Field Notes
VT Bioenergy

vbi_final-report-2016_full_cover_thumbnailThe purpose of the Vermont Bioenergy Initiative (VBI) was to foster the development of sustainable, distributed, small-scale biodiesel and grass/mixed fiber industries in Vermont in order to produce bioenergy for local transportation, agricultural, and thermal applications, as a replacement for fossil fuel based energy.

The VBI marked the first strategic effort to reduce Vermont’s dependency on petroleum through the development of homegrown alternatives. With billions of gallons of ethanol produced and blended with gasoline each year in the United States—and very little possibility of corn-based ethanol development in Vermont—we focused on a specific subset of bioenergy alternatives:

sunflower_aboutWe worked with interested farmers to develop on-farm oilseed production, processing, and biodiesel production capacity for farm and local community use, and with researchers to develop the agronomics and economics of oilseed crop and biodiesel production in Vermont.

grass_aboutWe worked with interested farmers, entrepreneurs, and researchers to augment Vermont’s woody biomass supply with grass and mixed fiber pellets for thermal applications.

algae_aboutWe worked with interested researchers, entrepreneurs, and farmers to develop cold climate algae that could eventually be available for biodiesel production.

We developed many tools for understanding Vermont’s bioenergy alternatives,

► the Renewable Energy Atlas of Vermont (relaunched in 2016 as the Community
Energy Dashboard), a map-based website for visualizing existing and potential
renewable energy sites;
► an Oilseed and Biodiesel Production Calculator (downloaded more than 200
times from people in the U.S. and around the world);
► a nine-part video series, Bioenergy Now!— collectively viewed over 89,000
times—that highlights oilseed crop and biodiesel production, grass energy
production, and algae research;
► the VBI website, a repository for all materials developed by the Initiative; and
► content for biomass-to-bioenergy courses offered at the University of Vermont
and Vermont Technical College.

At the beginning of this project, Vermont had very limited experience with the research, feedstocks, production processes, industry networks, and many other factors necessary to develop biodiesel and grass/mixed fiber pellet industries. Our investments in feasibility analyses, research and development, technology and demonstration projects, and education and outreach resources for various bioenergy feedstocks have created a solid foundation for future efforts to build from.

Click here to read the full VBI DOE final report.

Borderview FarmAt Borderview Farm in Alburgh, Roger Rainville’s dairy-turned-energy farm makes biodiesel from locally-grown sunflower seeds.

In 2008, when diesel prices rose from $4 to $5 per gallon, Rainville began experimenting with farm-scale biodiesel production. With guidance from UVM Extension and grant funding from the Vermont Bioenergy Initiative, Rainville began planting sunflowers on a portion of his 214 acres and installing biodiesel processing equipment. Oilseed sunflowers (as opposed to confectionary sunflowers that are grown for eating) are the most popular oilseed crop in Vermont, with hundreds of acres planted statewide. The crop is grown in rotation with grains and grasses and yields high quantities of oil.

Harvesting, Cleaning, and Pressing

Following harvest with a combine, a seed cleaner and grain dryer are used to prepare the seeds for storage in a 200-ton grain bin prior to processing. A flex auger system moves the seeds from the storage bin into hoppers on each press, and screw augers push the seed through a narrow dye at the front of the press. Extracted oil oozes from the side of the barrel and is collected in settling tanks while pelletized meal is pushed through the dye at the front and is stored in one-ton agricultural sacks. The oil can then be used as culinary oil for cooking or further refined into biodiesel. The leftover seed meal is used for livestock feed, fuel for pellet stoves, or fertilizer for crops.

Biodiesel Processing

The small-scale biodiesel production facility at Borderview Farm is an 800 square foot insulated and heated building (the space does not need to be heated, but the oil should be stored where it will not freeze) that houses an oil press, a BioPro 190 automated biodiesel processor, a methanol recovery system, and a set of dry-wash columns for cleaning the fuel. The clean oil at the top of each settling tank is added to the BioPro 190 processor along with lye, methanol, and sulfuric acid. The automated processor runs through several stages of processing in about 48 hours (esterification, transesterification, settling, washing, and drying), with one break after 24 hours to remove the glycerin byproduct.

Safety equipment in the processing facility includes personal protective equipment like aprons, gloves, eye protection, a ventilation system, gas detectors, and spill containment materials. At Borderview Farm a set of standard operating procedures hangs on the wall and blank check-sheets are in a binder to make the process easy to repeat. The finished biodiesel is stored in 250 gallon pallet tanks making distribution to different farms easier. The installed capacity of the facility can process 100 tons of seeds from 138 acres of sunflowers per year, yielding 10,500 gallons of biodiesel and 64 tons of sunflower meal (assuming the state average yield of 1,500 pounds sunflower seeds per acre and operation of 24 hours per day for 260 days per year).

