Iowa regents approve new power plant for UI campus


The current main power plant for the University of Iowa sits along the Iowa City on Burlington Street. (Facilities Management/University of Iowa)
The current main power plant for the University of Iowa sits along the Iowa River on Burlington Street. (UI Facilities Management)

Nick Fetty | March 13, 2015

Earlier this week the Iowa Board of Regents approved plans for a $75 million power plant to provide energy for buildings on the west side of the University of Iowa’s campus.

Similar to the current UI Power Plant, the West Campus Energy Plant will create steam to power heating, cooling, and sterilization systems. The new plant is expected to be able to create up to 300,000 pounds of steam per hour, slightly less than the 480,000 pounds of steam per hour the current plant produces.

“The University of Iowa Hospital and Clinics, research and residential services require continuous, uninterrupted supplies of steam,” said Glen Mowery, director of Utilities and Energy Management, during in an interview with the UI’s news service Iowa Now. “The new plant will not only ensure continuity of services to our most critical health and research facilities, but also provide back-up service to both sides of campus while providing the most flexibility in fuel sources.”

The new plant will be able to provide power for the entire campus in the event of flood waters inundating the old facility or during potential grid failure. Additionally, the new plant will be able to utilize currently existing rail and truck lines to provide a direct supply of biomass fuel which is part of the UI’s 2020 Vision.

The proposal calls for the plant to be constructed northwest of the Finkbine Commuter Lot between Hawkins Drive and Finkbine Golf Course. Construction is expected to begin in two years and the facility should be operational by 2019.

USDA announces funds for biomass research and production


Switchgrass is an example of a biomass source grown and harvested in Iowa. (Noble Foundation/Flickr)
Switchgrass is an example of a biomass material grown and harvested in Iowa. (Noble Foundation/Flickr)

Nick Fetty | February 27, 2015

U.S. Department of Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack announced Thursday that up to $8.7 million in funding will be available for bioenergy research and education efforts. The announcement was made during the Growth Energy Executive Leadership Conference in Phoenix, Ariz.

Additionally, funding will go toward publishing the final rule for the Biomass Crop Assistance Program (BCAP) which aims to provide incentives for farmers and forest landowners interested in growing and harvesting biomass to be used as renewable energy. The final rule is expected to be published in today’s edition of the Federal Register. BCAP provides up to $25 million annually in financial assistance for owners and operators of agricultural and non-industrial private forest land.

“USDA’s support for innovative bioenergy research and education supports rural economic development, reduces carbon pollution and helps decrease our dependence on foreign energy,” Vilsack said in a press release. “These investments will keep America moving toward a clean energy economy and offer new jobs and opportunities in rural communities.”

Those interested in grants for research and education can apply through the USDA’s Biomass Research and Development Initiative. Past organizations and agencies to receive funding through this grant include Quad County Corn Cooperative in Galva, Iowa; Cooper Tire & Rubber Co. in Findlay, Ohio; and the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

Materials that can be used as biomass include wood chips, corn, corn stalks, soybeans, switchgrass, straw, animal waste and food-processing by-products. Research examining the potential of biomass in Iowa and abroad dates back to the mid-1990s.

Iowa’s biodiesel and wind energy sectors expected to benefit from recently passed tax breaks


Iowa generated 27 percent of its electricity from wind energy last year which ranked highest in the country. (Samir Luther/Flickr)
Iowa generated 27 percent of its electricity from wind energy last year which ranked highest in the country. (Samir Luther/Flickr)

Nick Fetty | December 18, 2014

A $41-billion package of tax breaks passed by the U.S. Senate earlier this week is expected to benefit Iowa’s biodiesel and wind energy industries.

The House passed the legislation (378 to 46) earlier this month with bipartisan support and after the Senate’s approval (76 to 16) it now awaits President Obama’s signature. Congress was unable to agree upon a two-year deal so the Tax Increase Prevention Act will extend 55 different tax credits and extensions through 2015.

Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Oregon) – who also serves as chairman for Senate Finance Committee – was critical of Congress for not passing the legislation sooner citing it does not provide “nearly enough time for the important provisions in this package to catalyze growth among businesses or to support families in a meaningful way. It’s not enough time to put a dent in veterans’ unemployment, to start a clean energy project and hire new workers, or to help a student who’s on the fence about whether to enroll in college next semester.”

