University of Iowa ramps up use of biomass fuel

University on track in effort to increase sustainability

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IOWA CITY — Halfway into the University of Iowa’s 10-year sustainability initiative, officials say it has reached its progress target and remains on track to achieve 40 percent renewable energy consumption by 2020.

“We are around 15 percent renewable,” said Ingrid Anderson, environmental compliance specialist for the university. “That was our intermediate goal for 2015.”

The university’s growing use of giant miscanthus grasslands is partly to thank, according to Anderson. The UI started by planting 15-acre test plots of the energy-producing crop in 2013 and 2014, and this year transitioned the crop from an experimental phase to a commercial phase by planting 360 acres.

Each acre of the perennial grass produces about the same amount of energy consumed by one home for one year — meaning the UI’s miscanthus acreage now could produce enough power to support 360 homes.

The goal is to establish 2,500 acres of miscanthus grass by 2020 to produce 22,500 tons of sustainable and renewable biopower feedstock to replace a portion of the UI coal supply.

The university consumes the annual energy equivalent of more than 35,000 households in the Midwest, and the hope is that miscanthus grass will produce 25 percent of the renewable energy the UI needs to satisfy its 2020 goal of 40 percent renewable energy.

“We are taking it to a more commercial level because we have the volume of acres where we can get a decent amount of fuel out of it,” Anderson said.

Midpoint Goal

The UI power plant has two fuel boilers capable of burning coal and biomass fuel, which is a blend of coal and a renewable plant-based material. One boiler has been co-firing a coal-biomass blend since Quaker Oats began providing oat hulls in 2003, and the university since has added to its biomass options, including expired corn seeds, wood chips and the perennial grasses.

When the UI launched its sustainability vision in 2010, the campus was fulfilling 50 percent of its energy needs with coal, 18 percent with natural gas, 24 percent via purchased electricity and 8 percent with biomass. The goal is to cut the coal percentage to 18 percent, increase the biomass percentage to 40 percent and leave the other two sources unchanged.

But Liz Christiansen, director of the UI Office of Sustainability, said the university set a 15 percent midpoint goal because it needed to clear several hurdles before ramping up its biomass use.

First, she said, the UI needed to investigate alternatives to the oat hulls it had been using and then test those materials in the power plant. Crews had to solve logistical issues involving preparing, processing, transporting and delivering biomass materials, Christiansen said, while also creating a market for materials and building partnerships to “ensure a steady and consistent supply.”

“While there are still some challenges that we’re working on, we feel we now are at the point where we can expand the dedicated energy crop effort,” Christiansen said.

And officials aren’t ruling out other biomass options as they drive toward their sustainability goal. The UI is investigating the possibility of growing woody crops such as willow or poplar trees or blending paper sludge or furniture scrap with coal — diverting those materials from the landfill.

“This is cutting-edge work here,” Christiansen said, adding that utilities across the Midwest have expressed interest in what the university is doing. “We are providing fuel needs through the lens of sustainability.”

Harreld’s response

The university’s 2020 vision grew out of a challenge former UI President Sally Mason presented to the campus on Earth Day 2008. Mason urged the UI community to make sustainability “a central priority of all aspects of our university enterprise.”

Other targets included in the 2020 vision:

Become a net-negative energy consumer — meaning the campus will consume less energy in 2020 than it did in 2010, despite physical growth

Decrease waste production by increasing recycling, facilitating composting or organic waste, enhancing green purchasing practices to achieve 60 percent waste diversion by 2020

Reduce the carbon impact of transportation with a 10 percent reduction in per capita emissions of fossil fuel-produced carbon dioxide from UI-related transportation and travel

Increase student opportunities to learn and practice sustainability

Support and grow research in sustainability-focused areas

Develop partnerships to advance collaborative sustainability initiatives.

Mason retired in August and UI President Bruce Harreld started on the job this month. He has been meeting with campus departments, student groups and faculty, but Harreld told The Gazette he has not yet met with the Office of Sustainability.

He stressed the importance of sustainability on campus, however, and said he plans to make that a priority.

“It’s an important issue for society, and I’m not going to duck it,” Harreld said. “We need to have a dialogue big time and get our communication and facts right.”

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