Biomass Energy and Forage

Biomass as a clean, renewable fuel for power and heat.

In 2004, AWI and other sponsors presented a workshop called “Farm Power” on combustion of biomass such as switchgrass, Miscanthus or corn stover in power plants or industrial boilers. One expert at the workshop compared the current status of biomass for generating electricity or steam to that of ethanol before tax incentives and the 1990 Clean Air Act helped to jump-start the biofuel market.

In July 2005, the Illinois Commerce Commission adopted a Sustainable Energy Plan. It calls on electric utilities to meet a Renewable Portfolio Standard of 2% in 2007, increasing to 8% in 2013.  Most of this is expected to come from wind power, but ICC’s definition of renewable energy sources also includes “dedicated crops grown for energy production and organic waste biomass”.

AWI met with many experts and stakeholders to gather information about use of biomass as a clean, renewable fuel that can be burned along with coal, much as ethanol is blended with gasoline. We submitted a successful grant proposal to the Illinois Clean Energy Community Foundation to help fund a biomass energy “learning group”. The project is now getting under way and is expected to take about one year.

Learning groups have been used successfully by the Green Lands, Blue Waters Consortium to explore new uses and markets for agricultural products. GLBW Consortium members include land grant universities of Mississippi River Basin states and NGOs. AWI is a member.

The gap between current prices of fossil fuels, especially coal, and the price required to interest farmers or landowners in growing dedicated energy crops is an obstacle to use of biomass for power and heat. The learning group will include potential growers and users of energy crops. It will also include agencies, NGOs, and researchers interested in water and air quality and ecological benefits from use of perennial crops. It will look for innovative ways to close the price gap. If a local biomass energy market is found to be achievable, the final project deliverable will be a business model and plan. This project represents AWI’s first involvement with “green entrepreneurship”, the development of profitable business ventures that enhance the environment.

The advantage of many perennial grass biomass crops is that they are dual purpose crops that can be used for grazing or hay, in addition to bioenergy. This advantage is especially beneficial when you consider that we have established markets for hay and forages, which is not the case currently for bioenergy.