture
- Justin Heavey, Senior Research Support Specialist, Willow Project Research Group at SUNY ESF
The Northeast Woody/Warm-season Biomass Consortium – NEWBio is supported by Agriculture and Food Research Initiative Competitive Grant no. 2012-68005-19703 from the USDA National Institute of Food and Agriculture.
Led by Penn State University, NEWBio includes partners from Cornell University, SUNY College of Environmental Science and Forestry, West Virginia University, Delaware State University, Ohio State University, Rutgers University, USDA’s Eastern Regional Research Center, and DOE’s Oak Ridge National Laboratory and Idaho National Laboratory.