Switchgrass can be burned to generate electricity, earning extra income for farmers with marginal land. That would also help the U.S. move toward energy independence.

Those are preliminary findings by leaders of the Chariton Valley Biomass Project in south-central Iowa.

Now in its fourth year, the project is sponsored by the Chariton Valley Resource Conservation and Development, Inc., a non-profit corporation focused on helping southern Iowa farmers. It recently completed its first burn of 1,550 tons of baled switchgrass in a co-firing situation at Alliant Energy's Ottumwa Generation Station.

“At this point, we're building on the successes and lessons learned in the first burn,” says John Sellers. He's president of Prairie Lands Bio-Products, a group of 50 switchgrass producers formed to develop and market products derived from switchgrass.

The main lesson learned from the first burn was that switchgrass burns as well as coal, with less pollution and less residue. Another discovery, however, was that the delivery system at the Ottumwa plant was inadequate for the volume of switchgrass that had to be handled. Design changes under way will allow it to burn about 12.5 tons of switchgrass an hour for 2,000 continuous hours. That would displace about 2.5% of the coal burned there. Modifications will take most of the next two years to complete.

Sellers notes that once the changes have been made, a longer test burn will be conducted, requiring 25,000-26,000 tons of baled switchgrass.

“We have about 6,000 tons in storage at this time, including 4,000 tons we harvested last year,” Sellers says. “We'll need another 19,000 tons to complete the next test.”

It's anticipated that project funds, mostly from the U.S. Department of Energy, will allow for a 2002 switchgrass harvest of about 4,800 tons. Plans are to harvest about 8,000 tons in each of the following two years, with the test done in late 2004 and early 2005.

To date, nearly all of the switchgrass has come from CRP ground.

“We bought some non-CRP switchgrass hay this year from one of our cooperators for between $40 and $50 per 950-lb bale,” Sellers says. “We're not able to buy much yet. We're going to have to come up with a budget to purchase hay from non-CRP land. The economics still don't favor growing switchgrass over crops like corn and soybeans due to existing farm policy. So once CRP land seeded to switchgrass is released from the program, it's likely to be plowed up.”

Sellers says federal tax credits that would allow users to pay more for switchgrass are being pursued.

“We're hopeful that tax credits for dedicated closed-loop biomass will make it through the legislative process this session.” He says it's likely that switchgrass growers eventually will get some help in the form of carbon sequestration credits for coal-burning companies located in areas where air-quality goals aren't being met.

While co-firing power generating plants show promise, Prairie Lands Bio-Products won't put all of its eggs in one basket. The group is looking into a number of other uses for switchgrass, including ethanol.