Can Switchgrass Replace Coal at Power Plants?


Solar and wind power have made impressive strides recently, but coal plants show no signs of disappearing. That could be a problem for power companies, especially once the EPA’s proposed greenhouse gas regulations go into effect. Now NRG Energy, a wholesale power generation company headquartered in Texas, wants to experiment with replacing coal with switchgrass and sorghum at a Louisiana plant.

NRG claims that its switchgrass plan is almost carbon neutral because carbon emitted by the grass is absorbed by the atmosphere during the growing season. According to the FDA, one acre of switchgrass can hold up to five tons of CO2-equivalent underground each year.

The pilot project will start out small, with NRG planting switchgrass on 20 acres of land. NRG will measure how many tons of grass per acre are produced, and the biomass will be used as a partial fuel for electrical generation by 2010. If all goes well, the power company will expand the switchgrass project to other coal plants.

Switchgrass may be new to coal plants, but the crop has been studied as a cellulosic ethanol source for vehicles since 2007 by organizations such as Ceres Inc. and Argonne National Laboratory. There are still some kinks to work out–switchgrass-derived energy requires the same massive amount of water as crude oil production–but overall, the crop is a promising alternative to space-hogging first-generation biofuels.

[Via Green Inc.]AS