Rainville switched from purchasing diesel for five tractors and one truck to making his own biodiesel. He wanted to be independent of imported fuel, and liked creating a new way for farmers to diversify. “Using land for making biodiesel is not the most economical option compared to some other crops, but it’s about creating opportunities to try something different,” says Rainville.

Cost Benefits

Rainville’s annual biodiesel use has ranged from 500 to 3,000 gallons per year. At current prices (over $4 per gallon for diesel and $2.29 per produced gallon of biodiesel) biodiesel has saved him from $500 to $4,000 per year in fuel costs. He also emphasizes energy independence as an added benefit. Plus, any growers that also raise livestock can use the meal, which is leftover after the oil is extracted, as part of their feed rations. Rainville recommends talking with an animal nutritionist to blend this into feed at the right ratio, since sunflower meal has a high fat content.

This story was originally released in a series of energy case studies showcasing farms, businesses, vendors, installers, and technical assistance providers who have made a difference with energy efficiency savings and renewable energy production—all of which are components for helping Vermont reach the renewable energy and environmental impact goals of the Farm to Plate Strategic Plan. Learn more at

River Berry FarmDavid Marchant and Jane Sorensen of River Berry Farm—an organic vegetable and fruit producer in Fairfax—were early adopters of biomass heating when they installed a corn and pellet furnace in one of their greenhouses in 2008. The furnace required manual lighting and was snuffed out often when strong winds blew, and did not produce reasonable heat. “I kept thinking, there has got to be a better option,” recalls David, “It was a real labor burden, and you couldn’t count on it.”

Based on their early experiences and bolstered by a commitment to long-term sustainability and reduced fossil fuel dependence, River Berry Farm opted to host a biomass heating demonstration project. This time, they opted for a higher-rated boiler rather than a furnace. Boilers produce hot water, rather than hot air, which allows more options for distributing the heat. The new system also had an automated propane ignition system.

The biomass heating demonstration was part of a UVM Extension project aimed at trialing several furnaces in agricultural heating applications with funding support provided by the High Meadows Fund. According to Chris Callahan, Ag Engineer with UVM Extension Agricultural Engineering Program who assisted with some of the design and performance assessment, “The main lessons learned from these early installations were to buy high quality fuel, seek improved automatic ignition controls, invest in a good chimney and install it well, and know the actual heat output rating of the unit.”

Modern biomass heating appliances generally include a fuel storage bin, an auger for feeding fuel to the appliance, the appliance itself (boiler or furnace) with an ignition system, a combustion chamber, a heat exchanger, and a heat distribution system. They also incorporate some means of controlling combustion, fuel feed rate, and air flow and often include emissions control measures and automated ash removal.

The selected boiler was a Central Boiler Maxim 250 with a 250,000 BTU/hr input rating, efficiency of 87.8%, and EPA Phase II Hydronic Heater qualification. “The boiler makes hot water which we can use in multiple greenhouses by plumbing it to them in insulated PEX piping.  Once in the greenhouse, we convert to hot air with a hot water fan coil, put it in the ground for root-zone heating or on the benches in our mat-heating system for starts,” says Marchant. “I like it. I keep trying to find something wrong with it, but I can’t. The payback period is a bit longer due to higher initial costs, but you have to expect that.”

The basic system cost was approximately $13,000 for the boiler, bin, pad, and plumbing to a hot water fan coil. The other heat distribution systems included in-ground PEX, heat exchange, and plumbing for a bench heat system and added approximately another $5,000. The system is more automated and reliable than the earlier furnace was, but the higher initial costs and the fact that the system is only used 3 months out of the year do prolong the payback period to about 12 years when compared with a propane furnace. If the system was used for 6 (space heating) or even 12 months (wash water, pasteurization) of the year the payback would be halved or quartered, respectively.

“In addition to the financial payback, the carbon emissions avoidance is also of interest to many people,” says Callahan, “In River Berry Farm’s case, the Maxim is helping them avoid 5,910 pounds of net CO2 emissions per year which is about equivalent to 5,000 miles car travel or the CO2 sequestered by half an acre of pine forest.”

Learn more about UVM Extension’s Agricultural Engineering Program at.

