Prairie Power Research

Prairie Power was a seven-year research project (2008-2015) directed by Daryl Smith and managed by Dave Williams, to study the use of low-input high-diversity (LIHD) native prairie plantings as a feedstock for biomass energy. A 2006 study published in the journal Science concluded that the use of LIHD fuels can result in higher biomass yields, a higher net energy balance, and lower environmental impacts compared to row cropped corn or a monoculture stand of switchgrass. While most other biomass energy projects take an agronomic view of maximizing yield of a single crop, the Prairie Power Project took a more ecological approach valuing the conservation of native prairie species, carbon sequestration, the creation of wildlife habitat, and the reduction or elimination of fertilizer and pesticide use in addition to biomass yields. Several partners assisted the Tallgrass Prairie Center with this project including the University of Northern Iowa Biology Department, the Black Hawk County Conservation Board, the National Soil Tilth Laboratory at Iowa State University, and Cedar Falls Utilities.

The Black Hawk County Conservation Board leased 100 acres of marginal land (Cedar River floodplain) to the Tallgrass Prairie Center for this research project from 2007-2015. The research site is located at the Cedar River Natural Resources Area, five miles south of Waterloo, Iowa. The land had been previously row cropped farmed for the last 10 years. The site was divided into 48 approximately one-acre research plots. These plots were planted with varying levels of diversity including a monoculture of Switchgrass, an all grass seed mix with the “big five” prairie grasses, a 16-species grasses and forbs mix, and a 32-species grasses and forbs mix, and the four diversity treatments were replicated across three different soil types. After establishment, a portion of each plot was harvested, pellitized and burned in Cedar Falls Utilities’ stoker furnace. Results from this experiment have been used to determine the most optimal mixture of native prairie vegetation for maximum biomass production on non-prime agriculture land while maintaining wildlife habitat and other prairie conservation benefits.

The field site, now known as the Cedar River Ecological Research Site (CRERS) continues to be maintained and used for research and teaching as well as recreation, through a Memorandum of Understanding between Black Hawk County Conservation Board (BHCCB) and University of Northern Iowa. A management advisory committee consisting of UNITallgrass Prairie Center staff and UNI Biology faculty maintain communication with the BHCCB site manager, Jim Weimer.  Inquiries about site management should be directed to Laura Jackson, TPC Director, or Jim Weimer.