WASHBURN -- Poet Carl Sandburg once wrote, "I am the grass. Let me work."

A group of University of Northern Iowa researchers and Black Hawk County conservationists aim to do just that.

They've cultivated about 100 acres of prairie grass within the Black Hawk County Natural Resource Area southeast of Washburn, raising varieties of prairie grass to burn for fuel in varying soil types.

The project has reintroduced plants and wildlife not seen in this area for some time.

"If you build it, they will come," said Vern Fish, executive director of the Black Hawk County Conservation Board. For example, two to three times as many species of birds can be found there compared to adjacent corn and soybean fields, UNI research indicates. Wild turkey, fox, deer and coyote also have been observed.

"One of the surprising things we found was just how quickly birds and butterflies responded," said UNI biology professor Mark Myers.

"Within a year of seeding, we had very abundant and diverse bird and butterfly communities," including species identified as being "of conservation concern" by the state and in need of habitat management. Researchers have tracked nesting as well as the birds themselves.

The project also is being studied for its benefits in reducing soil erosion and water pollution from nutrients washing into streams and rivers. The nutrient composition of the soil and the development of the root bed is sampled and monitored underground.

It's a product of UNI's Tallgrass Prairie Center, founded more than 40 years ago by recently retired longtime UNI biology professor Daryl Smith. It began with an on-campus prairie restoration project once referred to as "Smith's Foxtail Folly" in the 1970s and has progressed to the current initiative near Washburn, established in 2008 and replanted after that year's severe flood.

But the full flower of UNI's "Prairie Power" project has yet to be realized. Researchers are trying to find a market for the prairie grass as fuel.

A test burn of pelletized prairie grass at Cedar Falls Utilities' Streeter Station power plant in 2013 yielded positive results. But selling prairie grass as a fuel source is tough in the current market, with natural gas prices so low.

Feel the burn

"It was densified into quarter-inch pellets" said UNI researcher Eric Giddens of the Tallgrass Prairie Center. The energy produced and emissions were monitored for comparison with coal and other fuel sources.

"Combustion of the prairie biomass yielded about 57 percent of the energy value of coal; however stack emissions, air pollutants and the potential for slagging and fouling were lower," noted a UNI "Prairie Power Project" report, funded by the Iowa Economic Development Authority.

But the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has yet to officially define any variety of prairie grass as a renewable fuel source, which somewhat stymies local researchers. They're hoping for positive developments in that regard as research continues.

"That's kind of a big question mark with them right now, with biomass in general," Giddens said. Meanwhile researchers are looking at "small local markets" for the material.

"It looks like what's going to make the most sense is what I call 'medium scale' applications -- maybe greenhouses or schools in a rural setting," he said. "We also think rural areas that are currently using propane for heat are going to make more sense than areas and town that have natural gas, because natural gas is really cheap right now -- due to fracking, basically. It's going to be hard for this type of material to compete economically with natural gas. But we may be able to compete a little more with propane. Because propane can tend to fluctuate pretty significantly in price."

Natural gas "is super cheap right now," Giddens said. "People have real short-term memory too. When things are cheap, they don't want to look too far into the future.

"We proved in the test burn this stuff works well as a heating fuel or an energy-production fuel. So now we just need to develop a market for it. It's a challenge, but we're working on it," Giddens said.

Water quality

There are water quality and soil erosion benefits as well. Farmers can plant prairie strips in row-crop fields to filter water and stop nutrient loss, reducing water pollution and soil erosion.

"If you take a row-crop field and replace 10 percent of it with strategically placed prairie strips, you can reduce nutrient loss by up to 90 percent in that field," Giddens said.

"It offsets the loss in production," Fish said. "If that prairie grass had some other value, it might make it a little easier to sell the concept."

He noted declining farm commodity prices and land values provide farmers more incentive to put more land into federally supported conservation reserve.

"It's guaranteed income," Fish said. "We're going to see a lot of it. You're going to see fields exploding in color. But the problem is, as I remember a professor at Iowa State said, it's temporary water quality. As soon as the program rolls out, commodity prices go up, they'll put it back in production. They start plowing it again. The challenge is to have some permanent water quality." Developing a market for harvested prairie grass might help that, particularly if conservation reserve rules were changed to allow such a harvest.

Giddens noted the state's conservation practices to reduce soil erosion and nutrients going into the water -- so called "non-point-source" pollution from agricultural sources, are voluntary.

"Farmers really don't want that to become mandatory," Giddens said. "So a lot of these conservation practices -- cover crops, prairie strips -- are sort of taking off in farmers' effort to stave off mandatory nutrient reduction strategy. At least that seems to be a trend."

However, some financial resources to research the marketability of prairie grass as a fuel source have dried up. A $700,000 Iowa Power Fund research grant for the project, secured during the administration of former Iowa Gov. Chet Culver, has run out. Alternative funding sources are being sought -- but Black Hawk County and UNI continue to maintain the area under a joint memorandum of understanding.

Meanwhile, proponents are trying to keep the project in the public eye. UNI student researchers, like senior Sara Judickas of Bettendorf, have taken the cause to the Iowa Capitol, where she presented information on the UNI Prairie Power project at a "Research at the Capitol" event.

"I was able to talk to Iowa legislators about what we've done here at the site," she said. She also presented butterfly research at a national conference and at an Iowa Academy of Science event at Grandview University in Des Moines. "So I've exposed a lot of people to our project."

Danielson and state Sen. Bill Dotzler, D-Waterloo, helped secure the IEDA funding. Also, the Iowa Legislature passed and Gov. Terry Branstad signed a bio-renewable tax credit bill this year.

"When this state gets serious about water quality investments, this concept is going to be very important," Danielson said. "No one should get stars in their eyes about this completely replacing coal, but it has other benefits."

Researchers say the project also has provided an invaluable opportunity for UNI students to develop research skills, making themselves more marketable for jobs in their chosen professions.

It provides a "real cool experience and the ability to get my feet wet in the field of research," said Nicole Bishop, a UNI junior from Elkhart near Des Moines. "Having a mentor to assist me in learning how to conduct proper research is an incredibly valuable experience."

"It's been interesting and a great learning experience," Judickas said. "I'm applying to med school this summer. Although this isn't medical research, it's still a way to learn research methods, and learning concepts outside of books and tests."

"The neat local angle is the partnership between the County Conservation Board and UNI," Myers said. "We've had a ton of students who have done research out here. This is one of our primary research sites. And then, in terms of the county, you have people out here walking their dogs, hunting."

State Rep. Bob Kressig, D-Cedar Falls, sees future dividends from the initiative.

"Initially we saw wind energy and solar come into the state with little interest in them. Now we are seeing a great deal of interest in both wind and solar and making Iowa a national leader in energy production," Kressig said. "I also see the prairie project as an opportunity for Iowa to invest in and we will see the positive results in our environment."

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