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UI teams up with Iowa State on sustainability

BY AARON WALKER | SEPTEMBER 11, 2014 5:00 AM

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The University of Iowa and Iowa State University have teamed up along with Iowa Learning Farms to host a bio-renewables field day to discuss the progress of a current biomass project.

Since 2004, the program has promoted an atmosphere fueled by renewable resources. It has worked with farmers across the state innovating agricultural methods and technologies. 

This spring, the program planted 15 acres of Miscanthus, a tall grass-like plant that can be harvested, dried, and put into pellet form to be burned in a similar way to coal. There are two strains present, 12 acres of Illinois and three acres of Freedom.

“The whole Idea we’re trying to get is fuel flexibility,” said Ben Anderson, the manager of the UI Power Plant.

UI officials are attempting to create many projects, including maximizing energy efficiency, which supports the university’s 2020 Vision plan for sustainability and contributes to its green-energy portfolio.

“We don’t want to be stuck in the coal markets, we don’t want to be stuck in the natural-gas markets, or Quaker Oat hulls, or Miscanthus,” Anderson said.

Members of the sustainability project said this aspect of the sustainability project is cutting-edge.

“This is the first time it’s been done around here, it’s usually grown in the south and in Europe,” said George McCrory, a communication specialist for the UI Sustainability Office. “The plan is to eventually pay the same or less than what we are paying for coal.”

The goal is a renewable crop that can be harvested at a price comparable with coal. The goal is $5 per million British thermal units.  Natural gas has hovered around that price, but last year, coal averaged $2.35.

“Part of the reason this crop is efficient is because it recycles its nutrients,” said Emily Heaton, an ISU assistant agronomy professor.

Despite its relatively pricey beginning, members of the project believe it is worth it in the long run.

“After the first two years of Miscanthus growth, it’s actually a pretty low-input crop,” Heaton said, “That makes the greenhouse-gas balance and the economics work.”

Iowa is ranked 11th nationally in green energy by the U.S. Department of Energy, and it creates almost 8 percent of the nation’s renewable resources.

“The renewable-fuels program is cutting-edge; it’s something that you don’t see other people doing,” Anderson said. “That’s where I got my motivation and my excitement.”

Despite general optimism, crop loss this winter could become a possibility.

“There is a chance of winter kill,” said Dan Black, the farm’s landowner. “Last year on a plot like this, they tore up 10 acres of a 15-acre plot.”

Despite the possibility of loss, Ingrid Gronstol Anderson, a compliance specialist for UI Facilities Management’s utilities and energy management, believed this year had a much better chance to succeed.

“We had one of the worst winters in recent history, so there was sort of a constellation of issues that all sort of came together,” Gronstol Anderson said. “That plot at this time of the year was not nearly this established.”


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