According to the Georgia Agricultural Statistics Service there were 650,000 acres of hay grown in the state of Georgia in 2001. The majority of this hay was used as forage for livestock. But, if a new biomass project currently underway at the Sunbelt Ag Expo in Moultrie, Ga., proves successful farmers could one day be growing hay to use for the production of energy.

Southern Company and Georgia Power, the Electric Power Research Institute and Auburn University are investigating the use of pelletized biomass as a fuel for producing renewable energy. Biomass is any organic matter such as wood products, dried vegetation, crop residues and aquatic plants that can be used as renewable energy.

The group is studying the potential for producing cubes of switchgrass and other hay that could be combined with coal and burned to produce electricity. Earlier studies have shown that loose hay mixed with coal does not flow properly, and one goal of the research is to determine if cubed grasses overcome this problem. Energy produced from biomass is considered to be a renewable option that not only lowers emissions but also does not contribute appreciably to the level of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere.

The initial phase of the research will investigate the procedures and additives required to make an acceptable pellet and the costs associated with the process. Switchgrass from a farm in Lincoln, Ala., and bermudagrass hay from the Sunbelt Ag Expo in Moultrie will be processed in several ways to look at different ways to form the pellets.

If the project is successful, combustion and handling tests will be conducted at Georgia Power's Plant Mitchell in Albany. Several weeks of testing would then take place to determine how the fuel will work in the plant. The project also would quantify the benefits of this renewable energy and the costs. The end result could lead to a longer-term study of the effects of co-firing these pellets at Plant Mitchell.

Chip Blalock, executive director of the Sunbelt Ag Expo says, “We are pleased to partner with the Southern Company on this Biomass research project. If bermudagrass proves to be a viable supplemental energy source that is both economical and environmentally friendly, it would provide another market for bermudagrass and enhance the profitability of the farming operation. It continues to be part of our mission at the Sunbelt Ag Expo to conduct research that may have a positive impact on the profitability of the family farm.”