From gas to biomass: a tough journey

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2 November 2020

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When energy prices rise in 2006, green bell pepper grower Geert Bouten is not too worried, because he has concluded a multi-year contract to buy his gas at a fixed, lower price. But the prices keep rising and after an information evening organized by Rabobank, Bouten realizes: if that contract expires, I'll have a problem, because I can't grow peppers at this price. Together with two other growers in the street, he investigates the alternatives. They already share a liquid co2 installation, all have a farm of about 2 to 3 hectares and know that cooperation is necessary to be future proof. The BV Vuursaam was born.


First, the entrepreneurs want to return the surplus to the grid. Until Enexis discovers that there is no place on the current network to realize that. So the search continues. The entrepreneurs are investigating the possibilities of palm oil, coal, wood combustion and even geothermal energy. Quality, laws and regulations, cost of the investment, practical impact: everything is scrutinized. Quite a job, because there is little reliable knowledge available at the time. Initially, wood firing is not preferred, but after visiting several installations in Friesland, Germany and even Italy and Austria, they decide to go for it.
The next step is to choose the right installation. Bouten: "Some installations are enormously complex, taking on almost industrial forms. We didn't want that, we're basically growers. We were also looking for systems that perform well even when running on partial load, so that you can take the seasons of the various crops into account."

Invest: who dares?

During the search, a new SDE scheme is in the making, which means that horticulturalists will have to postpone their choice for a while yet. After all, without a subsidy there will be no biomass plant. Once the new SDE+ scheme is finally in place in 2011, the plans can be made concrete. The choice is made to produce only heat. The plans for realizing a biomass CHP were put aside. The investment would then be three times as high. One of the three market gardeners also withdrew. This is a major disappointment, because this installation is only profitable if you have about 8 hectares of greenhouses. "A good mutual understanding is therefore essential in such a project. It's almost like a marriage, you really enter into a long-term relationship with each other. Fortunately, this neighbor was willing to participate as my energy buyer. Otherwise we could have stopped the whole project." Thus, the wood-fired incinerator comes back into the picture after all.
Onward then again with the choice of plant. After an extensive inventory, a Danish, Austrian and Belgian firm remain. "We wanted a robust installation that also runs well with relatively poor biomass. The Austrian firm had experience mainly with high quality wood chips. But that's not necessarily what we get here; that could be anything. In the end we chose the Belgian company. In hindsight, the follow-up by that company after installation was somewhat disappointing and we had to figure out and solve a lot ourselves. The advantage is that you get to know the installation yourself.

"All kinds of factors play a role and there is much more to it than you first think"


In the meantime, the market for horticulture is changing: The crisis is also affecting horticulture. The business of the partner also goes up for sale. Eventually Bouten decides to take over the company, which means doubling the acreage. Bouten does not want to wait for someone else because he is afraid that the crops will be too warm or that he will not click with the entrepreneur. The takeover has turned out well, because Bouten has been able to reduce his cost price thanks to the increase in scale and to get good prices for his peppers. All the shares in Vuursaam were then in the hands of Bouten. Nevertheless, the energy market remains exciting. According to the SDE rules, there is a lower and upper limit for the subsidized energy price, but the gas price is a few cents below that. "The neighbor who bought the energy from me naturally began to wonder whether he wouldn't be better off switching to gas. Fortunately, that also worked out well and he continued to purchase. But at times like that you notice that all sorts of factors come into play and there's a lot more to it than you first think."

New boiler

If another new SDE scheme comes up in 2018, an advisor suggests that Bouten submit a new application, at his own risk. If the application is not approved, Bouten pays nothing; if it is successful, the advisor benefits. This is not a difficult issue for Bouten, because under the new scheme he can receive more subsidy. To his surprise, the new application is approved. There is just one important condition: a new boiler. That requires a large investment, but financing turns out not to be a problem. In November 2019 the boiler is demolished and in February 2020 the new boiler is in use. The boiler is smaller, but has more power and a more advanced filter system. The advantage of this: even less particulate matter and nitrogen emissions. Bouten: "To compare: we emit as much particulate matter as 3 ordinary open fires. The technology is so advanced that combustion takes place very efficiently and, thanks to the multicyclone, a lot of dust is captured. The cloth filter then cleans the flue gas. The flue gas condenser for a higher efficiency of the installation. Of course, initially there was some resistance from villagers. And fair is fair, during the start-up residents may have experienced some odor nuisance. But in the meantime it is running well. When we show people how it works, there is also much more understanding."

Bolts at the furnace of his biomass plant

"We emit as much particulate matter as 3 regular fireplaces."

Biomass from the region

Let alone the fear of odor nuisance, Bouten regularly has to explain whether biomass is a good alternative to fossil fuels. Yet according to Bouten, that discussion is quite simple. "If we all want to set the energy transition in motion now, then biomass is indispensable. There is currently no way that we can meet demand with wind and solar energy. And the biomass that we use is produced in a very responsible way. People often think of logging and that it has to come from far away. But it's a fairy tale that forest clearance takes place for this. That is not financially interesting for suppliers at all, there is even more money to be earned on chipboard! We burn a mix of prunings, branch wood and top wood that is collected by Kurstjens Recycling from the municipalities of Horst aan de Maas and Peel en Maas, among others. Every year we need about 8,000 tons. We don't get anything from the Baltic states or Canada, it just comes from the region. Even the foliage from our own bell pepper plants is dried in and used." Bolts shows the flames behind the window of the huge stove in which the shredded woody mass is burned. This stove heats a 1,500-cubic-foot water tank and heats it to a maximum of 95 degrees. The water is then piped to Bouten's greenhouses and those of the participating neighbors.

"These are tropical years, you run a completely different business in addition to your horticulture business"

Heat for all

A Biomass Network has since been established with other parties in the municipality to explore opportunities for cooperation and shared use. In the future, Vuursaam could form part of a network that would then heat other market gardeners, a comprehensive school, a sports complex and a residential area. Bouten: "That's not something you can do overnight, a collaboration of this kind with very diverse parties. The needs differ greatly and each player must know exactly what to expect. They are all long-term projects. The other day someone said to me: that's a lot of money and easily earned. I can tell you: it is indeed a lot of money, but it is definitely not easily earned. These are tropical years, you are running a completely different business alongside it, in a fairly new and turbulent market. If you want easy, you should just go for gas. If you enjoy innovating and also exploring new avenues outside your own field, then this could be interesting."

Tips from Geert Bouten for entrepreneurs

1: Choose your partners carefully

Don't underestimate what's involved in the partnership when you go for a shared CHP. It's a long-term partnership with a lot of snags, so you have to have a very good rapport and want the same things for the future.

2: Orient yourself extensively

Suppliers only show you the success stories, but it's important to also see where things go wrong. Orient yourself extensively and also visit the entrepreneurs who have had problems with their installation. Nowadays there is much more knowledge available, so also use an experienced consultant to help you with your choice.

3: Don't expect quick cash

Constructing your own biomass plant is complex, time-consuming and requires serious investment. So don't expect to score easily, only do it if you are willing to do the work for it.

4: Involve your surroundings