Update: Jill DeWitt of Audubon Missouri alerted us to an October 4, 2010 publication (too late to be included in our report) in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences titled “Bird communities in future bioenergy landscapes of the Upper Midwest,” which gives insight into the impact on bird habitat of row crops versus perennial grasses. I’d also like to point out the Land Institute’s perennial grain cropping research, which could be important to making the right decisions on biomass.
Original Post: Today Plains Justice released a report that shows Iowa could replace much of the coal it burns in power plants and industrial boilers with a clean, homegrown fuel – corn stalks and leaves, perennial grasses, by-products from agricultural processing and other agricultural products that are currently unused, underused, or thrown away. “Burning corn stover in power plants would give farmers an income boost while helping to keep Iowa’s air clean by reducing the amount of coal burned to produce electricity,” said Nicole Shalla, a Plains Justice attorney. The report analyzes the comparative emissions from coal and forms of ag-based biomass, discusses biomass ash, and gives technical detail about how biomass can be used to displace fossil fuels.
“Any way we can localize economics and create profits that stay in the communities, the better it is for rural Iowa,” adds Chris Petersen, President of Iowa Farmers Union, a partner in production of the report. Corn stalks and leaves – commonly called corn stover – are a waste product left over from growing field corn.
The report shows that Iowa produces 68.3 million tons of corn stover a year, as well as 20.4 million tons of soybean residue. While some of the corn and soybean residues need to remain on the land to keep soil healthy, much is readily available for fuel.
“For every $1 million spent to purchase feedstock for power generation, local communities would receive an estimated $7.4 million in income and about 97 jobs would be generated. This revenue would offset up to $15.5 million from the coal industry, most of which benefits industries outside of Iowa,” said Mark Mba Wright, an Iowa State University doctoral candidate in mechanical engineering, who authored the report.
In addition to the economic benefits, biomass offers an opportunity to improve the economics of ethanol plants, which could use their own waste to replace the coal and natural gas that currently power many biofuel refineries.
The National Renewable Energy Laboratory has an interactive map showing locations of corn stover and other biomass fuelstocks throughout the U.S.
This report takes on some questions about the environmental impact of biomass and points out needs for additional research. We know a great deal about the impacts of corn and soybean mono-cropping. Would increased use of biomass as a fuel source simply prop up unsustainable forms of agriculture, or could it be structured to support the reintroduction of perennial prairie grasses? We need to know more about biomass. This study is a start.