Switchgrass test burn ends in Iowa

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Monday, May 15, 2006, 9:14 AM

by Jerry Passer

As you drive through the rolling countryside of southern Iowa you can’t help but notice a variety of conservation projects in play. Grass waterways, no till corn and green pastures dotted with cows and their spring calves. The tallest structure you see once you leave Interstate 80 is an occasional rusting windmill, a rural water tower or an occasional Harvestore. Then off to the southwest you spot a large black and white building with a very tall smokestack. It is Alliant Energy’s Ottumwa Generating Station (OGS) outside of the tiny village of Chillicothe, Iowa.

Located near the plant is the reason for your visit: The Chariton Valley Biomass project, managed by Chariton Valley Resource Conservation & Development (RC&D) Inc. and co-funded by the U.S. Department of Energy, USDA, Alliant energy, and other project partners.

Last Friday at 5 o'clock the third test burn of switchgrass was completed at the plant. During the 3 month period 31,000 bales of locally grown switchgrass totaling about 15,460 tons as renewable fuel for generating electricity was blown in tubes 1500 feet to the power plant.

Dora Guffy the Coordinator with Chariton Valley RC&D told Brownfield the project uses switchgrass from area farmers harvested from CRP acres. The farmers are not paid for the switchgrass. Large bales of switchgrass are conveyed to a processor where it is ground down to a finer particle and then blown to the generating plant where it is burned with coal.

The project is one of a kind in the world - the only facility where switchgrass is producing energy. The project started in 1996 and the results of the test burn will determine the effects on Alliant’s boiler. Once results are available a determination will be made whether they are willing to continue the project commercially. The project is still in a research and development phase.

Doug Goben farms near Corydon, Iowa and is on the Chariton Valley RC&D Board. Goben says “part of the project’s purpose is to, prove that switchgrass can be grown as a renewable crop, harvest it, deliver it to the facility process it and generate electricity with it.” That was proven during the test as about 19,476,000 kilowatt hours of electricity were generated. That was enough electricity to provide 100% of the electricity needed for an entire year for over 1,850 average Iowa homes. This was a world record for electricity from switchgrass.

Goben told Brownfield he feels switchgrass will become an alternative crop in Iowa for acres that need to remain in grass and it presents an opportunity to keep some farmers in compliance with their conservation program and just another tool farmers can use.