Finding cleaner ways to produce electricity: Burning switchgrass with coal.

BIRMINGHAM, Ala. – More than 10 tons of chopped switchgrass were delivered to Southern Research Institute this week, and that grass could dramatically change the way electric utilities produce power for their customers.

In a unique public and private research partnership, Southern Research, Southern Company, Auburn University, the Electric Power Research Institute (EPRI), the Alabama Department of Economic and Community Affairs (ADECA) and the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) are working collaboratively to study ways to grow and harvest switchgrass to blend with coal as a fuel for power generation.

Switchgrass is a rugged native grass, ideally suited for the southeastern U.S. and can be grown on marginal land. Reaching heights of up to 12-feet, it requires very little fertilization and herbicide, and can be harvested twice a year with existing equipment. The variety used in this project is Alamo switchgrass, native to Texas, but developed by the Department of Energy and Auburn University for use throughout the Southeast.

“This switchgrass pilot project is an important step in the department’s efforts to increase industrial adaptation of biomass as a renewable energy source,” said Dan Reicher, assistant secretary for Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy at DOE. “Its success can result in a cleaner environment and a new cash crop for some of Alabama’s farmers.”

Southern Company is an industry leader in finding cleaner ways to produce electricity. One such method is to blend pure coal with biomass sources – such as switchgrass – to produce electricity with fewer power plant emissions. If this team of scientists is successful, the switchgrass project could result in a cleaner environment, as well as an economic boost for some of Alabama’s farmers.

“Based on initial testing, we’re very hopeful that switchgrass can be an economical source of fuel to make electricity,” said Dr. Robert A. Stokes, vice president of the Environment and Energy Division of Southern Research Institute.

Institute scientists, lead by Vann Bush, manager of the Emissions Control Group, are ready to expand that testing at a pilot-scale power plant located on Southern Research’s Southside campus.

Truckloads of switchgrass will be pulverized and blended with varying amounts of coal to discover the most efficient mixture. Since biomass fuel sources such as switchgrass use carbon dioxide (CO2) in photosynthesis, supplanting fossil fuels with biomass reduces overall CO2 emissions into the atmosphere.

“We are looking for innovative ways to enhance the environment for our children while continuing to provide low-cost, reliable electricity,” said Charles McCrary, president of Southern Company’s business unit that includes all non-nuclear power generation for the company’s five electric utilities in the Southeast – about 30,000 megawatts of capacity.

“Mixing switchgrass with coal is both effective and economically promising because it doesn’t require any changes in existing technology at power plants,” McCrary said. “Instead of retrofitting plants, which would ultimately result in higher costs to the consumer, we are working with scientists at Southern Research and Auburn University to change the fuel blend. It’s a novel approach, and if it works, there’s potential for immediate commercial use.”

Dr. David Bransby of Auburn University’s Agronomy and Soils Department, considered one of the nation’s leaders in switchgrass research and development, oversaw the planting and harvesting of more than 300 acres of switchgrass in Talladega County. “If this project is as successful as we think it will be, it will bring new opportunities to some of Alabama’s more rural counties that have suffered from a fading agricultural economy,” said Bransby. “The farmlands of the South are ideal for growing switchgrass, which would provide a new cash crop. In a few years, green fields of switchgrass could be providing an environmentally beneficial source of revenue and energy for the Southeast.”

Southern Company provided about 30 percent of the funding for the $2.2 million research project; the other private partners provided about 25 percent, with the remainder from the U.S. Department of Energy. Martha McInnis, chief of ADECA’s Science, Technology and Energy Division said obtaining this funding was the result of an extraordinary effort by U.S. Sen. Jeff Sessions, U.S. Rep. Sonny Callahan and the entire Alabama congressional delegation. “This was a collaborative effort all the way around,” said McInnis. “Everyone – scientists, industry leaders and government officials – recognized the tremendous potential for Alabama to take the lead in finding a sensible solution for a growing energy problem.”

A pilot-scale plant located at Southern Research – where testing will occur – is designed to simulate a coal-fired utility boiler and includes all the needed equipment to crush, pulverize and burn coal and biomass. It provides reliable information to predict the behavior of new fuels and to learn more about the operation of boilers under new conditions. Southern Research operates the facility under contract to Southern Company and performs work for government, utility and other clients. The testing will help verify if switchgrass is a reasonable low-cost option that could help the utility industry meet both the environmental requirements and increasing demand for electricity.

“It’s important that we support the development of energy sources that prove to be both cost-effective and environmentally friendly,” said U.S. Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.) “Switchgrass has great promise as a fuel as well as a potential cash crop for Alabama. This project holds a great deal of promise not only for Alabama, but also for the entire nation.”