You’re familiar with corn and wheat and cotton. And maybe even soybeans. But you’re probably never heard of miscanthus.
This funny-sounding crop is already providing renewable energy in Europe, and now, it’s beginning to catch on with more farmers here in the United States. Currently, it’s sprouting in fields in Iowa, Kansas, Missouri, and Illinois, among others — although still on a small-scale basis.
A relative of sugar cane, miscanthus yields 15 tons of biomass fiber per acre. It’s a perennial, so once planted, it returns every year for up to two decades. A relatively small amount of chemicals are required to keep this crop healthy, and once it’s established, many farmers use no pesticides at all. For all these reasons, miscanthus promises to outperform corn as a clean and efficient energy crop.
“Miscanthus is such a new crop that we are the first 16 acres to be planted in Iowa,” Steve Schomberg, the farmer with Iowa’s biggest miscanthus crop, told Rick Frederickson of Iowa Public Radio. “It gets gawkers, yes. People stop along the road and talk about it, (and ask) ‘What are you growing there?'”
Schomberg sends his miscanthus harvest to the University of Iowa, where it is mixed with coal and converted into steam and electricity at the University’s power plant. Iowa is currently recruiting more farmers to grow the crop. The state hopes to have 2,500 acres of it by 2016.
In Illinois, farmer Eric Rund is promoting miscanthus as a cheaper heating fuel alternative to liquid propane.
Iowa State University agronomist Emily Heaton is studying ways to mix miscanthus with existing fossil fuel sources so that less non-renewable energy is consumed. “When I look at a crop like this, I see a chance to make fossil fuels cleaner,” Heaton told Frederickson. “Because what we’re talking about is blending this clean grassy biomass with coal, so it just cleans up coal a little bit.”
And when you’re talking about an energy source as dirty as coal, even a little bit cleaner is a whole lot better.