Low prices for corn and soybeans have led many Midwest farmers to look for a new crop to mix with their usual rotation. Some are turning to plants grown specifically for what’s called “biomass.” Biomass crops can be used as fuel. While research on biomass is in its infancy… one particular crop has caught the eye of researchers who say it would be perfect for Midwest power plants. The Great Lakes Radio Consortium’s Shawn Johnson reports:
Low prices for corn and soybeans have led many Midwest farmers to look for a new crop to mix
with their usual rotation. Some are turning to plants grown specifically for what’s called
“biomass.” Biomass crops can be used as fuel. While research on biomass is in its infancy… one
particular crop has caught the eye of researchers who say it would be perfect for Midwest power
plants. The Great Lakes Radio Consortium Shawn Johnson reports:
In a farm field not too far from the University of Illinois stands a small plot of miscanthus. The
wavy, 12-foot tall grass topped with fluffy, seedless flowers is native to some places in Europe,
where it’s catching on as a crop to burn. Researcher john clifton-brown of Trinity College in
Dublin, Ireland has grown miscanthus on his father’s farm for 12 years now. He says it’s a
natural fit for Illinois.
“You seem to have in Illinois superb soil. You seem to have very low corn prices. You have
rainfall. And these factors combined look like a golden opportunity for the development of
renewable energy from biomass crops like miscanthus.”
Miscanthus is giant grass that can be planted in the same fields that normally grow corn and
soybeans. The similarities pretty well stop there. Where most Midwest farmers are used to
growing crops that produce food, miscanthus is grown specifically to be chopped off, bailed, and
burned, usually with coal in coal-fired power plants.
John Caveny owns the land where this miscanthus plot is growing. He stops short of calling this
a new way of farming:
“Well, in way it is, in a way it isn’t. What all farmers do, when you get right down to it, is
advance the value of sunlight energy. That’s what you do, whether you grow tomatoes, whether
you grow flowers, whether you grow grass, whether you grow corn.”
In the case of growing miscanthus, the process is much different than that of most Midwest crops.
Farmers use multi-row planters pulled behind tractors to plant corn and soybeans. To grow
miscanthus, a producer needs to dig holes and plant sprigs of the grass one at a time to be
successful. The crop will grow back on its own year after year for up to 30 years, but it’s not big
enough to be harvested the first few years its in the ground. Even with all these complications,
University of Illinois researcher Steve Long says a farmer who’s willing to make an investment in
miscanthus can reap great rewards in the long run.
“You do need labor to put this into the ground, but then after that, this is considerably less labor
than corn or soybeans, and on current figures, it is more profitable.”
Those figures are more theory than reality at this point, because a market for miscanthus has yet
to emerge. Dynegy is the only power company that buys miscanthus in this part of Illinois. And
even dynegy won’t be ready to harvest biomass crops on a large scale for another five years. But
the energy company projects it could eventually pay 40 dollars per ton of dried… harvested
miscanthus. That’s pretty good money for the farmers. The reason dynegy will pay that much?
While it doesn’t burn as efficiently as coal… miscanthus emits far fewer pollutants. And while it
emits greenhouse gases such as CO-2 while it’s burning, it will recapture those gases when it
grows. As energy companies are forced to meet more and more environmental requirements,
Dynegy’s Chris Williams says miscanthus becomes appealing:
“It’s getting closer and closer to the cost of coal generation. And you look at that with the
environmental benefits of the biomass, it really makes sense to do the research now to get it into
production as soon as we can.”
Dynegy is looking for farmers to grow miscanthus within a 50-mile radius of one of its central
Illinois power plants. But the company doesn’t know how many farmers it will be able to find.
Even if enough farmers are interested, dynegy is still working out the specifics of harvesting,
shipping, and burning grass effectively.
Miscanthus and biomass crops such as corn for ethanol and soybeans for soy diesel are just part
of a growing renewable energy market. And they face plenty of competition. Hans Detweiller is
with the environmental law and policy center, which advocates renewable energy in the Midwest.
Detweiller says wind and solar power generation are simply more established than biomass right
“Biomass energy has more questions I think in the minds of the public than some of the other
energy sources, but we would like to see more of it. Especially where you can get parallel
benefits such as increased water quality, increased wildlife habitat, things like that.”
Detweiller says miscanthus could fit that billing, but other biomass crops might be more suitable.
Depending upon who you talk to, fields of young aspen or willow trees could even be the biomass
crops of the future. And Detweiller says a native plant like switchgrass is an attractive option
because it does not grow nearly as thick as miscanthus allowing wildlife to forage more freely.
But it’s that thickness that researcher John Clifton brown says makes miscanthus so appealing
and potentially so profitable to a farmer. As he stands next to a wall of miscanthus, Clifton-
Brown says the crop he’s grown in Ireland for a dozen years will only perform better in America.
“So try it. Suck it and see as we say in Europe.”
Clifton-Brown’s miscanthus is harvested only once a year. Others biomass crops are chopped off
a few times. They each have slightly different growing seasons, but all have at least one thing in
common. They represent a future where the energy we mine today could eventually be mowed.
For the Great Lakes Radio Consortium, I’m Shawn Johnson.