Friday, July 06, 2007

Loebsack Visits Switchgrass Co-Fire Facility

Rep. Dave Loebsack wrapped up a week-long tour of Iowa renewable energy facilities Friday with a visit to the Chariton Valley Biomass Project in Chillicothe.
The biomass project is the result of ten years of study and development in the burning of switchgrass to generate electricity.
"As a country we are never going to drill our way to independence and so we must aggressively pursue alternative energy sources," said Loebsack.
Loebsack is pictured with Ed Woolsey, president of Chariton Valley Switchgrass LLC, in front of the piles of coal at Alliant Energy's Ottumwa Generating Station near Chillicothe. As the biomass project moves forward, some of those piles of coal will be replaced with bales of switchgrass hay.
Woolsey led Loebsack on a tour of the biomass facility, which is adjacent to the Alliant Energy power plant and connected by 1,500 feet of tubes that were constructed to carry pulverized switchgrass to the boiler.
The biomass project recently completed a series of test-burns of switchgrass in the power plant. Dora Guffey is a specialist with Chariton Valley Resource Conservation and Development, and has been involved in many phases of the project. Guffey said that nearly all of the pieces are now in place for a full-scale commercial biomass operation. "We're wrapping up the research and development phase and working toward full commercialization. We're fully permitted by the DNR and EPA." Guffey said that the power plant could begin continuously burning switchgrass as soon as the fall of 2008. "We've overcome some tremendous hurdles, but now we're in the home stretch."
Woolsey is pictured explaining some of the biomass handling equipment at the facility. The operation is equipped to receive baled switchgrass, pulverized the grass into small particles and transport it over to the power plant through a series of tubes.
The project has been co-funded by the U.S. Department of Energy and the U.S. Department of Agriculture, but significant cost-sharing has also been provided by Alliant Energy and many other project partners.
Securing steady funding has not always been easy over the ten years that the project has developed.
Woolsey said that one of the difficulties in starting off in an entirely new industry like this is the fact that the playing field is not level. "There are very few energy sources that are not subsidized in one way or another," said Woolsey. "But it's really easy for funding sources to start and stop when you're dealing with the government."
But Woolsey is proud of what has been accomplished with the resources that have been available. "We've probably got the most in-depth research on sustainable energy sources as any project in the world," he said.
During the tests, about 12,000 tons of coal that would normally have been hauled from Wyoming were replaced with renewable switchgrass that was planted, grown and harvested by local Iowa farmers.
One of the main benefits of burning switchgrass is the reduction in harmful emissions from the power plant. During the testing phases of the project, sulfur-dioxide emissions were reduced by nearly 62 tons because of the low sulfur content in switchgrass.
And carbon dioxide, the primary culprit blamed for global warming, was reduced by 50,800 tons during the tests. An added bonus is carbon sequestration -- the fact that switchgrass absorbs carbon dioxide as it grows and stores it in its deep root system. This also improves soil conditions in the fields.
Environmental benefits are just one of the reasons why Woolsey has high hopes for the project. "One of the biggest drivers of this technology is the rural economic development aspect," he said, giving farmers an additional commodity that they can raise on marginal land.
Loebsack agreed. "Renewables are important for a lot of reasons," he said. "One of the most important is the benefit to Iowa's economy, and for environmental reasons as well. I know we're out here standing next to a big pile of coal, and I'd like to see us get weaned from these fossil fuels."
Switchgrass is just one possible plant that can be used as biomass. It's a perfect fit for Iowa, because it is a native perennial prairie grass that can reduce soil erosion by as much as 95 percent when compared to row crops. It can be grown with significantly less herbicides and fertilizers.
In addition to the Chariton Valley Biomass Project, Loebsack's renewable energy tour also took him to Cedar Rapids where he toured the Clipper Wind Energy Turbine plant, the University of Iowa power plant where there is a study on oat hulls as biomass, and several stops at ethanol and biodiesel plants.

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