University of Iowa works on biomass supply as it backs down coal use

The University of Iowa will soon be growing its own crop dedicated entirely to creating energy and to backing out at least some coal use at its main campus plant.

The plant—a sterile hybrid grass called Miscanthus—will be harvested and used to supply power, steam, and chilled water to the main campus. The university said Feb. 11 that the project is part of its Biomass Fuel Project, designed to reduce the use of fossil fuels by substituting locally available renewable materials in the main Power Plant, with the goal of achieving 40% renewable energy consumption by 2020.

The project will move forward by securing land commitments for approximately 2,500 acres, beginning with approximately 200 acres planted this spring as broad scale demonstration plots. Test plots of Miscanthus x giganteus were planted in 2013 and 2014 on farms near Muscatine, Iowa, and south of Iowa City as part of a biomass feasibility study. The UI will advance the project from an experimental phase to commercial scale with the help of agricultural management services provider Repreve Renewables LLC

“It has been our objective to develop more local and sustainable resources to produce renewable energy and to rely less on out-of-state fossil fuels,” says Ferman Milster, the UI engineer for the project.

The university is studying and developing other locally sourced biomass alternatives. Recent improvements to the main Power Plant allow for increased usage of biomass for the main campus and improvements to the Oakdale Renewable Energy Plant at the UI Research Park were made with the goal of operating that campus on 100% renewable energy.

“The UI Power Plant partnership with the Office of Sustainability and others across campus has generated excellent results towards our 2020 goal. We will continue to focus on the use of dedicated energy crops, such as Miscanthus, and optimize the way the crop is delivered to the boilers in the Power Plant,” says UI Power Plant Manager Ben Anderson.

Repreve Renewables announced March 11 that it has been chosen to provide the agricultural and business development services for this project. It noted that this project will increase the campus power plant’s renewable fuel consumption and reduce the use of coal. The company said it will move forward by securing land commitments for 2,500 acres in the Iowa City area, including the Eastern Iowa Airport where giant miscanthus will be grown to improve soil and water quality by reducing soil erosion.

“The University of Iowa is a leader in sustainability, just as REPREVE RENEWABLES is a trailblazer in biomass production and logistics,” said Jeff Wheeler, CEO of Repreve, which is based in Greensboro, N.C. “The Biomass Fuel Project provides the opportunity to achieve breakthrough renewable energy solutions.”

The university’s Main Power plant is located on the Iowa River in downtown Iowa City. Oat hulls have been burned along with coal at the Main Plant since 2003, making up about 10% of the fuel use. The main plant is a combined heat and power plant that serves the east side of campus with steam. The plant has converted two solid fuel boilers to co-firing biomass resources. Boiler #10 is a stoker boiler which handles mainly woody resources and other test batches. Boiler #11 is a circulating fluid bed boiler that utilizes mainly oat hulls and wood chips.

Biomass fuels are burned in boilers at the University of Iowa Research Park. This is also a combined heat and power facility with a wood burning gasification boiler. The Oakdale plant provides heat and power to the university research park with the goal of operating on 100% renewable energy.

About Barry Cassell 20414 Articles
Barry Cassell is Chief Analyst for GenerationHub covering coal and emission controls issues, projects and policy. He has covered the coal and power generation industry for more than 24 years, beginning in November 2011 at GenerationHub and prior to that as editor of SNL Energy’s Coal Report. He was formerly with Coal Outlook for 15 years as the publication’s editor and contributing writer, and prior to that he was editor of Coal & Synfuels Technology and associate editor of The Energy Report. He has a bachelor’s degree from Central Michigan University.