Heat by the Bushel

New co-ops supplying
members with corn for
home-heating fuel

By Stephen Thompson, Assistant Editor

hen most people think of corn, they don’t usually think of burning it as a fuel. But that’s exactly what some urban energy pioneers are doing in and around Maryland.

Farmers have known for years that dry feed corn makes a good heating fuel. Years ago, they began building and modifying stoves to burn it as a convenient source of heat, both for animal enclosures and in their own homes. After all, why pay someone to truck in heating gas when you can save money using something you already have on the farm?

Heating with corn in cities and suburbs is a much newer phenomenon. The incentive is twofold: First, many people have been looking for ways to reduce their “carbon footprint” — the amount of carbon dioxide their activities produce and exhaust into the air. Second, they’d like to save money on their heating bills.

Corn, it turns out, can not only heat your house for less money than more conventional means — such as natural gas, oil or electricity — but can reduce carbon emissions as well. Pound for pound, corn generates more heat energy than wood, and like wood, it’s renewable.

For Jodi Beth McCain, the lower cost was icing on the cake. McCain lives in suburban Maryland, just outside the Washington, D.C., line. When she and her husband bought their house, they were faced with the necessity of upgrading its creaky, old forced-air heating system.

Not only were they concerned with efficiency and environmental impact, but, based on experiences while living in Bolivia, they saw U.S. dependency on oil as a source of international conflict. Thus, they were looking for a way to avoid using fossil fuel.

Buying a corn-burning stove wasn’t difficult; the problem was how to obtain the fuel. But McCain knew about Save Our Skies, a cooperative based in Takoma Park, Md., that provides members with corn for home heating fuel.

Co-op starts with four families
Save Our Skies was founded in 2002 by four families in the Takoma Park area who were looking for a way to heat their homes while minimizing their carbon emissions. They began by picking up their corn from a friendly farmer an hour’s drive away in Mt. Airy, Md.

The farmer is a Mennonite who uses no-till farming methods and fertilizes his crops with manure from his hogs and poultry houses, instead of synthetic fertilizers. It was the farmer who suggested that the urban corn burners erect a hopper bin near their homes to serve as a central storage and distribution point, which serves as the drop-off point for deliveries by truck.

Fortunately, the Takoma Park municipal government was sympathetic to the new co-op. It not only allowed the bin to be built on public land, but helped out with permits and insurance, saving the fledgling organization much time and money.

Cash grants from the county and a corn stove manufacturer helped pay for erecting the bin. “It’s the world’s first urban corn bin,” says Sat Jiwan Khalsa, the co-op’s current president.

Today, more than 70 members purchase corn from the Takoma Park bin and from a new bin located 4.5 miles away in Mt. Rainier, Md. At least half use their corn stoves as their primary heat source; at least one member has no other source of heat.

Baltimore Biomass
Meanwhile, an hour away in Baltimore, another new cooperative, Baltimore Biomass, is bringing corn heat to that city. George Peters, president of a nonprofit called Sustainable Urban Infrastructures (SUI), says that the organization was looking for a project to encourage “green” practices. “The point of our organization is education,” he says.

SUI became interested in corn heat after talking to members of the Takoma Park co-op. Founded in 2008, under SUI’s aegis, Baltimore Biomass has 21 members, but “Our membership has been more than doubling every year,” says Peters. At the current rate of growth, he thinks SUI will soon be the largest co-op of its sort in the area.

Peters sees big advantages from corn heat: “It’s cheaper, it’s cleaner, it’s grown in Maryland and we know the farmer.” The nonprofit currently manages the cooperative and shoulders the cost of administration. Peters hopes that future growth will make the cooperative selfsustaining.

While much of Save Our Skies’ recruitment comes by word of mouth, Baltimore Biomass actively proselytizes for the cause, with volunteers dedicating three days a week to outreach. The co-op is putting together a “mobile classroom” designed to be taken to gatherings such as festivals and church fairs.

