A County-University Biomass Project — Update

by Jim and Melanie

Last month we posted the story of a joint project between our beautiful county park, F.W. Kent Park, and the University of Iowa.

The park is in the process of restoring prairies to more of the landscape. On the northeast side of the park, a dense woods of planted conifer trees provided shade and shelter. They were not native, and as older trees, they were dying from age and disease. When we visited the park, expecting to see the old pines, we met with surprise. The entire pine woods was nowhere to be seen. The only traces remaining were some ground level cut stumps and small branch debris scattered about.

The trees were removed by the university, giving the county conservation board a head start on the restoration project on that side of the park. The trees were chipped and will be used as biomass to supplement the coal in the university’s power plant boilers. For several years, they have been using biomass from some local sources in that effort. This video, also in the older post, explains.

As reported by the Quad-City Times, the university has 3,000 tons of wood chips from the clearing to mix with coal. The supply should last through spring. While 3,000 tons sounds like a lot, the university needs approximately 100,000 tons of biomass to meet its 2020 sustainable energy goals.

From the article,

The university is experimenting with other forms of biomass, too. In June, it planted 16 acres of a perennial grass called miscanthus x giganteus. When the grass matures, a process expected to take three years, the university will try burning it for fuel, said Ben Anderson, UI’s power plant maintenance and engineering manager. The heat content from miscanthus is similar to oat hulls, he said.

The university plans to plant another small plot of miscanthus in 2014, and then plant another 1,000 acres in 2015, Milster said. It also is seeking potential growers to contract with, he said.

Miscanthus has ecological benefits, too: It improves soil quality and mitigates runoff, Milster said. The university does not intend to compete for land with corn and soybeans. Rather, it would grow the miscanthus on marginal land, [Ferman Milster] said.

The university continues to evaluate proposals for biomass from individuals and companies. After using oat hulls successfully for several years, other possibilities include corn stover, tree waste from landfills, and furniture production waste.

The university’s goal is to have 40 percent of energy use from renewable sources by 2020. Biomass replacement of coal is one of the most promising means to reach the goal. Solar and wind energy are important sources, as well.

Since the university is a major presence in our community, we’re heartened to know they are aggressively pursuing sustainable energy goals. It’s good for the university, the greater community, and our environment.

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