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Governor to award UI for environmental initiative

BY ALISON CASSITY | JULY 16, 2015 5:00 AM

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In Muscatine and Johnson Counties, the landscape is changing.

Several acres are brimming with Giant Miscanthus — an enormous grass that can reach 13 feet in height — and are contributing 8 to 12 percent of the University of Iowa’s electricity, steam, and chilled water production. 

The UI Biomass Fuel Project will soon become a state-recognized leader in the fields of sustainability and renewable energy for its use of a locally grown grass as fuel for the Power Plant.

Gov. Terry Branstad announced that UI Facilities Management would receive the Governor’s Iowa Environmental Excellence Award on Aug. 4 with special honors for its work in renewable energy and energy efficiency. 

The award will make the UI one of 12 Iowa organizations or businesses to be recognized for leadership in environmental advancements this year. 

“What’s interesting about this project is that we’re looking at the issue of energy generation from the triple bottom line approach of sustainability,” said Liz Christiansen, the UI director of sustainability. “This means we focus on people, the planet, and profit.”

The UI began planning the initiative in 2010, she said. It harvests Giant Miscanthus, which grows on two plots of campus land. After harvesting, the plant material is sent to the UI fuel-processing yard in Muscatine to be mixed with coal and burned for fuel. 

“We have conducted our first harvest, and we conducted our test burns [of Miscanthus] in the main Power Plant this spring,” she said. “We will have even more plant material ready in one to two years.”

The harvest yielded 25.5 tons of plant material and brings the UI closer to its goal of having 40 percent of campus energy generated from renewable and sustainable sources by 2020, Christiansen said. 

The large-scale project has brought together old rivals UI and Iowa State University, which is known for its agricultural program. The ISU team is taking charge of researching Giant Miscanthus, said Emily Heaton, the research team leader and an ISU assistant professor of agronomy.

“As promising as Miscanthus is, we still don’t know much about it,” she said. “We’re helping [the UI] understand how to best grow it and use it, as well as the economical and ecological impacts it has.”

That big-picture mentality is one of the things that sets the Biomass Fuel Project apart, said Malcolm Robertson of the cross-cutting initiative program at the ISU Leopold Center for Sustainable Agriculture.

“We’re not just moving off of reliance on coal, we’re also putting marginal land into production for other income for growers,” he said. “This keeps the roots on the ground for longer, so erosion decreases and there’s less potential for input of inorganic material into the soil, like pesticides and fertilizers.”

The research team at ISU continues to press onward, learning as much as possible about Miscanthus and looking into other potential plants such as switchgrass and mixed prairie grasses, Heaton said.

The Biomass Fuel Project has real potential to change the way we think about energy sources, she said.

“The University of Iowa has a great potential to bring all of the pieces together at once,” Heaton said. “I want [this project] to be a shining light to guide everyone else.”


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