As CEO and co-founder of LST Energy Jim Trussler is a man on a mission: to tout the benefits of growing and using hay, or rather concentrated hay pellets, to heat homes across North America. A Nova Scotia-based start-up, LST has built a patented device that turns hay into pellets that burn efficiently in a range of burners that the company is now manufacturing.
“The hay farmers of North America will one day out-produce the oil sands,” Trussler quoted Roger Samson, a biomass energy expert, while speaking at a TEDx event in Nova Scotia in June. They “can produce the energy equivalent of 7.2% of the world’s oil supply (82 million barrels of oil/day).”
Growing crops for energy has been blamed for driving up basic food costs in countries around the world. Examining the case of hay in North America, however, Samson and colleagues determined that there are 90 million hectares of land area suitable for hay production out of a total 450 million hectares of agricultural land across the continent.
Growing hay on this land and using the biomass for energy could done “without interrupting the food chain for animals, or for humans,” Trussler noted, producing enough heat for 69 million homes.
Hay Pellets for Home Heating
Trussler and his partner have invented and built a simple, straightforward device that takes in hay, grinds it up into a “sawdust-type consistency,” and turns that into concentrated, dense and stable pellets that can be burned efficiently and create no pollution. They’re also manufacturing a line of burners of various size and capacity for home heating.
Trussler pointed out that “the same thing can be done from leftover biomass from sunflower crops, as well as corn…or sugar beets, or potatoes.” “Even the skins and cores of apple make great fuel pellets,” he waxed enthusiastically. “But it’ll be mostly hay because we can grow an enormous amount of it.”
Why hay? One reason is what you get out of it, in terms of energy, compared to what’s put in to grow and process it. Hay pellets have a surprisingly high energy input-to-output ratio of 20:1. That compares to 10:1 for wood, 5:1 for biodiesel and an extremely low 1.5:1 for corn ethanol, according to Trussler.
One pound of hay will produce almost 8,000 BTUs, “that’s almost exactly equal to hardwood, and frankly, quite close to what coal produces when it burns, so it’s a fantastic heat source,” he noted.
Clean, Cheap, Predictable & Local
In addition, hay is cheap to produce and plentiful, requiring relatively little in the way of added inputs. And it’s supply is predictable. That holds out another substantial promise: low, steady, predictable costs for consumers. That’s a stark contrast to the cost volatility inherent in fossil fuels.
“The crop yields are predictable from year to year to year; it doesn’t really depend that much on the weather, and it requires so few inputs that the costs are well-known and quite low,” Trussler noted.
“And so consumers can look forward to having a consistent supply of heating materials at consistent prices, and that’s something that you can’t get from fossil fuels. And frankly, that concerns a lot of us, and businesses, because of the unpredictability of that.”
At current prices, consumers could cut their home heating costs in half by installing the sort of equipment LST is manufacturing and burning concentrated hay pellets in them to heat their homes, Trussler said.
Then there are the environmental advantages. Burning hay pellets in an efficient burner has the same lifetime GHG footprint as wind, according to an Ontario government study.
Burning hay pellets for home heating as opposed to the current mix of home heating fuels in North America would cut greenhouse gas emissions by 90%. What’s left is almost completely reabsorbed in next year’s crop, according to Trussler.
Boosting Local, Rural Economies
Finally, going down this path would also have significant, positive impacts in terms of rural economic development, stimulating local economies by boosting rural incomes and job growth. And it would preserve land, according to Trussler.
Much of the money flow associated with this business model would be kept within the local community, he notes. “It’s not going to be a business where you’re going to ship this stuff across the country; it just doesn’t make any sense.” In addition, farmers could supplement their income by qualifying for carbon credits.
In terms of preserving land, “we have excess capacity farmland, and it’s just going dormant. If we’re not careful, that dormant farmland will just turn back into bush and not be easily usable for agricultural purposes again,” he said.
“If you put hay crops on it, it saves it from any erosion problems, and keeps it in tip-top shape until you do want to use it again for agricultural purposes, and it pays for itself while you’re doing that.”
I've been reporting and writing on a wide range of topics at the nexus of economics, technology, ecology/environment and society for some five years now. Whether in Asia-Pacific, Europe, the Americas, Africa or the Middle East, issues related to these broad topical areas pose tremendous opportunities, as well as challenges, and define the quality of our lives, as well as our relationship to the natural environment.