University of Iowa plants dedicated energy crops

13-acre miscanthus field to be first of many

University of Iowa.  (Stephen Mally/The Gazette-KCRG TV9)
University of Iowa. (Stephen Mally/The Gazette-KCRG TV9)

In pursuit of its goal to become more sustainable, in part, by producing its own biomass fuel, the University of Iowa on Wednesday planted 15 acres of giant miscanthus in southwest Iowa City.

The work was a product of the UI’s Biomass Fuel Project, which aims to plant more than 2,500 acres of the perennial grass by 2016 in hopes of producing up to 25,000 tons of biomass fuel each year. The university planted its first miscanthus for the project last year with a 16-acre pilot field in Muscatine County, according to the UI Office of Sustainability.

That field, along with this week’s newly planted acreage in Iowa City, will be used to better understand growing miscanthus in this region and to demonstrate planting and harvesting techniques to prospective growers, according to Ferman Milster, principal engineer of renewables for the UI sustainability office.

“No one has done this in southeast Iowa on a production scale,” Milster said. “We have a whole lot to learn about how to plant it and harvest it and get it into the boiler.”

Right now, the UI is using 8 to 10 percent biomass fuel, which is a blend of coal and a renewable plant-based material. The university is developing a biomass portfolio that includes energy crops, like the miscanthus grass, opportunity wood, including trees damaged by storms or the emerald ash borer, and industrial byproducts, like oat hulls from the Quaker Oats factory in Cedar Rapids.

The UI’s goal is to procure 40 percent of its energy from renewable sources by 2020. Milster said he expects miscanthus to account for 25 percent of its biomass fuel.

“Over the next two years, in 2015 and 2016, we hope to plant a lot more,” he said. “There will be significant expansion based on the knowledge we are getting out of these two fields.”

The UI contracted with Repreve Renewables, a North Carolina-based renewable solutions company, to supply and plant the miscanthus in Iowa City this week at a cost of $24,000. Officials found the property after issuing a request for proposals from local landowners.

Milster is looking for more landowners willing to rent land to the university, which will pay to have the property established for biomass fuel production. The soil doesn’t have to be prime corn and bean ground, he said.

“We are looking for marginal ground that’s not making a lot of money for corn and beans,” he said. “Miscanthus is more forgiving as to what kind of soil it can grow in, and we don’t want to compete with high corn and bean ground.”

Once it’s planted, he said, the crop doesn’t take a lot of work until it’s harvested in February or March. But, Milster said, officials still are working out how much fertilizer to use and how to best harvest it.

“We don’t know if we should bale it or forest chop it,” he said. “That’s the reason we are planning these fields — to try different techniques and figure out how to do it.”

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