Iowa Leaps Ahead

Hundreds of farmers in southern Iowa are players in a test of biomass-to-electricity theories.

Last year more than 4,000 acres of switchgrass were planted in the Chariton Valley region in southern Iowa. In January, some of the grass was being harvested and baled for shipment to the Alliant Energy electric plant in Chillicothe. Switchgrass, a plant native to the Great Plains, is typically harvested between October and March.

Beginning in May and over the next three years, between five and ten percent of the coal used at the plant will be replaced with switchgrass. However, before the switchgrass can be used, stones and other debris must be removed and the grass must be ground into particle-sized bits. Next, the grass is transported to the boiler where it is co-fired with coal to produce heat which boils water. The resulting steam drives a turbine generating electricity.

The test this spring will displace 1,800 tons of coal and produce enough electricity to meet the need in 1,500 homes, according to the participants. A larger switchgrass co-firing test is scheduled for the spring of 2001.

If successful, switchgrass which is typically planted on conservation reserve acres could become an energy cash crop for farmers producing 4-6 tons of grass per acre, or about $200.

This project began in 1995 and now involves a host of participants: local farmers and landowners, five companies, five state agencies, five federal agencies as well as several local entities.

Return to the Spring 2000 Newsletter