FORT KENT, Maine — It used to be known as “prairie coal,” and now the heating fuel used in the late 19th century in the nation’s grasslands could be making a comeback.

The Center for Rural Sustainable Development at the University of Maine at Fort Kent last week announced it has received a $62,334 grant to study farmer interest in large-scale grass biomass production and the economic feasibility of grass biomass in the St. John Valley.

The study, “ Sustainable Heating in Fort Kent: A Biomass Initiative Case Study,” is federally funded through the Experimental Program to Stimulate Competitive Research and the Sustainability Solutions Partners project.

The total project budget is $74,801, including a local share of $12,467, according to information released by UMFK last week.

“Late last year we decided to take a look at grass as possible biofuel because we have so much fallow land here in Aroostook County,” John Martin, director of the Center for Rural Sustainable Development, said on Friday. “This could be a way for farmers to use the right type of grass as an alternate crop or for using land that is not currently in production.”

Martin, currently serving out his term as a Democratic member of the Maine House of Representatives for District 1, lost his re-election bid for that seat in November.

UMFK will work with student interns, the Cooperative Extension Service and local farmers in gauging the interest and feasibility of using grass to produce biomass heating fuel.

“There is a lot of underutilized agricultural land in northern Maine,” Andrew Plant, assistant professor with the UM cooperative extension, said on Saturday. “This could be a good way not let it go into secession or back into shrubs.”

Fifty percent of Aroostook County’s available cropland is currently out of production, Plant said. Using it to grow biofuel-producing grass would help keep it cleared when and if the demand for crops like potatoes increase to supply the region’s needs.

“Food demands are predicted to double or triple by 2050,” he said. “Growing grass for biomass could help us bridge the time to get there by keeping that land open.”

Some preliminary studies have already begun on different types of grasses and which would produce the better biomass heating source.

“It’s really like hay production,” Plant said. “We are actually trying to grow mulch or poor quality hay and that tends to do quite well.”

Over the past 15 years growing herbaceous and woody crops specifically for energy has gained widespread appeal around the country, according to the Biomass Energy Resource Center in Vermont.

“There is certainly enough land in the St. John Valley that if the farmers want to do something with this we will work with them,” Martin said, adding there are plans to contact area growers and landowners to gauge interest in the project.

“This winter we will work on a plan and see if we can encourage a couple of farmers to work with us,” he said.

That plan would include the construction of a prototype unit to transform the grass biomass into burnable pellets for home and commercial heating.

Pellets are not the only option, Plant said. Technology exists to use the grass in bales that have been processed through a specialized shredder.

“It would eliminate the need to make pellets and in the end would be less energy intensive,” he said. “That may be a model we could look at.”

On the economic front, according to the UMFK release, 10 percent of local household income is used for home heating, leaving residents vulnerable to fluctuating fossil fuel prices.

“These conditions raise a question about whether grass biomass, an annually renewable resource, could benefit the local economy for households and small business owners,” according to that release.

The grant represents the third year of biomass studies in northern Maine with UMFK and the University of Maine at Presque Isle, Plant said.

Previous work on the project, under the direction of project director Soraya Cardenas, UMFK associate professor of sociology and environmental studies currently on sabbatical, resulted in two educational documentaries about grass biomass that will be used during consumer and producer outreach.

This coming year student interns will conduct land use, economic and marketing studies on using locally produced grass as biofuel while university staff and area farmers will explore possible funding sources for long-term capital investment in grass biofuel processing and heat-producing facilities.

“Further exploration is needed and we are starting out small scale,” Plant said. “We are going to start small and figure out how this is all going to work while we get into the game.”

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Julia Bayly

Julia Bayly is a reporter at the Bangor Daily News with a regular bi-weekly column. Julia has been a freelance travel writer/photographer since 2000.