This story was originally released in a series of energy case studies showcasing farms, businesses, vendors, installers, and technical assistance providers who have made a difference with energy efficiency savings and renewable energy production—all of which are components for helping Vermont reach the renewable energy and environmental impact goals of the Farm to Plate Strategic Plan. Learn more at


22 Grass wood blend pelletsEfficiency Vermont, Renewable Energy Resource Center, Renewable Energy Vermont and Clean Energy Development Fund combine efforts to bring up to $5,500 in rebates to Vermonters who heat local

Through a generous opportunity, Vermonters now have a short-time frame before the new year to capitalize on a fantastic incentive offering that helps them save money, while supporting Vermont jobs and sustainable forests, while making sure they stay warm this winter.

Vermonters can get up to $5,500 to help switch from fossil fuel to local wood heating.  Cash incentives are available from the Clean Energy Development Fund and Efficiency Vermont. Renewable Energy Vermont and the Renewable Energy Resource Center have partnered to help promote the incentives.

“We’ve been very happy with our decision to switch to a wood pellet boiler. Not only do we save money every year on our fuel bill, but we also love the fact that we’re helping to keep forests intact and logging jobs going,” says Mark Bushnell of Middlesex.

Vermonters who make the switch to wood pellet fuel typically save $1,500 annually when compared to oil and propane fuel heating options.  And for those who are used to whole-home heating through their traditional boiler, the wood pellet boiler keeps it simple and complete.  Advanced wood pellet boilers are fully automatic, so there’s no work for the home or business owner.

“I heated my home for years with a standard wood stove, but I’m happier with my wood pellet boiler. The new boiler is much more efficient and better for the environment because it is cleaner burning. And it feels great to be off fossil fuels,” says Susan Clark of Middlesex.

Wood pellet boilers, though not well known in the United States, are the primary way of heating in some parts of the world, including Upper Austria where more than 40,000 homes and businesses heat with wood from their background in an easy, seamless way.  In fact, the State of Vermont and Upper Austria are involved in a Sister Statehood Agreement to help learning across both sides of the Atlantic to increase the uptake of this sustainable, local heating option.

“For many years, Vermont has been a national leader in the use of modern wood heating systems in large buildings like schools, office buildings, and apartment buildings. With pellets now available in bulk using specialized delivery trucks that conveniently blow pellets into a fuel bin and heating systems that are fully-automated, many homeowners and small businesses are also making the switch from oil and propane,” said Adam Sherman of the Biomass Energy Resource Center.

For more information, please go to

Media Contacts:

Renewable Energy Vermont, Ansley Bloomer, [email protected] (802) 595-0723

Biomass Energy Resource Center, Alayna Howard, [email protected] (802) 540-7656

Renewable Energy Resource Center, Alayna Howard, [email protected] (802) 540-7656

Efficiency Vermont, Alayna Howard, [email protected] (802) 540-7656

Clean Energy Development Fund, Andrew Perchlik,  [email protected]  (802) 828-4017


The Tnational bioenergy dayhird Annual National Bioenergy Day (NBD), which will take place Wednesday, October 21st, is a day that is marked with events from across the country that celebrates  energy independence, local jobs, and many other benefits of local bioenergy. Led by Biomass Power Association in partnership with U.S. Forest Service, National Bioenergy Day is an opportunity for Vermonters to showcase our research, progress, and impacts in producing local bioenergy for local use.

How To Get Involved:

  • Organize an event on or near October 21ndthat showcases bioenergy as a clean, efficient, and resourceful way to produce energy. Emphasizes bioenergy’s role in improving environmental health; and facilitates collaboration along the supply chain.
  • Partner with someone who works in the bioenergy supply chain to create an event.  Use the Vermont Energy Atlas to find partners in your area.
  • Piggyback on an existing event and call it a NBD event.
  • Share and talk about NBD in your social media and press efforts while promoting impacts in your community.

The Vermont Bioenergy Initiative, for example, will spend the day re-capping and previewing events and research on our Twitter handle @VTBioenergy that took place throughout the summer and that are planned for the fall.  We’ll be recapping and sharing exciting things like the exciting learning opportunities at the University of Vermont, Full Sun Company’s Biodiesel and Meal production, and much more!

For more information, you can visit also visit and follow @USAbiomass on twitter!

Click Here for National Bioenergy Day Participation Guide!

Brandon VT Canola Field Non-GMO canola field in full bloom in Brandon VT Credit: Full Sun Company

Brandon VT Canola Field
Non-GMO canola field in full bloom in Brandon VT
Credit: Full Sun Company

In early 2014 Full Sun Company, a small start-up business was co-founded by Netaka White and Davis McManus. Fueled by an interest to help family farms grow, Full Sun began processing sunflower and non-GMO canola oil crops into specialty food-grade oil and high-protein meal for the farmers. Sunflower and canola oil distribution picked up quickly through local CSAs, farm stores, specialty food shops, health and wellness centers, and direct sales to chefs in the Northeast.

