PIONEERING PERENNIALS IN IOWA SOIL The University of Iowa is searching for the right biomass feedstock to cofire with coal at its power plant, and miscanthus is one option a few early adopters are testing. BY KATIE FLETCHER
rops take time to establish. Not only do proper planting and harvesting practices need instituting, but an end market must exist. Southeast-Asia originated Miscanthus × giganteus serves as one among a variety of energy crops studied in Iowa. Over the past few years, two miscanthus test plots have been planted in Iowa; 12 acres in the spring of 2013 in Muscatine County, and another 16 acres near Iowa City the following spring. Now with planting protocol explored at both sites, the initial harvest of the 2013 test plot is just around the corner. The harvested miscanthus will be one of several options cofired with coal in two solid-fuel boilers at the university, in an effort to reach its 40 percent renewable energy commitment by 2020. The university has provided the end market for the first two growers to participate in its biomass fuel project. Although preliminary efforts have revealed substantial data on miscanthus, more research and test runs must be done before outreach to a few early adopters turns into a mass-marketing effort.
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Early Adopters Growing miscanthus is not a pioneering operation everywhere. Europe has been planting the crop since the 1980s, primarily for combustion in power plants. In the continental U.S. South, farmers grow the perennial for a poultry-bedding end market. A few other states have grown miscanthus, but, overall, miscanthus is in its early stages in the U.S., and only a few early adopters have begun looking into incorporating it, and other perennials and grasslands, into farming operations. “I’m always looking to diversify our portfolio of crops,” says Steve Schomberg, the first grower participating in the biomass fuel project in 2013. “I think it has a great future, as a landowner and farmer you don’t want to put all of your eggs in one basket.” This is perhaps why over coffee with a friend Schomberg’s ears perked up when he heard about UI’s project. Another Iowa grower followed in 2014. “The concept of growing fuel is pretty interesting,” says Dan Black, owner of the 2014 pilot plot. These two growers knocked on the university’s door, and are now helping spread
the word to others interested in leasing sections of land for the project’s purpose. “We want to have 2,500 acres in production to support our 2020 goal,” says Ferman Milster, principal engineer of renewables at UI. “We’re going to be ramping up 200 acres this coming year, and then much more than that in the years to come.” As a predominantly liberal arts and sci-