HILLICOTHE, 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
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
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
``It's all about preservation of clean air and self
sufficiency and providing green energy and local energy,'' he
The power plant, owned by Alliant Energy, consumes
450 tons of coal an hour to crank out electricity for about
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.
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
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
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
``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.
drafted by Sen. Charles Grassley, R-Iowa, would include existing
coal fired plants modified for biomass.
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,
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