Friday, July 06, 2007

Power Plant's Switch to Switchgrass Could Come by Fall 2008

U.S. Rep. Dave Loebsack wrapped up a weeklong 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 10 years of study and development in the burning of switchgrass to generate electricity, and could move to full commercialization as soon as next year.
Loebsack, right, is pictured with Ed Woolsey, president of Chariton Valley Switchgrass LLC, in front of 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, a specialist with Chariton Valley Resource Conservation and Development, has been involved in many phases of the project. Nearly all of the pieces are now in place, she said, for a full-scale commercial biomass operation, including permits from the Department of Natural Resources and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. "We're wrapping up the research and development phase and working toward full commercialization," she said. The power plant could begin continuously burning up to five percent switchgrass as soon as fall 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, pulverize 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 been provided by Alliant Energy and many other project partners.
Securing steady funding has not always been easy during the 10 years of development.
One of the difficulties in starting in an entirely new industry is that the playing field is not level, Woolsey said. "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. That makes budgeting very difficult."
But Woolsey is proud of what has been accomplished with available resources. "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, which normally would have been hauled from Wyoming, were replaced with renewable switchgrass 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 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 -- switchgrass absorbs carbon dioxide as it grows and stores it in its deep root system. This natural process also improves soil conditions in the fields.
The environmental benefit is just one of the reasons Woolsey has high hopes for the project. "One of the biggest drivers of this technology is the rural economic development aspect" which, he said, gives farmers an additional commodity they can raise on marginal land.
Loebsack, a Democrat who represents Iowa's 2nd District, 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 compared to row crops. And it can be grown with significantly fewer herbicides and fertilizers.
Loebsack's tour also took him to the Clipper Wind Energy Turbine plant in Cedar Rapids, Iowa City's University of Iowa power plant where there is a study on oat hulls as biomass, and to several other Iowa renewable fuels plants.

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