UI's coal-free goal impresses Reynolds

Governor sees economic possibilities in biomass project

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IOWA CITY — Terry Branstad was the ethanol governor.

After a visit Wednesday to the University of Iowa Biomass Fuel Project, new Gov. Kim Reynolds was exhibiting similar enthusiasm for miscanthus grass.

“Since the 1980s, we’ve led the nation in renewable energy and fuels,” Reynolds said. Iowa produces 36 percent of its electricity from wind and hopes to reach 40 percent by 2020, and leads the nation in ethanol and biodiesel production.

“And here’s an opportunity with our natural resources and the tremendous amount of biomass we have in the state to continue to add value to our economy” as well as replace coal with renewables, she told reporters after hearing a presentation from UI and Iowa State University personnel and a miscanthus grower involved in the biomass fuel project.

UI’s goal is to be coal-free by 2025, President Bruce Harreld said. It wants to reduce reliance on coals “to the point it is no longer included in our fuel portfolio.”

“It’s a very ambitious goal,” Reynolds said, “but my money is on them. I think they’re going to get it done.”

The UI has partnered with Dan Black, an Iowa City area miscanthus grower who also presented to the governor and the city of Cedar Rapids, which grows the grass on farmland around The Eastern Iowa Airport.

More than 800 acres of miscanthus have been planted and the goal is to add 1,300 more acres, said Erin Hazen of UI utilities and energy management. That would allow the UI to make miscanthus about 10 percent of its fuel mix.

In addition to a fuel source, miscanthus, which has a dense root system and grows to 10 to 12 feet in height, can be more profitable for farmers than corn and soybean crops, said Emily Heaton, an associate professor of agronomy at ISU. Corn can cost a farmer $400 an acre, she said. Miscanthus can cost $700 — but one planting can last 20 years and reduce soil and nutrient loss by up to 95 percent.

Reynolds also saw opportunities for farm machinery manufacturers as well as start-ups and job creations.

“It fits very nicely with what we’re trying to do to make sure we protect our water quality and soil health,” she added.

The governor would like to see UI’s biomass project replicated at other state facilities as a way to reduce dependence — and costs — for out-of-state energy sources. She won’t mandate conversions, she said, but projects like the UI’s show “it is doable and achievable.”

l Comments: (319) 398-8375; james.lynch@thegazette.com

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