Editorial: Grow some grass

Illinois Lt Gov. Pat Quinn is asking the University of Illinois to smoke a little grass for the environment. Quinn wants the University’s Abbott Power Plant to consider using the perennial grass miscanthus along with the coal it currently burns. The addition of the grass would act as sort of an ethanol for coal: it would result in cleaner power plant emissions.

If the University starts using the bamboo-like grass, Quinn said, other state universities would be sure to do the same at their power plants.

University professor Stephen Long has been a leader in developing miscanthus, already used in Europe as a renewable energy source, for American power plants. Now, the University should put Long’s research into practice and start using miscanthus at the Abbott Power Plant as soon as possible.

While some critics may say that money – such as the $2 student alternative energy fee – will be needed to modify the Abbott Power Plant, we believe that investing in alternative energy usage now would eventually outweigh any initial financial costs associated with altering the internal processes of the power plant. Besides, Quinn points out that millions of dollars in state environmental grants are available to help offset the cost of modifications.

This is not to say the costs should be ignored and the University should jump blindly into this new field; but a serious look should be taken to invest in what could be a big opportunity for multiple parties.

If the University was to spearhead the research, development and implementation for miscanthus use in the energy industry, many would benefit across the board. First and foremost, the environment will benefit from the growth of this grass. Miscanthus helps to prevent erosion and puts organic material back into the soil.

Furthermore, the local energy industry can be given a much-needed boost. Burning the grass along with the coal can reduce sulfur output. Growing just four square miles of miscanthus could produce an output that would be equal to 10 to 25 percent of the power used by the University.

The agriculture industry could benefit greatly also if the University invested in this unique grass. If the University takes charge in incorporating biomass energy, miscanthus will become a valuable new cash crop – meaning more money in local farmers’ pockets.

Finally, the University of Illinois would benefit greatly by continuing to further fund and investigate miscanthus research. With enough academic resources to conduct groundbreaking research and some of the greatest minds in the world, the University should have no problem finding a way to make miscanthus a valuable energy crop that can be used across the United States.

Such a scientific advance would be great publicity for the University of Illinois as a research institution and a leader in progressive environmental thinking. If the University is looking for ways to attract new students and top-tier educators, we can think of few better ways than opportunities such as this. It’s time for the University to start showing the world that we are serious about making great strides in ways that change the world for the better.

Quinn should be applauded for his efforts to promote a better environment on campus and around the state. His forward thinking and environmentally friendly attitude is a welcome addition to this campus, and his genuine enthusiasm for improving Illinois’ environment is, frankly, a breath of fresh air.