Over 50 experts on renewable electricity generation and related topics met Monday at the Institute for Advanced Learning and Research to discuss the possibility of starting a renewable energy initiative in Virginia that would pay farmers for switchgrass that would be used to co-fire with coal to produce electricity.

Jeff Waldon, executive director of the Conservation Management Institute at Virginia Tech, said “Farmers in Southside Virginia have been looking for a crop that can generate income on marginal soils. If this new co-firing idea takes hold, a large, new, stable market for an agricultural crop could change the landscape of farming. With the reduction in tobacco acreage, and the instability of other crops, farm profitability has been declining for some time. A new crop that is locally grown and utilized would help farmers and rural communities in Southside.”

If successful, this initiative would reduce emissions, reduce runoff from fields, produce wildlife habitat, and help address global warming. Researchers presented summaries of their existing test projects of this new technology at work in Alabama and Iowa. Switchgrass is a native grass that is sometimes grown for cattle forage or erosion control. Burning as much as 20 percent switchgrass with coal was found to significantly reduce sulfur, nitrogen, and mercury. Switchgrass also captures more carbon than is used in the co-firing process greatly reducing carbon dioxide, a major contributor to global warming.

Research on co-firing has been ongoing since the 1970’s, but only recently has the price of coal made co-firing economically possible. In other states, municipality and industrial applications are coming on line to reduce fuel oil and natural gas purchases. “Public agencies that run electric and heat production facilities should be interested in this approach to help support rural communities in Virginia.,” noted Waldon.

For further information, contact Waldon at (540) 231-4540.

The College of Natural Resources at Virginia Tech consistently ranks among the top five programs of its kind in the nation. Faculty members stress both the technical and human elements of natural resources and instill in students a sense of stewardship and land-use ethics. Areas of studies include environmental resource management, fisheries and wildlife sciences, forestry, geospatial and environmental analysis, natural resource recreation, urban forestry, wood science and forest products, geography, and international development.