IOWA CITY — Standing outside the University of Iowa’s Power Plant along Burlington Street and the Iowa River, Ben Fish held a small glass jar of pellets made of condensed paper and non-recyclable plastic.
Dubbed “energy pellets,” the Chapstick-sized tablets slowly have been replacing coal as fuel in the university’s boiler system, which feeds heat-producing steam to the surrounding campus.
“This is really our path forward from here,” said Fish, associate director for utility operations at the UI.
One of the plant’s two boilers shifted entirely from coal to pellets last September, while the other boiler — which has mixed oat hulls with coal for years now — could begin burning pellets next year, Fish said.
The university’s shift away from coal — UI President Bruce Harreld announced that the campus would be coal-free by 2025 — is one of many ongoing efforts in biomass across Iowa, as state and local officials explore ways of expanding what many call an untapped resource where Iowa’s energy, conservation and agriculture sectors meet.
In August, the Iowa Economic Development Authority followed up the state’s 2016 Energy Plan with a Biomass Conversion Action Plan, which aims to expand Iowa’s biomass industry.
WHAT IS BIOMASS?
Biomass is organic material from plants and animals that can be used to create energy, fuels, chemicals or products.
The large majority of Iowa’s existing bioenergy market is made up of ethanol production — Iowa leads the nation with 42 operating ethanol plants producing 27 percent of the nation’s output, according to IEDA’s August Biomass Conversion Action Plan, which followed up on goals set in the 2016 Energy Plan.
Iowa also leads the nation in biodiesel, with 11 plants that account for 16 percent of the nation’s output, the report said.
Earlier this month, President Donald Trump visited Iowa to announce plans to allow year-round sales of a higher blend of ethanol called E15, which has been banned during the summer. Democrats and Republicans alike, as well as those in the industry, declared the move as a huge benefit for the state’s ethanol and biodiesel industry.
Iowa’s 2016 Energy Plan details biomass as an energy resource poised for growth.
“In Iowa, the use of biomass to produce electricity directly or to produce biogas remains an untapped potential and abundant resource,” the plan states.
The report notes that Iowa’s position as an agricultural leader provides big potential for growth in biomass. The state is projected to lead the nation by 2030 with 31 million tons in crop residue productions and manure, which could be used for bioenergy.
“There’s an awful lot of mass out there that we don’t have to grow, we don’t have to do anything to, it’s already there, it’s just going away, going to landfills and going as methane into the atmosphere,” Jon Koch, director of water resource recovery with the city of Muscatine, said at last month’s Iowa Ideas conference. “The potential there is almost completely untapped, the amount of energy out there is truly incredible.”
Koch has been the driving force behind the Muscatine Area Resource Recovery for Vehicles and Energy program, dubbed MARRVE, which will turn organic waste into renewable gas for compressed natural gas vehicles, while also diverting organics from the landfill.
The American Biogas Council in 2015 ranked Iowa eighth in the nation for methane production potential from biogas sources.
At the time, Iowa had 63 operational biogas systems, with the potential for more than 1,140 new projects based on the amount of available organic material. Construction of those projects would generate $3.4 billion in capital investment and create 28,500 short-term and 2,280 long-term jobs, the council reported.
The large majority of potential biogas systems — 1,040 — include swine farm biogas systems.
“There’s seven times more pigs than people in Iowa. There’s a massive amount of manure that needs to be taken care of that is not being utilized,” Koch said.
But simply having a lot of agricultural material primed for biomass conversion isn’t enough as such projects come with an initial investment.
Ingrid Anderson, UI environmental compliance specialist, said the key is building partnerships and raising awareness of the other paired benefits of biomass.
Biomass crops, such as miscanthus grass or the oat hulls burned at the UI Power Plant, can provide conservation benefits as cover crops.
What’s more, biomass projects provide economic development opportunities and reduce the state’s reliance on fossil fuels.
“I think part of that is being able to find the right partners early to get enough momentum to show people that it’s doable and then piggyback off that to get that behavior change,” Anderson said. “A farmer can be enhancing the quality of their land, keeping erosion controlled and also get revenue off that crop that is used for energy.”
From 2010 to 2016, coal consumption at the UI Power Plant declined by half, with coal expected to be just 10 percent of the fuel mix by 2020.
Whether it’s burning oat hulls or energy pellets in the UI Power Plant, or drawing fuel from food waste in Muscatine, Anderson said Iowa’s biomass market needs to be a multipronged approach.
“When you’re talking about renewable energy, we like to say it’s more of a silver buckshot than a silver bullet. It’s going to be a combination of renewable energy technologies that really tackle this problem,” she said.
Brian Selinger, team leader of the IEDA’s Iowa Energy Office, said the Biomass Conversion Action Plan aims to conduct strategic mapping to identify the locations of livestock production, sensitive watersheds, natural gas infrastructure and early adopters of cover crops.
With that, the state will build a game plan for biomass growth, he said.
“We’re trying to walk before we run, but we’re trying to identify strategic locations and then work with partners to probably do some pilot-scale projects,” he said. “We’re trying to find strategic opportunities to show the economics are there and hope this will continue to grow.”
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