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Oct. 21, 2010 Volume 32, No. 9

Power plant’s biomass boiler is a study in campus collaboration


Shift to renewable fuel could help landowners

The dome of Jesse Hall and the spires of Memorial Union may be the most iconic structures at the University of Missouri. But without MU’s Power Plant, neither could be illuminated in all their glory. With the university’s plans to install a biomass boiler, several groups — Campus Facilities-Energy Management, Forestry, Agricultural Engineering and Extension — have teamed up to make the campus icons’ glow not only picturesque, but sustainable as well.

Right now, the university buys coal and natural gas from out of state to fire its boilers. But, when the new boiler goes online in 2012, MU will have taken a large step toward an in-state renewable energy source.

“The more I heard about the university’s move to biomass, the more I wanted us involved in the process,” says Hank Stelzer, associate professor of forestry.

Stelzer learned about the biomass boiler through an informal group of faculty interested in sustainable agriculture engineering. After meeting with power plant Superintendant Gregg Coffin, Stelzer — along with others — set out to put MU on the map.

“We’re certainly not the first university to do something like this,” Stelzer says. “But we’re one of the largest.”

The power plant has been using about 5,000 tons of biomass — a renewable energy source composed of living or recently living organisms — per year since 2007. More than 100,000 tons will be necessary to fuel the new boiler.

To determine which form of biomass would provide the best value, the power plant was transformed into a make-shift laboratory. With support from researchers, the plant staff began mixing in different biomass substances with the regular coal-fuel supply. They settled on woody biomass, which is plentiful and available at a price that’s competitive with the cost of coal.

Wood waste from sawmills and urban development will likely be the primary source for the first few years, Stelzer says, but landowners interested in thinning their forested acreage can also provide fuel for the boiler. He and the forestry department are starting to sow the idea of cultivating a dedicated energy crop on lands devastated by the 1993 and 1994 floods.

“Willow, silver maple and cottonwood trees thrive in sandy soil and can withstand flooding,” Stelzer says. “Farmers who have lost the ability to grow traditional crops on that land can now plant and harvest trees.”

Coffin says that because Missouri lacks a more traditional fuel source, the forestry department’s effort to develop sustainable sources of biomass is an economic opportunity for Missouri.

“As more of MU’s fuel budget is shifted to purchasing Missouri biomass fuel,” he says, “Missourians will benefit.”

— David Wietlispach