Willow Harvest Promises Cheap Biomass Fuel

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Willow production can take advantage of Vermont's many farm fields left fallow, no longer needed for corn acres harvested a year.

Still to be answered are questions about the economics of willow as a fuel — that's one of the goals of the Middlebury experiment.

Christopher Recchia, executive director at the Montpelier-based Biomass Energy Research Project, a nonprofit that promotes biofuels, said the best estimates now are that willow would cost more than twice as much as wood chips, currently about $8 per million Btu. Willow would be competitive with wood pellets, which are about $23 per million Btu and oil, about $32 per million Btu.

Adam Sherman, program director for fuels at BERC, praised the work going on at Middlebury, saying the college is "doing the right thing in leaving no stone unturned" in looking for fuel sources for its biomass system.

But Sherman says Vermont isn't in danger of getting to "peak wood," the way some energy experts talk about "peak oil" meaning that supplies of petroleum soon will be declining steeply.

Vermont is 78 percent forested, and its forests add about 13 million tons of wood every year through natural growth, Sherman said. Loggers take about 1.5 million to 2 million tons of that, and could double the harvest without harming the forests, according to Sherman's group.

At Middlebury's willow patch, the experiment is about a year from completion. The first crop will be harvested in the winter of 2010-2011. So far, aside from a bit of blight on leaves on some plants closest to the road, Corbin said the experiment is going well.

"They're doing just what the book said they'd do," he said.