Higher education

University of Iowa gets landmark air-quality deal enabling more biofuel use

'We really appreciate the trust that you're placing in us'

Giant miscanthus grass is harvested from a field southwest of Iowa City on Thursday, Feb. 25, 2016. This field of perennial grass was first planted in the spring of 2014, and is part of the UI's Biomass Fuels project which aims to achieve 40 percent renewable energy usage by the UI by 2020. The grass is blended with coal which is then then burned at the UI Power Plant. (Adam Wesley/The Gazette)
Giant miscanthus grass is harvested from a field southwest of Iowa City on Thursday, Feb. 25, 2016. This field of perennial grass was first planted in the spring of 2014, and is part of the UI's Biomass Fuels project which aims to achieve 40 percent renewable energy usage by the UI by 2020. The grass is blended with coal which is then then burned at the UI Power Plant. (Adam Wesley/The Gazette)

IOWA CITY — the University of Iowa has reached a first-of-its-kind agreement with state air quality regulators, allowing it to expand its use of biofuels and continue experimenting with environmentally friendly options.

The Iowa Department of Natural Resources issued landmark “plant-wide applicability limit” permits to the university on March 28. The permits limit air pollutant emissions collectively across the UI campus, rather than by each of the institution’s 437 emissions sources, allowing officials more flexibility in choosing how to operate.

“This PAL permit means we have to keep track of them still, but we report them all as a big group,” said Ben Fish, UI associate director of utilities and energy management. “And so it allows us the flexibility to run some units more than others — maybe more than we have in the past.”

As long as emissions meet an overall capped level, the university now has the freedom to “run whichever pieces of equipment make the most sense for the university,” Fish said.

“One of the things that happens with this permit is that it makes it easier for us to increase our levels of biomass,” he said. “We could hope to push past some of our previous levels of biomass usage because we have this in place.”

The university in 2010 created a 2020 vision that laid out sustainability targets — including increasing renewable energy use to 40 percent of total consumption. The university reached 14.4 percent last year, and it has peaked at 32 percent this year — as the UI’s sustainability team continues to diversify its biomass portfolio.

The university now blends coal with oat hulls from Quaker Oats in Cedar Rapids — a practice the main power plant began more than 13 years The university’s use of that energy-producing perennial grass has surged in recent years. It planted 15-acre test plots in 2013 and 2014 and then transitioned from an experimental phase to a commercial phase in 2015 by planting 360 acres.

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The UI aims to establish 2,500 acres of miscanthus grass by 2020, producing 22,500 tons of sustainable and renewable biopower feedstock to supplement a portion of the UI coal supply. And Fish said the university’s new agreement with the state could help it discover more sustainable energy sources.

“The thing that this permit does is it gives us more options to look at other types of fuels now,” Fish said. “We get contacted regularly by different groups, different companies, that have fuels that they think we may be interested in. And so if we are able to find some of those that are a fit for us and a fit for the university, from a standpoint of renewable and cost, there is no reason not to pursue them now.

The new permits, which will be in effect for the next decade, still require the university to track its emissions monthly, report annually, and operate below a set cap for seven air pollutants that are regulated under the federal Clean Air Act.

Fish said emissions of those pollutants don’t increase with use of biomass fuels.

“However, the old permitting method didn’t necessarily recognize that,” he said. “As odd as it may sound, the Clean Air Act has some provisions that are older that actually impeded our ability to move off coal and onto biomass.”

The agreement, which is unique in the state, took several years of collaboration between UI and DNR officials. And UI President Bruce Harreld on Tuesday thanked the state for its cooperation.

“We really appreciate the trust that you’re placing in us,” Harreld said. “It’s going to give us a lot more flexibility, hopefully to not only meet our goals, but to help others around the state and the country meet their goals as well as we get more innovative.”

Harreld said the university is going to continue pushing the envelope.

“We’re going to meet our 2020 goals,” he said. “We’re going to exceed them.”

But, beyond improving its operations, Harreld said the university can do better in incorporating sustainability into its academic and research mission. The environment is going to be one of the biggest issues today’s students deal with in the future.

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“What can we do to actually prepare our students for dealing with that world better?” he said.

Harreld is encouraging faculty members and instructors to introduce the notion of sustainability in their course work. Those efforts might result in new certificate programs or a degree in this area, he said.

“But very importantly to push the envelope in research,” which Harreld cited as paramount in the work that led to the new agreement.

DNR Director Chuck Gipp called the new permits “a great example of how we proactively work as a department to protect the environment, but also assist in finding and supporting innovating ways of doing so.”

“It was a trial of working together,” he said. “Because nobody had ever done this before.”

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