Gene Olsen Inspects switchgrass at UK's research farm on Iron Works Pike.Photo by Dan Dickson
Kentucky has an estimated 14 million acres of farmland, and some believe that if just 5 percent to 10 percent of the acreage were turned over for production of switchgrass, it could help us power the commonwealth.
“[Switchgrass is] one of four or five native, warm-season grasses used on farms in Kentucky. Those grasses were here when the first European settlers came to Kentucky,” said Ray Smith, University of Kentucky extension forage specialist in the College of Agriculture. “They’ll grow in a range of soil and weather conditions, even in poor soil not suitable for crops.”
As a form of biomass, switchgrass can be used as fuel. It is a tall-growing renewable crop that can be harvested every year. The harvested crop is ground down and formed into either pencil eraser-sized fuel pellets or briquettes roughly the size of a hockey puck. The process takes the tall, leafy grass down to a dense material that can be easily stored and fed into boilers at a power plant, or even put into a simple home stove.
Power companies are interested in using renewable fuels such as switchgrass. A pilot program in Kentucky was developed to see what effect switchgrass mixed with coal would have on generating electricity.
“We’ve worked with East Kentucky Power Cooperative over the last six years to burn switchgrass for electricity production,” Smith said.
In a demonstration project, about 25 farmers in northeast Kentucky were recruited to grow switchgrass for consumption at the East Kentucky power plant in Maysville. The test mixture was about 10 percent switchgrass and 90 percent coal, the goal being to reduce the amount of carbon dioxide-producing coal burned in the plant.
“They’ve done it successfully,” said Smith. “But there’s no commercial use for it, or any biomass crop, for electricity production on a large scale. It costs more to grow it than it does to burn coal.”
Danny Blevins farms in Boyd County and was one farmer who joined the UK test project. For the past four years, he’s grown a five-acre crop of switchgrass, cutting it after the first frost of fall and sending it off to the local power plant.
“We delivered it, and they mixed it with coal and did test burns to see what came out of the smokestacks and [to measure] the BTUs it produced,” Blevins said.
Blevins likes the fact that the crop doesn’t need to be grown on the best, high-cash farmland, but it does well on marginal land that’s a little hilly or rocky. He’s enthusiastic about its future. “When you think of renewable energy, it’s a long-term deal,” Blevins said. “Switchgrass can be part of the puzzle that plays a part some day — maybe not now — in meeting our energy needs. Renewable crops of some sort will make an impact. I really believe that. But it’ll take time to figure ways to process this stuff and get it to market at a reasonable cost.”
While standing in a five-acre field of switchgrass on UK’s research farm off Iron Works Pike in Lexington, Gene Olson, a UK research specialist in the College of Agriculture, agrees the grass certainly has bio-power potential, but he also realizes the timing for its widespread use may not be here yet.
“If we reduce the amount of coal burned, we’re benefiting the environment,” said Olson. “But the cost of getting the switchgrass established, fertilized if needed, harvested and hauled to the power plant costs more per ton than they can buy coal for now.”
U.S. power plants have been anticipating state or federal mandates to use a certain amount of renewal fuels such as switchgrass, waste wood, sawdust or corncobs to reduce fossil-fuel use. Some states require the use of some renewable fuels in their power plants. The number of pure biomass power plants is growing.
Smith said the UK project yielded much information about the value of switchgrass as a dual-purpose crop. Aside from burning it in a power plant, the fibrous switchgrass, which can grow to a height of 8 to 10 feet, also can be broken down and made into liquid fuel for vehicles.
“We learned a whole lot and found some useful applications for the forage until a consistent biomass market develops,” Smith said.
Farmers are finding uses for switchgrass as hay or for cattle grazing. Its density is good for a wildlife refuge; its deep roots control erosion and improve soil quality.
“We’re trying to help the economy of Kentucky. This can help local farmers, if they grow it,” he said.