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UI Plants Miscanthus Grass to Increase Biomass Innovation

Joanna Bourne
Discarded oat hulls from the Quaker Oats factory in Cedar Rapids makes up the majority of the UI's renewable fuels, but a large-scale effort to plant miscanthus grass marks an attempt to branch out.

Like most institutions, the University of Iowa uses coal in its power plants. It, however, also has a hyper-local source of fuel: discarded oat hulls from the Quaker Oats factory in Cedar Rapids.  With a landmark change in regulation between the university and the DNR, plus a dash of good weather, University of Iowa is able to explore a different type of fuel type. Ben Fish, associate director of Utilities and Energy Management at the University of Iowa, joined Clare Roth to discuss their efforts.

Help us understand what’s changed in regulations for the university.

"The University has always operated under a permit that allowed them to comply with the Clean Air Act. So this is just a different form of that type of compliance. So in the past, there were over 400 different units in the University campus: diesel generators, boilers, water heaters. All of those were regulated individually and reported individually. This new permit takes all of those and puts them under one cap so that we report all of the emissions combined, and as long as we stay under that cap, then we're still in compliance with the Clean Air Act."

We’ve talked about the use of oat hulls in the university’s power plants, what are the other carbon-emission-cutting efforts either in practice or in the works?

"Right now we are continuing to try to increase the tons of wood chips that we burn every year. So the oat hulls are still the bulk of what we're using for renewable fuel, and we're really trying to get into oat hulls. And we've got a couple other fuels that we're trying to start. One of those is miscanthus. Actually today we have some folks out in the fields who are taking advantage of the good weather to go out and plant. So we have an additional three hundred acres of miscanthus that will be planted over the next couple of weeks. So the idea which is really kind of forward thinking, I think, is we're renting land from Iowa farmers in order to grow our fuel so that we can stop buying our coal from out of state."

Tell us about the micanthus grass.

"Miscanthus is an ornamental grass, so some folks probably have something similar in their yard. But this is a grass that is more specific for fuel, because it grows to ten to fifteen feet tall. So, actually, it's very energy dense. So in a single acre of this miscanthus grass, you can actually get enough energy to power the average home for a year. So actually, something that really drew us to this grass in the first place is the energy density. So it's something we're going with, and I think it has a really good potential."