BENTON - Wanted: Switchgrass.
Benton Area School District is using locally-grown grass to keep its students warm this year, thanks to a biomass boiler that is expected to save the district almost $60,000 per year in fuel costs while providing a new business opportunity for local farmers.
The biomass boiler was constructed in 2009 at a cost of $2.1 million; the district received $700,000 in grant funds toward the project.
A pile of switchgrass briquettes, or “pucks,” is ready to be transferred to Benton Area School District’s new biomass boiler, where they will be used as fuel.
The biomass boiler replaced the district's oil-fired boiler system. Biomass boilers produce thermal energy through renewable fuels.
The school district chose to fuel the boiler with switchgrass in order to maximize the amount of local involvement in the project.
Benton's boiler, located in the district maintenance building, heats both the high school and elementary school. The three buildings are connected through underground piping.
The district issued an announcement Tuesday for local farmers: "Benton is now up and running with the biomass boiler, and we do need a supply of switchgrass," said district Business Manager Beverly J. Ribble.
A study issued by McClure Co., a subsidiary of PPL Energy Services, found that the district will require 265 tons of switchgrass per year. The district burned 210 tons of switchgrass from December 2009 to March, with the boiler operating intermittently. It saved 17,177 gallons of oil and $39,851 for the district.
Ribble said farmers represent about 30 percent of the district tax base, and farmers can provide the switchgrass needed to operate the boiler. The ideal farm offering switchgrass would be located within 24 miles of the boiler, she said.
"We wanted to give something back to (the farmers) but yet save money for the school district, and also back off the fossil fuels," she said.
Adam Dantzscher, of Renewable Energy Resources, said the availability of switchgrass allows the district to support the local community rather than purchasing fuels from other countries.
"You plant a seed in the ground and there's your fuel supply ... You have a renewable resource that's in your community," he said.
The district purchased baled switchgrass from five local farmers last year.
Switchgrass can be an asset to a farm, according to local farmers Aaron Bartholomew and Andy Wodehouse, who provided the district with 22 tons of switchgrass last year. Switchgrass requires minimal fertilizer and water, and can be planted in areas that are not ideal for food crops, such as hills or marshes. Wodehouse said he yielded about 1.9 tons of switchgrass per acre last year, and there is room to increase the density.
"We'd like to go even higher," he said.
Once bales of switchgrass are transported to district grounds, the switchgrass is fed into a briquetting machine, which packs the switchgrass into 1.5-inch briquettes, also called "pucks" for their resemblance to a hockey puck. The briquettes then are dumped into the biomass boiler's fuel storage pit, which can hold 40 tons of switchgrass pucks. A series of augers and belts moves the switchgrass to the boiler's combustion unit. Ash is separated from the fuel and deposited in a separate bin.
James Babcock, of Advanced Recycling Equipment, said computers are used to control every step of the process.
"We monitor everything that happens in the entire system through a 10-inch touch-screen," he said. "Just like you're ordering a sub at Sheetz."
The biomass boiler burns at an average of 3 tons of switchgrass per day.
Ribble noted that other local districts, including those in Sullivan County, East Lycoming and Wyalusing, are in various stages of biomass boiler projects.
"There is a market for switchgrass out there," she said.
Ribble said the district will host an informational meeting for local farmers to learn about the opportunities in switchgrass at 6 p.m. Jan. 20 at the high school.