Hay may be the new coal.
At least that's what Bill Schaetzel thinks. And he's ready to invest some big bucks to find out.
Schaetzel, a Topeka physician and pathologist who lives in Lawrence, plans to obtain equipment that will turn hay or straw into bricks. Those bricks will be marketed to retail outlets to be sold as fuel for wood-burning stoves and fireplaces.
"I've always been interested in renewable energy and alternative energy sources," Schaetzel said.
But before he can set up shop, Schaetzel must wait for Douglas County to establish a new category for issuing a conditional-use permit for his business under its zoning regulations. Then he will have to apply for the permit, which ultimately will require approval from the Douglas County Commission.
That could take three to six months, according to Linda Finger, the county's planning resource coordinator.
Once the paperwork is done, Schaetzel and his son, Mike Schaetzel, plan to operate the business from their rural Douglas County farm. A hydraulic machine press will be purchased from a plant in Germany and brought to the farm. The machine, which costs about $350,000, compresses the hay into bricks.
Schaetzel could be the first person in the country to mass produce hay bricks.
"There are several people who are using different products or investigating other products, but I do not know of any commercial venture right now using hay or straw," Schaetzel said.
Tom Engle, who owns BioPellet LLC, a business near Hartford, Conn., that produces and sells bricks made of sawdust, said he has made a few hay bricks.
"I've only done it on a trial basis, but I've gotten very good results," said Engle, who also owns the German plant that makes the hydraulic equipment.
"It's good for the environment, and it's fairly inexpensive for the homeowner."
That's what attracted Schaetzel to plan the business, which will be called Great Plains Fuel Bricks.
"It's something that would benefit Kansas," Schaetzel said. "It would benefit the farmer in supporting their price for hay or straw and in the rural areas it would be an alternative to heating with propane or oil."
At full production the plant would consume 20 tons of hay a day, Schaetzel said. A semitrailer would bring in about 17 tons of hay each day, and another truck would haul off the day's brick production, he said. Regional farmers would benefit because freight costs make it economically unfeasible to transport hay more than 100 miles, Schaetzel said.