Editorial: Sustainability through an increase in biomass


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The University of Iowa is taking another step toward environmental sustainability with the construction of the new West Campus dorm. The new facility will include a more-efficient system of heating and cooling based on the circulation of chilled water, which will help reduce the amount of energy the new building needs to operate.   

UI Office of Sustainability Director Liz Christiansen told The Daily Iowan that the sustainable heating and cooling system is in line with the University of Iowa’s 2020 Sustainability Vision, a comprehensive program that aims to improve the university’s environmental impact by the end of this decade. In addition to increased efficiency, she cited the increase in alternative energy production as a key component of the university’s long-term environmental plan.

Currently, the university generates between 8 and 13 percent of its energy annually by burning oat hulls, a byproduct of cereal making purchased from the Quaker Oats plant in Cedar Rapids, in addition to coal at the Power Plant.

The university hopes to increase its level of non-fossil-fuel-based energy to 40 percent by the end of the decade, a plan that must include a substantial increase in the use of biomass fuel such as oat hulls.

In order to meet the UI’s sustainable-energy needs, there must a continued focus on the environmentally and economically responsible production and use of combustible biomass such as oat hulls and seed corn.

To this point, the use of biomass fuel at the university has a positive track record; biomass has produced significant environmental and economic benefits since the fuel’s introduction in 2003.

According to Facilities Management, more than 168,000 tons of coal have been displaced and 376,000 metric tons of carbon dioxide have been avoided thanks to the burning of biomass over the past nine years.

Additionally, since the university has been able to purchase biomass fuel at roughly half the cost of coal, burning oat hulls has saved the university nearly $7 million in fuel costs. Because the biomass fuel is produced locally, money that would have otherwise been spent on coal produced outside Iowa is allowed to stay in the Iowa economy.

The university must be careful to maintain the advantages of its current situation.

An increase in the use of biomass will require the UI to begin using natural products other than oat hulls, of which there simply are not enough locally, as a supplement to the existing stock of fuel.

A study conducted for the Office of Sustainability analyzed a few of the most readily available local biomass products and found that seed corn is a viable alternative given its chemical characteristics and its local availability.

Power Plant requirements demand that biomass fuel must be grown close to Iowa City, transported cheaply, and supplied by a grower that benefits from his relationship to the university.

It is crucial that the university take extreme care in cultivating sustainable, mutually beneficial relationships with the growers of its biomass fuels, because an unimpeded flow of these products and the resulting energy will be necessary to the success of the UI’s ongoing sustainability initiative.

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