UI keeps sights on sustainability


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The University of Iowa is approaching its 2020 sustainability goals, one acre at a time.

The UI Sustainability Office is moving forward to have 40 percent of what the UI burns be renewable energy.

The university planted 16 acres of miscanthus, a plant used for fuel, in 2013 and plans to grow an additional 13 acres this year. In 2015 the university is planning to increase the area to 2,500 acres.

The UI Power Plant burns both coal and mixtures of grass, oat hulls, and woodchips to create energy. Officials said the next step for the university is to plant more crops that would be burned by the Power Plant so the UI can determine the best source of renewable energy.

“If successful, a sustainable biomass fuel can help us reach out 2020 target of 40 percent sustainable energy,” said Liz Christiansen, the director of the UI Sustainability Office.

Ferman Milster, the principal engineer for renewables in the Sustainability Office, said the goal will be achievable through co-firing biomass with coal, blending them together to burn as fuel.

“It’s important primarily because of sustainability,” he said. “Economically, socially, and environmentally, and you have to balance all three of those.”

Milster said that because the fuel greatly benefits the university, officials are dedicated to contributing to the project, including the collection of trees to create woodchips and planting plots of land to grow necessary crops.

Ben Anderson, the Power Plant maintenance and engineering manager, said the plant researched a number of possible fuels, narrowing the list to oat hulls, woodchips, and grasses. However, he said, having a variety available is important to success.

“Fuel flexibility is important because there are different things that could happen to crops,” he said. “It’s important to spread out and have fuels available for numerous products.”

Anderson said he often receives many questions about the best crop to use in terms of sustainability efforts, and although the answer is not simple, he thinks the university is using the best fuels available.

Milster said dead, dying, and diseased conifer trees being removed in order to restore prairie, will also be used.

“A lot will be chopped down [and] we want to be able to use it for energy rather than just chipping it and burning it,” he said.

Milster said a current cost is not available for the project, as officials are still in the learning process as far as understanding blending and firing techniques.

“There’s a huge learning curve,” he said. “We know we’ll be able to drive down costs as we [learn] … but it’s too preliminary to put a cost on it.”

Milster said the development will keep funds in the state, something he said he views as a benefit.

“We might pay a little more for it [but it] keeps money in the local area,” he said, noting that Iowa has no coal mines or natural-gas wells. “Thus, it provides an opportunity to buy our fuels locally … so well keep that money in Iowa.”

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