Southeastern Iowa power plant steps closer to utilizing switchgrass for energy

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Process meets goal of domestic energy, draws upon local resources

By Jeff Caldwell

The potential for burning switchgrass for energy in Iowa is one step closer to becoming a reality.

Members of the Natural Resource Conservation Service, U.S. Department of Energy, Alliant Energy and Chariton Valley Resource Conservation and Development (CVR&D) and project partners gathered Aug. 31 at Alliant's Ottumwa Generating Station outside Chillicothe, Iowa, for the dedication of a nearly finished building that will house switchgrass for use in energy generation in the facility. With the ribbon-cutting, officials acknowledged the next step: A soon-upcoming third and final switchgrass test-burn, during which the process will be fine-tuned in preparation for implementation into the facility's boilers. Currently, plans are to introduce switchgrass to the tune of five percent of the plant's total energy input after the conclusion of the test-burn, with the potential to double that amount if area switchgrass production can meet such a need.

The final test-burn, preceded by two earlier tests from November 2000 to January 2001 and in December 2003, will last 2,000 consecutive hours.

"We've had two test burns. The first had problems. In the second, we ironed those problems out," said Doug Goben, CVR&D director, Aug. 31. "The third will use 300,000 tons of switchgrass, will last three months, and needs $2.5 million to complete.

"We have made great strides for agriculture, and we have the opportunity to provide a great asset, not just locally, but for the whole nation."

The test-burn's ultimate outcome will be a process that successfully yields energy from switchgrass as one of a series of renewable power sources, according to Kim Zuhlke, Alliant Energy vice president for new energy resources.

"Globally, there's a lot of talk about domestic energy. We're trying to bring resources together: We have a 600-megawatt goal for wind, we're looking at on-farm digesters and another piece is burning switchgrass," Zuhlke said during the Aug. 31 ribbon-cutting. "This is a win-win for Iowa, our customers and the farmers."

How will the latter, the farmers, benefit once switchgrass-burning begins at the Ottumwa plant? First and foremost, for the switchgrass growers in the immediate vicinity of the power plant, is an inexhaustible market that could be created, according to Jim Schweizer, treasurer/secretary of Prairie Lands Biomass, LLC, and switchgrass harvester. This will be true even if switchgrass is raised from 5 percent to 10 percent of the total energy input at the Ottumwa facility. This bump would increase acreage necessary to 100,000.

"Within a 70-mile radius of this plant, we can get those 100,000 acres. We can do it right here. It's very feasible," Schweizer said Aug. 31. "We can contract with local farmers to grow it. So, is there a market? Yes. We have a contract with Alliant Energy for the next five years. Now is the time to start growing it."

Locality is a factor that, while it provides most opportunity to the growers near the Ottumwa facility, also geographically limits the potential for more widespread switchgrass adoption.

"I think it's going to be tough for farmers further north because of transportation issues," Schweizer said. "This southeastern quadrant of the state is going to be the focus. It's not to say someone outside this area can't grow it, because they can. But, it could be even more, if more transportation can be determined."

For the expiration of acres that have been held within the Conservation Reserve Program (CRP), opportunity does lie in a transition to switchgrass production, to the benefits of both the environment and farmers' pocketbooks. In addition to the opportunity of a robust market for switchgrass represented by the Ottumwa energy plant, contracting with CRP acres may be feasible in the future, according to Schweizer.

"We have kicked around ideas to do contracts with people with CRP. We're still trying to decide at what level," he said. "We might be able to get to a polyculture of grasses in this facility, but we have to go through the testing process so there are no problems in the boiler. That's a long process to do all that testing."

While testing for such grass polycultures, comprising higher-BTU grasses like big bluestem and canarygrass, would take up to five years, Schweizer said he sees this process beginning within two years.

Why become involved in growing switchgrass? The crop will never altogether replace corn or soybeans, but according to Schweizer, it can be produced alongside more conventional crops in varying scales. In other cases, land that was originally designated for purposes other than crop production can be easily utilized for switchgrass.

"Switchgrass can very easily co-exist with corn and soybean production. We've also got guys who have bought ground for hunting, and we manage the switchgrass for them. It's great for wildlife," Schweizer said. "We've got two groups: One is the active farmers who can grow it, bale it and deliver it to the power plant, and the absentee landlords who, I think, we're going to be able to do the management for them, maybe take the switchgrass off, then they get a small return."

Altogether, Schweizer recognizes skepticism exists today among farmers about the potential for switchgrass production. But, if those more skeptical growers will give switchgrass a chance, even on an experimental scale at first, they may find it is for them.

"I think it's going to be a farmer-by-farmer thing. There may be a guy who's got a back-40 that may not be doing anything. Take that back-40, put it to switchgrass and begin to take some money off it, begin to make it produce," Schweizer said. "If you're a big operator and you're forward-contracting and selling on futures, maybe it's not for you. But, for the guy who sells at the elevator, with the price of corn at $1.66 per bushel and the price of beans under $5 per bushel, switchgrass is going to be pretty positive."

Jeff Caldwell can be reached by phone at 515-280-5405 or by e-mail at jcaldwell@mchsi.com.

Date: 9/15/05