What’s especially significant is that study’s accounting of carbon emissions considered the entire life cycle of switchgrass, from crop planting, to growing, to harvesting and production. It still found switchgrass pellets yield a significant reduction in carbon dioxide equivalent (CO2e) emissions compared to both heating oil and natural gas, as well as a cost saving of just under $7 per gigajoule of heat compared to oil:
[T]he researchers calculated that using switchgrass pellets instead of petroleum fuel oil to generate one gigajoule of heat in residences would reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 146 pounds of CO2e. Using switchgrass pellets instead of natural gas to produce one gigajoule of heat in residences would reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 158 pounds of CO2e.
Substituting switchgrass pellets for fuel oil for home heating would also save money. Totaling all costs associated with installing an appropriate residential heating system and fuel consumption, Adler’s team concluded that each gigajoule of heat produced using switchgrass pellets would cost $21.36. Using fuel oil to produce the same amount of heat would cost $28.22. The savings would be less in a commercial facility, because capital costs for a commercial biomass boiler, storage, and fuel-handling equipment are five times greater than the costs for components that use fuel oil.
According to the team’s calculations, heating with switchgrass pellets would continue to be less expensive even if switchgrass production costs rose 200 percent and the price of fuel oil dropped 70 percent.
There some important caveats, to this as Clean Technica points out: First, the cost savings apply primarily to properties that are replacing old and outdated heating equipment, and thus will be investing in new equipment regardless. As noted above, the capital costs will significantly diminish savings for commercial rather than residential properties, though they won’t obliterate them. Second, the point applies to heating oil specifically — replacing gasoline with switchgrass biofuel would be difficult to justify currently, and replacing coal with switchgrass for electricity generation would significantly drive up energy costs. Third, the finding is specific to the Northeast region only.
But for the Northeast specifically, the ARS cites research indicating that by 2022 enough sustainably harvested biomass will be available to compensate for the entire regions demand for heating oil. That would save consumers something in the range of $2.3 to 3.9 billion in fuel costs per year, and cut the region’s carbon emissions by 5 percent. The finding also dovetails with President Obama’s “Better Buildings Initiative,” which aims, among other things, to take advantage of buildings and infrastructure with existing upgrade needs in order to improve energy efficiency and reduce energy bills. Finally, unlike other more widespread biofuels based on corn, for example, switchgrass has the economic and moral advantage of not doubling as a food source for humans.
So those caveats shouldn’t be interpreted to dismiss the importance of ARS’s analysis. The market is a huge and complex system, and how different people in different areas meet their energy needs are organic and myriad — how they move those needs from fossil fuels to renewable sources will be equally diverse. For the American Northeast, switchgrass for home heating looks like a compelling part of the mix. Every bite at the apple counts.