Netaka White previously served as the Vermont Bioenergy Initiative’s (VBI) program director, which directly helped to develop the business model to nurture farm partnerships, both as growers and recipients of oilseed meal – the other product that’s generated from making the oil. At Full Sun oilseeds are pressed with large mechanical machinery, producing oil and a granular meal. The team at Full Sun Company learned a lot about seed storage and oil pressing from the early VBI grantees, such as John Williamson of State Line Farm, and Roger Rainville of Borderview Farm.

The first of the two products, the seed meal, has been used as fuel for pellet stoves, or as is the case with Full Sun, sold as fertilizer for crops, or nutritional meal for livestock. At full operation, Full Sun can pump out one ton of meal per day – necessary to meet the growing demand of such customers as The Intervale in Burlington, Vermont and several local pig, poultry, dairy, and beef producers.

Full Sun Company employee, Zach Hartlyn, moves an off-spec oil barrel for biodiesel production Credit: Full Sun Company

Full Sun Company employee, Zach Hartlyn, moves an off-spec oil barrel for biodiesel production
Credit: Full Sun Company

The second product, the oil, is used as culinary oil for cooking. Staying true to their commitment to an extraordinary culinary product, Full Sun Company diverts any of the oil that does not meet their standards to Vermont Bioenergy Initiative biofuel producers to undergo further processing and become biofuel. Approximately 250-300 gallons of off-spec oil for biodiesel has been processed since February, 2014.

In October, 2014, Full Sun Company halted operation to make room for growth to meet the increased demand for their products and scale up to align with Vermont’s accelerating agricultural economy. White and McManus acquired the former Vermont Soap building in Middlebury, Vermont in order to build a full scale mill and achieve their anticipated greater capacity. Over the course of one of the coldest winters in recent history, the Full Sun team made the renovations and adjustments needed to repurpose the building into the first non-GMO verified oil mill in New England. By March of 2015 Full Sun Company had pressed sunflower and canola seeds to make their first batch of specialty oils. The new operation can yield 130 gallons of oil per day – about 2600 gallons per month!

With no shortage of innovation or ambition, White notes, “David and I are in this with the interest of having a transformative effect on local agriculture and food systems.” Well on their way, the operation is certified GMO free, and the next steps are being taken towards becoming certified organic.

As they grow, Full Sun would like to buy from local grower-suppliers and work with local businesses to package and label feed to be distributed to farmers of varying sizes, from backyard chicken growers to larger operations. Collaborating with Vermont breweries and distilleries is also in queue. Full Sun is working with one local distillery to put together “a package” for farmers so they have markets for profitable grain crops throughout four years of rotation (rye, wheat, sunflowers, etc.) and can offer farmers the indexed prices for these locally grown grains and oilseeds.

6.John making bioMaking biofuel, it sounds like a complicated process taking place in a laboratory somewhere, but in reality it’s quite simple and happening in small, rural Vermont farms. Vermont farmers like John Williamson of State Line Farm and others are electing to create their own fuel and meal. These farmers are enjoying the benefits of the distance to source resiliency and cost reliability that comes with the local production for local use biofuel model they have adopted.

As John Williamson, a Vermont Bioenergy grant recipient says, “100 years ago everyone produced their own fuel; we are just doing that now in a different way.” This is a novel way to look at what he is doing on his North Bennington farm. Vermont farmers in the past would plan to allocate their acreage to feed their livestock, some of which aided in energy-intensive farm activities like plowing, planting, and the eventual harvesting of their field. With the local production for local use model, John is now thinking about how to feed his tractor so he can do the same activities. So what is the feed of choice for John’s John Deer tractor? Sunflowers!

John loads dry and clean sunflower seeds into hoppers on a TabyPressen Oilpress, where screw augers push the seed through a narrow dye. Extracted oil oozes from the side of the barrel and is collected in settling tanks while pelletized meal is pushed through the dye at the front and is stored in one-ton agricultural sacks. The first of the two byproducts, the seed meal, can fuel pellet stoves, serve as fertilizer for crops, or find its way to local Vermont farms to supplement animal nutrition as livestock feed. The second byproduct, the fuel, could at this point be used as culinary oil for cooking, but instead will experience further refinement and become biofuel.

