TUSCOLA – An expiring lease on city ground near a water treatment facility may put the city on the cutting edge of green energy.
The city is talking about leasing ground sprayed with waste water to a farmer who wants to plant miscanthus, a towering grass being studied for its energy use. If farmer Dan Meyer of Tuscola is able to plant miscanthus on the almost 160 acres northeast of town, it'll be the most in the area. The University of Illinois is currently testing the grass.
Miscanthus could be used to make ethanol or as a renewable energy additive in coal-burning power plants.
"I think it's exciting," Meyer told the city's public works committee Thursday. "It think it would be a great opportunity."
Meyer and City Administrator Drew Hoel told the committee they are working on a contract with a supplier that could include part of the cost of planting miscanthus rhizomes, or horizontal underground stems. Hoel said he would like to see the contract include stipulations that the supplier would buy back the mature miscanthus.
"They'd make it their business to devise a market for it," Hoel said, as there's currently no market for the grass.
Committee chairman Steve Fox said he has done some research on miscanthus, and he has found it can be used in several ways to make energy. Larger companies may eventually be willing to buy miscanthus growers' carbon credits, he said.
"It's one of those things that will be here when we're gone," Fox said.
Miscanthus is a hardy plant, he said, that takes about three years to mature. It should last for 20 years or maybe longer.
"It's like getting married," Fox said. "You better be sure you get it right the first time."
Hoel said the current farmer leasing the ground grows reed canary grass, which is basically straw. That 20-year lease expires at the end of this month.
If Meyer leases the land and grows miscanthus, he would plant different quarters at different times, so plants will always grow enough to absorb the moisture sprayed from the treatment facility. If the project happens, the city would pay for half the cost. That could be steep, Hoel said, because planting the rhizomes will be expensive.
He said he thinks the miscanthus could pay for itself within five or six years, and the city will split the profits with the farmer.
Fox said he thinks it's worth it if the miscanthus can make enough money to keep sewer rates down.