Green Flame Energy seeks BCAP project area designation

By Anna Austin | June 27, 2011

A central Illinois company proposing to supply miscanthus as a fuel source to a power plant in the state is anxiously waiting to hear whether it has qualified as a Biomass Crop Assistance Program project area.

Eric Rund of Rund Farms, a farmer who grows mostly corn and soybeans, said he’s been thinking about growing miscanthus for the past four years. He is finally doing it after a great deal of research and investigation, including a trip overseas. “About a year and a half ago, my son and I went to Europe to see how they’re growing miscanthus,” he said. “They have been doing it a lot longer than we have.”

What Rund learned during the trip, convinced him that he could do it in Illinois, and more importantly, that he could also get the financials to pencil out. “We wouldn’t bale it; we’d use silage choppers to lower the harvesting cost, and we wouldn’t concentrate on ethanol conversion, but rather burning it directly,” he said. “Those two things changed the economics of growing it here.”

Even though Rund would continue to grow corn and soybeans, he has some land that is not ideally suited for row crops, he said. “We figured out that we could plant miscanthus there and match what we’d make with 200-bushel corn at $500 per bushel, and things began to make sense. However, we needed seed stock to get started.”

Miscanthus isn’t grown from a seed, but is established and grown by propagation of plugs, roots or rhizomes. To get his hands on some material, Rund partnered with New Energy Farms in Ontario, Canada, to become a company affiliate. Green Flame Energy was then formed as a part of Rund Farms to provide other farmers in the state with the information, consulting services and materials necessary to grow miscanthus. “We just got a shipment of plugs from them [NEF],” he said. “It’s a little late [in the planting season], but we think it should be alright.”

Last year Rund planted 15 acres of miscanthus and will dig up the rhizomes for replanting next spring. “We should have enough then to plant 750 to 800 acres,” he said, adding that the plant is growing at an amazing rate. “We planted last spring and I didn’t know if it would survive the winter, but it came up and it rivals corn in how fast it grows,” he said. “It’s an amazing plant to watch and a lot of fun.”

Even though Rund is growing his own plant material it is still expensive, he said. BCAP would help to alleviate those costs. He said there are many institutions in the state that are interested in or are currently using biomass for heat and electricity, including Eastern Illinois University, which will bring a biomass plant on-line this spring.

Getting a facility such as a university to make a solid commitment to using a certain amount of a specific biomass feedstock, as BCAP requires, is the tricky part. “State institutions have boards of directors and procurement rules for the state, and that can make it difficult to make that necessary commitment,” he said.

Prairie Power Inc., a power plant in Pearl, Ill., is the proposed biomass conversion facility in Green Flame Energy’s BCAP project area proposal. The power plant has completed an engineering study to switch from coal to biomass as a principle fuel supply and could consume up to 120,000 dry tons of biomass per year sourced from more than 16,000 acres of miscanthus and prairie grasses. 

The project area Green Flame Energy has proposed consists of 29 counties from the Mississippi River to the Indiana border. It already cleared one hurdle, having been approved by the Illinois state Farm Service Agency and passed along to the national office. “We expect to hear back about the proposal by the end of the month,” Rund said. “We have our fingers crossed.”

That decision may be dependent on whether BCAP is allotted money in 2012, as the program’s funding was eliminated in the House version of the 2012 agricultural appropriations spending bill. It is expected to reach the Senate floor this week, and many in the biomass industry believe the program will be saved there.