This story first appeared in ENERGYLINES, a publication of Hoosier Energy, a generation and transmission cooperative providing wholesale electric power and services to 18 member distribution cooperatives in central and southern Indiana and southeastern Illinois.
In keeping with a long tradition of responsible environmental stewardship, Hoosier Energy has embarked on several projects since early 2012 that are showing growth – literally.
The latest efforts are centered on the grounds of the Merom Generating Station, where Hoosier Energy has partnered with Purdue University to return some of its 7,000 acres of land to native grasses and commit several acres to planting poplar trees for environmental studies.
Hoosier Energy personnel work with Purdue Professor of Genetics in Forestry and Natural Resources Rick Meilan to conduct studies that will have benefits for the power supply cooperative and the environment. The Merom projects build on Hoosier Energy’s assistance with a hybrid poplar tree project at Purdue’s Southwest Agriculture Center in Knox County.
There are three designated areas for studying fast-growing poplars near plant landfill sites. Environmental Team Leader Lon Petts and colleague Charles Haney have been involved in the project, with Haney helping plant 2,800 6-inch poplar cuttings in April 2012.
In mid-July, the pair strolled through an area where tiny sticks planted in the ground have grown to large, young poplar trees, the majority towering over the heads of Haney and Petts. The trees grow around 16 feet per year.
One planting area, popular with deer, had to be cut back to a uniform size and protective fencing installed. Those trees are now doing well, but are a year behind in growth.
Low-lying farm ground surrounds Merom and retains a lot of water during rainy seasons. “The poplar trees grow quickly and take up a lot of water from the soil, then release the water vapor into the air via the leaves,” Haney said.
“The benefits to Hoosier Energy are multi-faceted. We benefit from the visual appeal of the plantings, the water absorption is key and it helps with dust mitigation in drier seasons,” Petts said.
The Purdue professor is studying the tree stands for growth modeling, says Haney. Poplars are considered energy dense. Fast growing poplars may be used for electricity generation biomass fuel or other beneficial uses. Haney explained: “There are lots of sugars locked up in wood that can be harvested for bio-fuels.” Purdue researchers have also installed acoustic sensors around the area to monitor the trees for sound buffering benefits.
“We’re pleased to be helping with the research efforts for more efficient bio-fuels,” said Petts.
Site prepared for native grass habitat
Site preparation has begun on another 48 acres, set aside for a prairie grass and wildlife habitat.
“It’s a showcase for managing land that isn’t being used,” Petts said. Haney says the restoration is friendly for wildlife with its tall grasses. “It’s like a big sanctuary. There’s a sizeable number of deer and wild turkey here,” Haney said.
The tall grasses with their well-established root systems will help prevent soil erosion and control invasive species of weeds at the power plant grounds.
To prepare for the planting, a controlled burn was completed in the spring – a scientific process that stimulates the germination of desirable forest trees, returns nutrients to the soil and eliminates undesirable limbs and weeds. Additional site work is under way to eliminate invasive and woody species on the property. Preparation is a two-year process, Haney said. A mixture of tall prairie grass and wild flowers will then be planted.
Watershed improvements launched
Petts said a new watershed project is also being launched. Working with an engineering firm, efforts will focus on Turtle Creek Reservoir to eliminate excessive algae growth and silt. The 1,550-acre reservoir provides cooling water for the generating station.
The study is a four-phase process, first studying reservoir characteristics since a 1980 flood. Efforts will then focus on establishing healthy aquatic plants and restocking the lake with 100,000 largemouth bass and studying their life spans. A comprehensive report will evolve from the study to more effectively manage the natural surroundings.
“It’s the first holistic and comprehensive study of this nature on this property,” Petts said.
The study is slated to start in early fall and the reservoir will be restocked in November. “The goal is a balanced aquatic, indigenous environment that includes more largemouth bass,” Petts said.
Seeking soil erosion grant
As part of ongoing environmental efforts, the West Central Indiana Watershed Alliance, which governs watersheds in Sullivan and Vigo counties, will be applying for grants to assist farmers with conservation and environmentally friendly methods to reduce soil erosion. No-till farming, two-stage ditches, cover crops and buffer strips will be encouraged. Haney’s role will be to direct funds to properties surrounding Merom Station.
The benefits of better soil erosion practices are significant to the power plant’s operation. Reducing silt or sediment from runoff extends the life of the reservoir.
“Without controls in place, we wouldn’t have the volume of water needed to operate the power plant,” Petts said, noting that the volume of water in the reservoir has been reduced by 15 percent since 1980, a direct result of silt.
The efforts to help farmers will be a win for the power plant and enthusiasts who fish the waters, Petts said.
“By eliminating some erosion, we will improve the quality of the reservoir. There will be less fertilizer runoff and less silt,” he said.