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Green Energy: UI, farmers partner to grow biofuel


From the Muscatine Journal: 

LETTS, Iowa — Jay Kemp isn’t a farmer, but in a few days, he will have more than 100 acres of grass rhizomes on his property.

He won’t have to weed or spray his fields and in a year’s time, when the grass grows tall enough to be harvested, Kemp won’t harvest it.

The University of Iowa will.

The university has been burning the grass, known as Miscanthus, in its power plant to reduce its reliance on coal. At first glance, Miscanthus does not look like much. It begins as ginger-like rhizomes. As a grown plant, it is reminiscent of sugar cane, with a tough dry stalks that sway in the wind.

But burning one acre of Miscanthus can offset four tons of coal in the power plant. And a field of Miscanthus can grow for a decade or more without replanting. Miscanthus also is ideal for Iowa: It can tolerate the harsh Iowa winters, but it can’t produce seeds, so it won’t invade neighboring fields.

Erin Hazen, renewable energy business development manager at the University of Iowa, said replacing coal with Miscanthus makes environmental sense.

“For the university to stop using coal in its plant has benefits to all of eastern Iowa,” she said. “Coal is not great for the environment. Coal has problematic emissions that Miscanthus and other biofuels (don’t have).”

Since 2015, she said, the university has reduced its greenhouse gas emissions by more than 17 percent.

It also makes economic sense. The university’s power plant has a $14 million budget for fuel, some of which is used for coal.

“The money that we spend on coal, right now, that is money that’s all going out of state, but really we want to divert that so we spend the money in state, so it’s income for growers,” Hazen said.

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