Iowa Plant Tests Grass as Fuel

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CHILLICOTHE, Iowa -- Some of the heat pouring out of southeastern Iowa furnaces this unusually cold winter is homegrown -- a thought pleasing to environmentally conscious homeowners and area farmers who may have found a new cash crop.

The Ottumwa Generating Plant, a 650-megawatt, coal-fired facility, has been retrofitted to burn switchgrass along with its primary fuel as part of a test project.

``We are on the cutting edge of a new fuel that might actually help the economy of some of our customers,'' said plant manager Cynthia Lord.

Gary Kelderman, one of 100 farmers growing switchgrass for the plant, located near the Missouri border 80 miles southeast of Des Moines, says more is at stake than money.

``It's all about preservation of clean air and self sufficiency and providing green energy and local energy,'' he said.

The power plant, owned by Alliant Energy, consumes 450 tons of coal an hour to crank out electricity for about 200,000 homes.

It started burning switchgrass as well in late November. By the end of January, the plant will have burned 4,000 tons of the thick-stemmed, native perennial that is easily grown, harvested and baled in southern Iowa.

During the next few years, further tests will measure the impact of burning grass on the boiler's efficiency as another 35,000 tons of switchgrass is mixed with coal. Testing will be completed by 2005.

The goal is to replace up to 5 percent of the coal with grass. At that rate, about 25 tons of switchgrass would burn per hour, says Bill Morton, lead project engineer for Alliant Energy. It would take about 50,000 acres of land to grow that much switchgrass for a year.

``If it takes off, the impact on the farmers here could be significant,'' Morton said.

The grass resembles straw and is packaged in large rectangular bales 8 feet long and 4 feet wide. The bales are fed by conveyor into a machine that chops and grinds them into a dust that is blown into the furnace.

Burning switchgrass in place of some of the coal could ``provide very positive results for the environment'' by reducing harmful emissions, says Jerry Schnoor, a University of Iowa professor who studied the issue.

Schnoor, co-director of the Center for Global and Regional Environmental Research, said in a 1999 report that carbon dioxide emissions could be cut by nearly 177,000 tons per year and emissions of sulfur dioxide -- the precursor to acid rain -- by up to 113 tons per year if 5 percent of the coal were replaced with switchgrass.

The partnership between local farmers and the power plant began to take shape in 1991. Much of the land in the region is not suitable for corn or soybeans -- Iowa's major cash crops. Much of it had been enrolled in a federal government program that pays farmers for idling low-quality farmland.

``We have a lot of land that can produce grass well,'' said Martin Braster, biomass project coordinator for Chariton Valley Resource Conservation and Development. ``So we began researching what can be done with grasses.''

Switchgrass produces about 6,400 British thermal units per pound, less that coal's 8,300 Btu per pound. But a new emphasis on renewable fuels helped fund testing at the power plant.

The state and federal governments chipped in $4 million for the pilot project and another $4 million came from private partners, farmers and Alliant Energy.

Another key was finding farmers interested in growing, harvesting and baling thousands of tons of switchgrass.

``At this point it is not really profitable to plant switchgrass as a cash crop and sell it for energy,'' Kelderman said. ``It proves that these farmers are stewards of the land and this is just part of contributing to the future generations.''

The benefits to the environment may be apparent, but utility companies need other incentives to spend millions of dollars to equip plants to burn renewable fuels. The Internal Revenue Service believes current federal law provides tax credits only for newly built biomass plants, though most of the projects in the United States are existing plants being retrofitted.

Legislation being drafted by Sen. Charles Grassley, R-Iowa, would include existing coal fired plants modified for biomass.

The Clinton administration has set a national goal of tripling the nation's use of bioenergy by 2010. Part of that commitment has been allocation of federal funds from the Department of Energy and expertise from the National Renewable Energy Lab in Golden, Colo.

Richard Bain, a senior program manager for NREL, said the renewable energy lab is helping to develop as many as 10 projects nationwide that use biomass blended with traditional fossil fuels.