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Biomass Fuels Program Pays Off for Flood Mitigation

Posted on July 5th, 2013
IIHR Research Engineer Nathan Young.

IIHR Research Engineer Nathan Young.

The University of Iowa is getting closer to its vision of consuming 40 percent renewable energy by 2020, thanks in part to the UI Biomass Partnership Project. The program has strong potential to contribute to flood mitigation efforts in Iowa, says IIHR Research Engineer Nathan Young, because it supports cultivation of low-till perennial energy crops on high-flood-risk land.

Development of the Iowa Biomass Partnership Project is supported by the Leopold Center for Sustainable Agriculture; this one-year project focuses on developing biorenewable fuel sources within 50 miles of Iowa City. Biomass, burned in combination with coal and natural gas, will be used at the Main Power Plant in Iowa City and at a new biomass boiler at the UI Research Park power plant. The UI has already been using oat hulls from a local cereal plant as biomass (co-fired with coal) since 2003, and wood chips from dead and dying conifer trees at Kent Park earlier this year — but the large amount of biomass needed to achieve the UI’s goals requires new sources of fuel.

Young, who is also associate director of the Iowa Flood Center, developed methods to help identify land appropriate for production of biomass crops, such as poplar, willow, and other short-rotation woody crops, as well as switch grass and miscanthus. He says the effort has a flood mitigation payoff, because it offers landowners the opportunity to remove row crops from land at an elevated flood risk, and replace them with crops that can be used as biomass fuel. “For land with a higher flood risk, we recommend growing species of short-rotation woody biomass crops that are flood tolerant,” he explains. “These include certain species of poplar and willow, some of which have been developed for our growing region.”

Most of the acreage under consideration is marginal for typical Iowa row crops such as corn and soybeans, because of flood risk or the need for excessive fertilizer to produce a viable crop. Young used GIS tools and 2011 data from the USDA National Agricultural Statistics Service to generate a 30-meter resolution satellite-derived map of land cover data. This information was overlaid with data describing the risk of flooding to determine areas with heightened flood frequency.

The first fire, a wood chip test burn, at the Oakdale biomass boiler.

The first fire, a wood chip test burn, at the Oakdale biomass boiler.

Ferman Milster of the UI Office of Sustainability led this collective effort, in partnership with the operations team at the UI Power Plant and Facilities Management. Other team members included Tricia Knoot, John Tyndall, Jesse Randall, and Rick Hall, Natural Resource Ecology and Management at Iowa State University; Ronald Zalensky Jr., U.S. Forest Service – Genetics and Energy Crop Production Research; Grant Domke and Mark Nelson, U.S. Forest Service – Forest Inventory and Analysis; Paul Tauke, State Forester and Chief Iowa DNR Forestry Bureau; Chris Ensminger, Iowa DNR GIS Section; Rick Trine, Iowa DNR Central District Wildlife Supervisor; Mike Schmdt, John Deere Worldwide Construction and Forestry Division; Peter Hoehnle and Larry Gnewikow, Amana Forestry; Lyle Asell, specialty consultant; Liz Christiansen, University of Iowa Office of Sustainability; Tim Pribil, River Trading Company; and Norm Olsen, Iowa Energy Center.

Milster will discuss how the project is helping the UI meet its goal of achieving 40 percent renewable energy by 2020 at a presentation at 7 p.m. on Wednesday, June 11 in Meeting Room A of the Iowa City Public Library. Read more about the biomass fuel project, and visit the Iowa Flood Center website to learn more about the Statewide Floodplain Mapping project and other activities.


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