“If you can ensure us a crowd, we’re happy to come out,” says Peters. “We’ll tell you all about corn heating; we’ll demonstrate how it works and how to get started. And we don’t charge a fee.”

Both Peters and Khalsa stress the economic advantages of corn heat. “Typically, the cost of the stove and installation will pay for itself in five to ten years,” says Khalsa. “By contrast, solar panels might take 25 years or more.”

They also note that a federal tax credit is available until the end of 2010 for the purchase of 75-percent efficient biomass stoves. Depending on the cost of the stove, buyers can get as much as $1,500 back under this program.

Financing new bins
is a challenge

Unlike Save Our Skies, Baltimore Biomass has no distribution bin as yet. Instead, a truck makes deliveries to the co-op’s headquarters, which is located in an old, “re-purposed” industrial building that houses a number of small enterprises, including the Baltimore Biodiesel Cooperative (see “Baltimore Biodiesel” in the May/June 2008 issue of this magazine).

Members must meet the truck to pick up their fuel. The co-op has drawn up plans to install two 20-ton grain bins, but faces hurdles its Takoma Park counterpart did not.

While the Takoma Park bin cost only $7,000 to install – in part because of a sympathetic attitude on the part of municipal authorities — the Baltimore co-op faces a steeper cost curve. Building code and permit requirements raise the estimated cost for two bins to about $45,000.

“We’ve been looking for grant money,” says Peters. “We got an enthusiastic response from the Maryland Grain Producers. But their grants are more in the $5,000 range.”

Until a source of funds can be located, the bins will remain on hold. “We keep hoping that if we keep asking, someone will say: ‘you’re adding income to rural areas,’ and give us a grant,” says Peters.

The Baltimore co-op’s members are enthusiastic, despite the relative inconvenience. “It’s terrific. I can’t say enough about it,” says one member who uses a corn stove to heat her small business.

However, even under the best of conditions, corn heat demands a level of involvement that most consumers aren’t used to.

“It’s definitely more complicated than just turning on a thermostat,” says McCain. Stoves, while fed by an electric-powered internal auger, still need to be filled and cleaned out periodically.

McCain has a single corn stove that keeps the entire house comfortable most of the time during cold weather, but keeps the old heating system as a backup. “If it gets really cold, we’ll turn on the old furnace,” she says.

The “gentle heat” of the stove, which is located on the lowest floor, circulates naturally through the house. “It’s a much more comfortable heat than forced-air.”

McCain says she loads the stove every two days and cleans out the ash pot every three or four days. She vacuums out the stove every 10 to 14 days, which takes just minute or two. Her husband makes a trip to the bin every week in cold weather to pick up fuel.

Self-serve system
The Save Our Skies co-op operates on an honor system. The bins are selfserve: the corn is measured in fivegallon bucket loads, and members note on a clipboard register how much they have taken.

Members are required to pay $100 to join and an additional $25 to renew their memberships every two years. They deposit money into their co-op accounts, which are then debited as they take fuel. Current price is $4 for each bucket of fuel.

Billing and other housekeeping are done by volunteers through an e-mail list: periodic e-mails contain a spreadsheet noting each member’s current balance. The cooperative went through 120 tons of corn in the winter of 2008-09, with members typically using from one to three tons.

The Takoma Park bin is located at the end of a peaceful, tree-lined residential street on municipal land used for storing mulch. The Mount Rainier bin has a place next to a municipal fire station.

On both sites, the bin and a small enclosure used to store measuring buckets and the clipboard are kept scrupulously clean. “We don’t want to be accused of fostering vermin,” says McCain.

Typically, members pick up their corn in bags or buckets carried in the trunks of their cars. Khalsa, however, is serious about reducing carbon emissions, and transports his corn home on a bicycle modified to carry two fivegallon buckets.

“I’ve talked to people who raise the question of using food for fuel,” he says, “But most corn is used to produce meat, which is a very inefficient use of resources. So I put the issue in the context of heat use vs. meat use.”

May/June Table of Contents