A coal/switchgrass mixture is delivered to the power plant's boiler.
Photo credit: East Kentucky Power Cooperative
By Victoria A. Rocha | This article is reprinted with permission from ECT.coop.
A plant once deemed a weed by farmers is enjoying a rehabilitation of sorts as a possible supplemental fuel for power plants, in a recent test conducted by East Kentucky Power Cooperative (EKPC) and scientists at the University of Kentucky.
Engineers at EKPC in Winchester mixed about 70 tons of processed switchgrass into coal feedstock to fuel a generating unit at its Spurlock Station. During last month’s “test burn,” which lasted several hours, the switchgrass replaced 1 to 2 percent of the coal normally used in the unit’s boiler.
In addition to electricity, the test generated some “valuable information about how burning switchgrass affects our plant’s fuel-delivery systems, boilers and emissions,” said Bob Marshall, president and CEO of East Kentucky Power Co-op.
The test is part of a four-year pilot project at the University of Kentucky’s College of Agriculture to learn whether switchgrass can be a sustainable, money-making crop for farmers.
The university recruited 20 farmers to plant, harvest, transport and process the high fiber. With the G&T’s help, it could sign up more participants, said Tom Keene, an agronomy specialist at the university.
Ironically, during pioneer times, farmers viewed switchgrass as a nuisance, said Nick Comer, the co-op’s spokesman, and removed it to make room for tobacco and other crops.
But times are changing, and switchgrass has a better image—at least in Kentucky. Switchgrass grows well in marginal soils, has a high yield and can also make ethanol, said Keene, adding that pilot researchers are considering growing sweet sorghum and miscanthus for the same purpose.
And East Kentucky Power Co-op will continue to test the energy potential of switchgrass—in a bigger way. Later this year, the G&T plans to burn 300 to 400 tons of it. “That will give us an even clearer picture” of the cost-effectiveness and reliability of switchgrass as a fuel for electricity, said Comer.