LETTS, Iowa (AP) — 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 doesn’t look like much. It begins as ginger-like rhizomes, or plant stems. Grown, it is reminiscent of sugar cane, with tough dry stalks that sway in the wind.
But burning 1 acre of Miscanthus can offset 4 tons of coal in the power plant. And a field of Miscanthus can grow for a decade or more without replanting.
Miscanthus is also ideal for Iowa because it can tolerate the sometimes harsh Iowa winters, and 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’s all going out of state,” Hazen said. “But really we want to divert that so we spend the money in state, so it’s income for growers.”
The university wants to generate 10 percent of its energy from Miscanthus, using other biomass fuels for the other 90 percent, with the goal of reducing and eventually eliminating its dependence on coal by 2025.
So far, the venture — the Biomass Fuel Project — has recruited about 15 growers and more than 800 acres of Miscanthus across eastern Iowa.
For Kemp, who lives in Letts, 37 miles southeast of Iowa City, the decision to rent his fields to the University of Iowa was one of convenience.
“I’m getting just as much out of this as if I were to rent it to a farmer,” he said. “I don’t have to fertilize it or do anything at all.”
He recently held a demonstration for farmers interested in growing Miscanthus. Officials from the university and some of its partners answered questions. Partners include Iowa State University and Aggrow Tech, which planted the Miscanthus on Kemp’s property.
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