Doak: Chariton Valley project leads way in switchgrass

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When President Bush mentioned switchgrass in his State of the Union speech last January, the word reverberated across four counties in southern Iowa.

"It changed the radar," said Bill Belden. "We're at the center of it."

Belden directs the project that has developed perhaps more know-how than any other in the world about the use of switchgrass as an energy source. The president's mention of the native grass drew fresh inquiries about the project, which has been quietly accumulating knowledge for a decade in Lucas, Monroe, Appanoose and Wayne counties.

Earlier this year, the project completed its third and final test burn, using switchgrass in combination with coal to generate electricity. It set a world record for energy produced from switchgrass.

"If you go to a land-grant university and ask what it takes to burn switchgrass, they have to send you here," Belden said. "We're at ground zero."

Belden is director of the biomass project for Chariton Valley Resource Conservation and Development Inc., a four-county development group headquartered in Centerville. In the early 1990s, the group tackled the problem of how to prevent agricultural runoff from ruining Lake Rathbun, a recreational gem that is a big part of southern Iowa's development planning.

An obvious answer was to put more land in deep-rooted perennials that filter pollutants and hold the soil. Ideally, conserving the soil also could provide a new source of income for the region. Chariton Valley Biomass Project was born to test the possibilities of switchgrass to do just that.

Most talk about switchgrass lately has involved its potential to replace corn as a feedstock for the production of ethanol. The Chariton Valley project takes a more direct approach - burning it.

Alliant Energy (then IES Utilities) agreed to test-burn switchgrass with coal at its Ottumwa Generating Station at Chillicothe. Grants from the U.S. Department of Energy and U.S. Department of Agriculture made the project a reality.

Dora Guffey, who works for the federal Natural Resources Conservation Service and helps coordinate the Chariton Valley project, said eight projects around the country made bids on USDA-DOE grants for similar demonstrations. Chariton Valley is the only one that didn't fall by the wayside.

Guffey and Belden recently made a presentation on the project to a meeting of the Iowa chapter of the Soil and Water Conservation Society. They ticked off the benefits of growing switchgrass, including reduced erosion, improved soil tilth, better water quality and more habitat for wildlife.

As if on cue, a bobwhite quail sang out noisily during the group's inspection of a switchgrass field near Lake Rathbun.

"When I hear bobwhites singing, I know there's something being done right," said Kevin Anderson, a wildlife biologist.

This spring, the project completed a test burn in which finely chopped particles of switchgrass were blown into a furnace at Ottumwa Generating Station for more than 1,600 hours at rates of up to 12.5 tons per hour.

Alliant Energy said results of the burn included:

Delivering, processing and burning more than 15,000 tons of locally grown switchgrass.

Generating more than 19 million kilowatt-hours of electricity, enough to power 1,874 Iowa homes for a year.

Reducing emissions of sulfur dioxide by about 62 tons and of carbon dioxide by an amount estimated at more than 50,800 tons.

Demonstrating that the switchgrass-processing facility designed and operated by the Chariton Valley project can be operated reliably.

Replacing about 12,600 tons of coal purchased from Wyoming.

The burn completed the test phase of the project, but analysis is not expected to be complete for several months. The analysis will include inspections to determine whether burning switchgrass harmed the boilers in any way, although no ill effect is expected.

The more difficult analysis is to review the operations and set the course for the next phase of the project - developing a business plan to make it commercially sustainable.

The goal is to permanently replace 5 percent of the coal at Ottumwa Generating Station, drawing from about 150,000 acres of switchgrass grown within a 70-mile radius of Chillicothe. In addition, the project will look toward additional uses of switchgrass in the future, beyond generator co-firing, so that switchgrass can become a profitable crop for farmers.

"We will not be able to survive here on co-firing coal alone," Belden said.

Also, greater efficiencies will be needed in every step along the way in the use of switchgrass. Harvesting from scattered parcels of land, transporting, storing and processing the switchgrass is costly. The project will continue looking for ways to reduce costs - from identifying the right varieties of switchgrass to plant, to learning better crop management, to finding cheaper harvesting and handling methods and engineering improvements in final processing.

The Legislature might be asked for a subsidy until the economics work. "Other states will take it and make it work if we don't do it in Iowa," he said.

One future possibility mentioned in scientific papers is to produce ethanol from switchgrass, which would leave lignin as a byproduct. Lignin has an energy content comparable to coal. So the future might see switchgrass used to make ethanol, or some other motor fuel, and also to co-fire electrical generation.

Whatever happens, Belden said the Chariton Valley project, besides developing knowledge of co-firing, is pioneering something that any future switchgrass project would have to do - developing a network of farmer-suppliers of switchgrass.

That puts the Chariton Valley project ahead of everyone else in a key respect.

Belden is confident of eventual commercial success, offering this analogy: "The folks who used to make kerosene couldn't make gasoline profitable when they started."

Originally Published in the Des Moines Register June 25, 2006