The processing of the oil takes place in Johns self-designed Biobarn. In the below video, John Williamson and Chris Callahan of University of Vermont Extension show us how they can grow oil crops, make biodiesel, feed animals, and save money!


biodiesel in tractor

Biodiesel Being Used On-farm in Tractor

Mark Mordasky, owner of Rainbow Valley Farm in Orwell, Vermont has been growing soybeans as a cash crop and for on-farm biodiesel and animal feed since 2008. When fuel prices began to climb, Mark took initiative and started searching for an innovative and more cost efficient way to meet his farm’s energy demands. The Vermont Sustainable Jobs Fund was able to help Mark take his first steps towards sustainable biofuel production. Mark is able to press these soybeans after harvesting and make two distinct products, oil and meal. The meal is an instantly marketable product and can be sold as feedstock or organic fertilizer; the oil will be further processed into biodiesel.

Soybean Meal

Soybean Meal

Soybeans crops are well suited for biodiesel production in Vermont and perform best in heavy soil like those found in Addison County, as University of Vermont Extension Agronomist, Heather Darby explains. Soybeans don’t always do well in in light, well drained soils, and as with any crop the best way to understand the demands of any crops is to contact your University Extension and have your soil tested.  Additionally, because soybeans are a legume, they produce nitrogen in association with bacteria, meaning that these crops don’t require the application of additional nitrogen to produce a high yield. These low input, high yield crops are fairly easy to grow, are well suited to the Vermont climate, and afford farmers flexible planting dates. Heather and the rest of the UVM Extension team have seen yields ranging from 35 bushels per acre to up to 85 bushels per acre with varying practices.

In the below video, Mike Mordasky shares his experience and knowledge of soybean production from planting through harvesting harvest and beyond to storage and the creation of the final products. In addition, Heather Darby shares here insights into maturity groupings, variety selection, and best growing practices.

9CHe innoculum bags 2With funding from the US Department of Energy secured by US Senator Patrick Leahy, the Vermont Bioenergy Initiative has supported a number of algae biofuel research projects. This early-stage research and development was undertaken to determine the most viable and cost-effective methods for accessing algae’s commercial potential to produce clean renewable energy while treating wastewater and supplying nutrient-rich feeds and food.

Algae produces more than half of the oxygen on the planet, while consuming vast amounts of heat-trapping carbon dioxide and taking up nutrients like nitrogen and phosphorous to make biomass and energy. The lipids, or oil, that algae produce can be extracted and processed into renewable fuels such as biodiesel. Algae are an excellent source of oil for making biodiesel, which could displace substantial volumes of petro-diesel for heating and transportation. Microalgae reproduce rapidly, and they grow on non-agricultural land, so they do not compete with food, feed, or fiber production.

The keys to commercializing algae for biofuel production include identifying and cultivating native species, optimizing growing conditions in natural and artificial environments and the efficient harvest and oil extraction of algal biomass. At the forefront of this algae biofuel research is Dr. Anju Dahiya, cofounder of General Systems Research, LLC, lead biofuels instructor at the University of Vermont’s Rubenstein School of Environment and Natural Resources, and Vermont Bioenergy algae for biofuel grant recipient. Dr. Dahiya has been searching for high lipid algae strains, and scaling those up to a level that could be available for commercial use, especially for biofuels.

“At GSR Solutions, we are looking at producing algae not just for biofuels, but combining it with waste water treatment and to produce other valued byproducts as well. This is very significant, because this would make algae production cost-effective. This would also help in nutrient recovery,” says Dahiya.

Bioenergy Textbook

innovative new textbook that provides insight into the potential and current advances and benefits of biofuel

Some of the findings and knowledge afforded by Dr. Dahiya’s research are available in the new introductory textbook, Bioenergy: Biomass to Biofuels, which was edited by Anju Dahiya less than a year ago and represents a compilation of work from an extensive list of well-respected university extension programs, such as The University of Vermont Research Extension, as well as numerous national organizations including the US Department of Energy’s National Renewable Energy Laboratories. Dr. Dahiya will also be using this textbook as the basis for a University of Vermont Bioenergy Course offered for the 2015 fall semester.

In the below video, Vermont researchers and entrepreneurs demonstrate their innovations in algae to biofuel research and development.

For more algae bioenergy resources see the visit the Algae section of the Vermont Bioenergy Website.

Learn more about the mentioned UVM Bioenergy Course visit the University of Vermont Renewable BioEnergy page or email the lead instructor Anju Dahiya at [email protected].

For more information on the introductory textbook Bioenery; Biomass to Biofuels see our write up on the book here!

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