Iowa Public Television


Farmers Convert Switchgrass To Electric Power

posted on February 9, 2007

The campaign to reduce global warming is, if you'll pardon the expression, heating up.

While most environmental issues seem to have a polarizing effect, the issue is transcending traditional political and social boundaries and creating a few estranged bedfellows in the process.

It seems that everyone from former Vice President Al Gore to evangelical Christian writer Rick Warren is trying to get Americans to respond to "the inconvenient truth" of global warming.

Even those targeted as key emitters of CO2, like power plants, are looking for ways to reduce or sequester their emissions.

One innovative project is attempting to replace a portion of its coal with cleaner-burning switchgrass. David Miller reports on the Midwestern farmers who are betting their grasses on energy.

Farmers Convert Switchgrass To Electric Power

The connection between Southern Iowa farmland and a coal fired power plant would appear to be remote but the link between the two can be found in the power plant's fuel. Three times over the past six years, Alliant Energy, the regions electrical power provider, has replaced a small portion of the coal burned at its Ottumwa Generating Station in Chillicothe, Iowa with switchgrass.

The roots of this idea go back to the early 90s when members of the Chariton Valley Resource Conservation and Development group began looking for one more way to improve water quality in nearby Rathbun Lake, an Army Corps of Engineers flood control and recreational reservoir. After some research they decided growing switchgrass for power was a good solution. Besides being a renewable resource, the hearty prairie plant would hold back soil, filter water, and absorb carbon.

Bill Belden, Biomass Project Manager, Chariton Valley RC&D: "I'm proud of the fact that there was enough support by producers in the area to try to grow a crop for a project they had no clue whether it would be successful but they liked the concept."

The RC&D partnered with the United States Department of Agriculture, the United States Department of Energy, and Alliant Energy. Together, $38 million in grants and matching funds were raised for the project. In 1996, they received their first grant and went to work.

Kim Zuhlke, VP New Energy Resources, Alliant Energy: " I think one of the things we were going to need in order for this to occur, we were going to have to have a very strong local interest, a very strong grower group, because you've got really a chicken and an egg sort of problem here. It's sort of like if you don't have the fuel then why even bother talking about it. If you have the fuel will it work in this sort of application?"

It was unknown what effect burning switchgrass would have on the plant's multi-million dollar boiler. The loss of the boiler would directly affect a portion of Alliants' more than 1 million customers that are spread across Iowa, Minnesota, Wisconsin, and Illinois.

Alliant, along with MidAmerican Energy, the regions other electric power company as well as part owner of the generating station, had to determine how much coal could be safely replaced with switchgrass. The consensus was 5 percent. The experiment turned out to be the largest of its kind in the world.

Kim Zuhlke, VP New Energy Resources, Alliant Energy: "...we know that there's a lot of interest nationwide in increasing the amount of our energy that comes into our mix from renewables and there is interest in consumers saying yes, I want you to increase that mix of renewables and we have some consumers say, not only do I want you to increase that mix, I'm willing to pay a little bit more if it is renewable."

To make enough fuel readily available, 72 farmers agreed to plant switchgrass on 4,000 of their Conservation Reserve Program acres near the Ottumwa Generating Station. To make the idea more palatable to the U.S. government, the participating farmers would not be compensated for any switchgrass harvested off those CRP acres.

By 1999, the first crop was ready to be harvested. At first, the product was rolled into round bales but to avoid a transportation permit issue it was decided square bales would be needed. The RC&D had a machine specially designed and built to make large square bales.

Doug Goben, switchgrass grower and RC&D member, was at the wheel of the baler on the first day of harvest in 1999.

Doug Goben, Corydon Farmer, Chariton Valley RC&D Board Member: "It was more of, you know, I hope it works, I hope we do not cause any problems with the power company... It was just something new, you know, and the potential of putting implement dealers back in business, putting implements back on the lots out here and farmers buying the implements, buying repairs, buying fuel, you know, in our local community because we're losing people in our local communities every day. I'd like to see them come back."

Once the product is baled, it's sent to one of 20 specially built storage buildings or delivered directly to a one-of-a-kind processing facility attached to the Ottumwa Generating Station.

Bill Belden, Biomass Project Manager, Chariton Valley RC&D: "...we realized that that is the lowest value we probably can attain from a biomass crop like switch grass, cutting it, harvesting it, burning it. There are other technologies that are now starting to loom on the horizon; ethanol production, polymer production, plastics, fiberboard, who knows what the creative mind of our scientists will come up with next."

Three test burns were conducted-- the last one was completed in May of 2006. During that 71 day period, a little more than 15,600 tons of locally grown switchgrass was used to replace 12 thousand tons of coal. Alliant officials estimate 51 thousand fewer tons of carbon dioxide were emitted and enough energy was produced to power 1,900 homes.

But even if the results indicate it is safe to use switchgrass on a long term basis, more questions remain to be answered. Are there enough farmers to grow the estimated 200,000 tons needed each year? Is there enough suitable land within a short distance of the power plant? And most importantly, can the players find a way to make today's experiment into tomorrow's reality in an economically viable way for both Alliant and the farmers?

Kim Zuhlke, VP New Energy Resources, Alliant Energy: "...there is interest in consumers saying yes, I want you to increase that mix of renewables and we have some consumers say, not only do I want you to increase that mix, I'm willing to pay a little bit more if it is renewable.

And Goben is still hopeful the project will have a positive outcome.

Doug Goben, Corydon Farmer, Chariton Valley RC&D Board Member: "I think once we learn how to adapt and get the plant to adapt I think we can increase yields, we can increase other aspects of it that will make it profitable, I think it will happen, that's the hard part. We're through the easy part, growing it and putting it in the package. The hard part is coming now is how we make the business work."

For Market to Market, I'm David Miller.


Tags: agriculture conservation electricity farmers news plants