NCPA - National Center for Policy Analysis


April 14, 2006

While most people curse inflated gas, oil and power bills, there is good news for a budding new prairie industry: a heating fuel based on the combustion of pelletized switchgrass in Manitoba, Canada, is gaining popularity, says the Frontier Center For Public Policy (FCPP).

Manitoba is well-placed to become a major player in a variant of the solar power industry. Switchgrass -- a summer perennial grass native to North America -- grows in abundance there; the resulting pellets can be economically converted into a low-cost, high-quality heating source that creates less air pollution than conventional fuels, says FCPP.

This new cash crop could revitalize the rural economy by absorbing the surplus production capacity of the farm sector and cutting its own heating costs, says FCPP:

  • Currently, Manitoba has well-established technology to pelletize grasses, and much of the transport and storage infrastructure for grain suits biomass energy production.
  • The fuel can be used in commercial and residential boilers and recent figures show that grass-based pelletized biofuels cost about half as much as natural gas in North America.
  • Improved varieties of switchgrass and other warm season grasses can be developed in Manitoba creating a new seed industry for the province.
  • Moreover, pelletized biofuels would be good the Manitoba treasury; households are now switching from electrical heating to biofuel heating systems and there is an opportunity to expand into the United States.
  • The energy equivalent of 1.5 billion barrels of oil could be produced each year from energy crop production of 14 percent of North America's farmland, enough to displace 39 percent of annual U.S. oil imports.

Furthermore, as prices continue to rise for high-grade energy forms, low-priced farm-derived biofuel pellets will increasingly become the heating fuel of choice for many North American energy consumers, says FCPP.

Source: Editorial, "Energy Farming -- Manitoba's Biofuels Future: Pelletized grass for thermal heat," Frontier Center For Public Policy, February 3, 2006; based upon: Roger Samson, "The Potential for Grass Biofuel Pellets: An Ecological Response to North America's Energy Concerns," Frontier Center For Public Policy, February 2006.

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