Both of Iowa’s senator’s – Chuck Grassley (R) and the retiring Tom Harkin (D) – signed the legislation though Grassley also expressed disapproval with its “last minute approach.” With Republicans taking control of the senate for the upcoming session, Grassley said “My only hope is that in the new Congress we can make strides toward putting some certainty back in the tax code.”

President Obama is expected to sign the legislation later this week.

Iowa farm hosting Bio-Renewables Field Day


Iowa State agronomy researcher Emily Heaton (left, red shirt) introduces congressional staffers to biomass crop miscanthus. (CenUSA Bioenergy/Flickr)
Iowa State agronomy researcher Emily Heaton (left, red shirt) introduces congressional staffers to biomass crop miscanthus. (CenUSA Bioenergy/Flickr)

A tall perennial grass called miscanthus may be the future of bioenergy in Iowa, and an upcoming event is highlighting its unique potential.

Iowa State University assistant professor of agronmy Emily Heaton and Iowa City landowner Dan Black will speak at a field day and seminar on Wednesday, September 10, to discuss their findings regarding miscanthus, which is currently being explored as a potential biomass crop in experimental fields.

The event will take place at the University of Iowa miscanthus test plot and is hosted by Iowa Learning Farms, the second in a series of four field days that will cover innovations in Iowa agriculture. The event includes a meal prepared by Johnson County Cattlemen and features Ben Anderson, power plant manager at the University of Iowa, who will talk about how miscanthus could be used in the UI power plant’s solid fuel boilers.

Researchers working with a non-invasive hybrid of miscanthus have so far observed a high success rate in surviving Iowa winters, which is necessary for it to reach peak production in its third year. This means the plant could play a major role in Iowa agriculture as a source of biomass that can be converted into energy. It can grow alongside existing crops and in sections of fields that usually produce lower yields for corn, meaning it could also help reduce runoff and preserve water quality.

RSVPs are being accepted until September 5 by calling (515) 294-8912 or by emailing ilf@iastate.edu. For more information, visit extension.iastate.edu/ilf.

Purdue University study finds improved profitability, sustainability in cover crop technique


Nick Fetty | August 5, 2014
Shredded corn stover. (Great Lakes Bioenergy Research Center/Flickr)
Shredded corn stover. (Great Lakes Bioenergy Research Center/Flickr)

Farmers who use cover crops as a means of soil conservation can produce higher yields of corn stover which leads to increased profits, according to a recent study by researchers at Purdue University.

Cover crops such as crimson clover or annual ryegrass help to “blanket the soil” which allows farmers to sustainably yield an additional 1.8 tons of stover per acre compared to traditional methods, the research finds. This stover can then be used to produce biofuels among other uses. One study suggests that corn stover can “supply as much as 25 percent of the biofuel crop needed by 2030.” However, over-harvesting of corn stover has been known to strip the soil of important nutrients.

Cover crops not only help to produce biomass through corn stover but also have benefits for the soil including reduced erosion even in no-till soil, reduced nitrate leaching, increased soil organic matter, improved soil health, quality, and productivity, as well as fewer winter annual and early season weeds. These techniques can be beneficial for both corn-corn and corn-soybean crop rotations.

The study was a collaboration between researchers at the Purdue Extension as well as Praxic, an Ames, Iowa-based software company. To learn more about corn stover in Iowa, check out the 2013 Iowa Corn Sustainable Corn Stover Harvest guide.

Iowa State University researchers find new potential in miscanthus


Nick Fetty | July 29, 2014
A miscanthus field in Japan. Photo via Wikipedia
A miscanthus field in Japan.
Photo via Wikipedia

Researchers at Iowa State University have discovered that Iowa’s soil may help miscanthus – a perennial tall grass – to produce higher yields of biomass than once thought.

Iowa State Agronomists think that this Asian plant will not only provide a source for biomass energy but will also help to protect the environment. The study focused specifically on miscanthus x giganteus, “a sterile hybrid of the plant that cannot reproduce from seed and spreads slowly.”

The study found that this hybrid plant has a low mortality rate even in Iowa’s harsh winters. Agronomists also found that crop yields in the second year were similar to yields in the third year, which is when the plant generally hits its peak production. The full report was published in June in the journal Industrial Crops and Products and additional information about biomass production from miscanthus is also available through the ISU Department of Agronomy.

The University of Iowa has utilized the plant as part of its Biomass Fuel Project which aims to achieve 40 percent renewable energy by 2020. In 2013, 16 acres of miscanthus were planted in Muscatine County and earlier this year an additional 15 acres were planted just south of Iowa City.