Invasives to Energy
Chicago Region Invasives-to-Energy Program: Sustainable bioenergy + ecological restoration
Utilizing invasive plant biomass for energy production has the potential to solve a suite of seemingly intractable environmental problems, while simultaneously providing a low-input sustainable biomass source for the production of renewable energy.
- Ecosystems have become degraded from nutrient enrichment and invasive species dominance. Nutrient pollution impacts environmental and human health, and is causing economic damages, such as recurring algal blooms in the Gulf of Mexico and the Great Lakes. Highly productive invasive species dominate woodlands, lakes, riparian areas, and wetlands, and contribute to biodiversity decline, and to habitat loss.
- Restoration activities are perpetually limited by budgets and planning insufficient to address the scope of the problems. Presently, ecosystem managers rely on controlled burns and widespread herbicide application to control invasive plants. These efforts tend to produce modest, short-term results, are heavily reliant on inconsistent government funding, and produce unintended environmental impacts.
Invasive plant biomass has great potential as a biomass feedstock:
- They do not require planting, agricultural land, fertilizer, or water inputs
- Many species (e.g. Typha, Phragmites and Phalaris) can be as productive as Miscanthus and switchgrass biomass crops, which are grown intensively on highly productive agricultural soils.
- Many species are suitable feedstock for renewable energy production via 1) anaerobic digestion biogas production or 2) pelletization and combustion
Harvesting invasive plants from natural areas for biomass production could contribute to solving a range of environmental problems by:
- Increasing native species diversity and improving habitat value
- Expanding restoration efforts and improving regional biodiversity recovery
- Removing significant quantities of nutrients from enriched systems
- Recycling organic matter, nitrogen, and phosphorus to agricultural fields
- Providing valuable revenue or cost offsets for cash-strapped municipalities
- Remediating heavy metal polluted soils
- Offsetting fossil-fuel use, resulting in reduced greenhouse gas emissions
Feasibility study: In partnership with more than 20 universities, research institutions, municipalities, businesses, and non-profit organizations, we are evaluating the feasibility of implementing a large-scale, multi-species Invasives-to-energy project in the Chicago Wilderness region through a five part project.
- Invasives-to-energy demonstration project: We are launching an Invasives-to-Energy demonstration project at the Loyola University Chicago Retreat and Ecology Campus that will illustrate the feasibility of converting invasive species biomass into energy. This project will link ongoing ecological restoration, invasive species harvest, biomass processing, and biomass utilization for energy on the 100 acre rural campus.
- Determine feedstock availability: We are conducting spatial analyses to determine cover of dominant invasive plant species in the region and ground-truthing to improve accuracy and assess productivity; we are evaluating the availability of additional organic waste materials that could be converted into fuel stocks, such as agricultural waste products, yard waste, and food waste.
- Infrastructure evaluation: We are determining the existing infrastructure that could be integrated into the Invasives-to-Energy program (e.g. Waste Water Treatment plants with methane digesters; power plants that could integrate biomass; ongoing invasive plant harvesting).
- Bioenergy analyses: We are conducting Biogas Production Potential and combustion analyses of potential feedstock invasive species to determine energy return values.
- Chemical analyses: We are conducting chemical analyses of plant materials from industrial polluted areas to determine feasibility of use as a feedstock and potential for bioremediation via anaerobic digestion. Additionally we will conduct chemical analyses of digestate and post-combustion ash to determine the nutrient content and compost value of each material and the heavy metal content from industrial facilities.
- Partnership development: Loyola University Chicago plans to bring stakeholders from non-profits, municipal, state and federal governments, business, industry, and utilities to launch the implementation process.
- Policy development: With input from stakeholders, develop Best Management Practice guidelines for harvest activities.
- Implementation: Develop physical infrastructure for harvest, transport, and energy production; retrofit existing facilities (anaerobic digestion and power plants) to allow integration of new biomass sources; seek investment from public and private sources for development of new facilities whose locations are based on spatial analyses of feedstock availability.
- Monitoring: Conduct controlled pre- and post-harvest ecological monitoring evaluation of the biodiversity recovery response to harvesting invasive biomass from natural areas.