Jobe, industry leaders discuss policy goals at biomass conference

By Erin Voegele | May 03, 2011

Leaders representing all sectors of the biomass industry met in St. Louis May 3 to discuss the future of the algae, biomass thermal, biomass power, biogas, biofuels and biochemicals industries during the opening session of the International Biomass Conference & Expo. While each sector represented in the panel features its own unique goals and challenges, the overarching message of the speakers was that members of the biomass community need to pull together to support the biomass industry as a whole—especially in the arena of federal policy.

A primary topic of discussion was near-term policy goals, with each panelist outlining the key goals of his or her industry. Mary Rosenthal, executive director of the Algal Biomass Organization, kicked off the policy discussion by noting her organization will continue to work to achieve parity for the algae industry. Algae-based fuels currently do not qualify for any of the tax credits available to other forms of biofuel, such as cellulosic ethanol. A key goal of the ABO it to ensure algae derived fuels receive parity under these programs. Rosenthal also noted her organization will continue to work to educate members of Congress about the benefits and advantages of algae, while also advocating for the continuation of renewable fuels funding through the U.S. DOE, USDA and U.S. Department of Defense. 

Charlie Niebling, chairman of the Biomass Thermal Energy Council, noted parity is also a key goal of his organization. Biomass thermal energy has been entirely overlooked by federal policy, he said. According to Niebling, a primary goal of his organization is to ensure that biomass thermal energy is incorporated into whatever kind of clean energy or renewable energy policy platform that Congress pursues. “We also obviously have a challenge in educating a new crop of members [of Congress] and their staff,” he said. “We still face real challenges in making sure people understand the [role thermal energy] plays in the pressing energy challenges in our country.”

In addition to working towards a federal clean energy standard, Robert Cleaves, president and CEO of the Biomass Power Association, also noted that saving the USDA’s Biomass Crop Assistance Program is a major goal for his organization in the near-term. “For new developers of biomass plants, getting the placed-in-service date extended [under] 1603 is important,” he continued.

Parity is also a primary goal of the biogas industry, said Norma McDonald, vice chair of external affairs at the American Biogas Council. However, she noted that another goal of her organization it to discontinue policies that encourage organic waste to be disposed of in landfills rather than to be used to create renewable forms of energy. “At the federal level we are focused on incentives that will ensure that the organic fraction of municipal solid waste, for instance, receives equal treatment in terms of definitions of biomass,” McDonald said. On the state level the ABC also intends to work with the generators of organic waste to divert that material from being landfilled.

While the Renewable Fuels Association also has plans to focus on educating members of Congress, President and CEO Bob Dinneen also stresses that the RFA will also work to maintain certainty in the ethanol industry. “It’s not that we don’t support parity—we do, but we’re looking at a situation where our tax incentive expires at the end of this year,” he said. “When the tax incentive was extended [last year], it was made clear by friend and foe alike that going into the future there needs to be a fairly significant and meaningful reform of that tax incentive.”

Extending tax incentives is also the primary goal of the National Biodiesel Board, said NBB CEO Joe Jobe. “Our top priority is successful implementation of the RFS2 and a big part of that is extension of our tax credit in order to help buffer the cost of compliance and get this program more mature,” he said. “It’s going to be very difficult given the focus on debt reduction in this Congress, but we believe that we’ve got a good chance….Our tax credit is a quarter of a century younger than the ethanol tax credit. We just need a little bit more time to get a little bit more mature.”

Although many of associations represented in the panel spoke to policy goals, Michael McAdams, president of the Advanced Biofuels Association, noted the primary goal of his industry is to get plants built. “The number one objective of the advanced and cellulosic industries is to deploy new technologies to build new plants—put steel in the ground,” he said. One thing McAdams said would support this objective is to alter the procurement requirements of the U.S. military in a way that would allow them to form longer-term off-take agreements. “What we are really trying to do is deploy these technologies,” he said. “If we could extend the procurement process, particularly with the Department of Defense, by extending the period of time which the military can buy renewable fuels or jet for instance, that would be enormously helpful.”

The panelists also discussed the fact that recent energy disasters, such as the Gulf oil spill and nuclear disaster in Japan, have largely failed to create additional interest in safe, effective, no nontoxic renewable energy technologies. “We thought [Japan’s nuclear disaster] would create additional interest in our industry,” said Cleaves. I’m not sure it has…You would think that the morning after, [people] would have woken up and said maybe biomass actually is a safe and reliable solution [to our energy needs].” He also noted that major mainstream environmental groups have also generally failed to make the connection between these industrial disasters and the benefits renewable power and fuels can offer.

Regarding policy, all the panelists seem to agree that the next year is going to be a difficult one in which to get Congress to act. This is attributed to both the focus on debt reduction and the fact that lawmakers will soon gear up for the 2012 election cycle. “This is a really depressing fact, but really we have between now and the summer,” said Cleaves. “Then, nothing is going to happen until the 2012 election.”

McAdams closed the discussion by acknowledging how far members of the biomass industry have come  in the past year regarding the need to work together cooperatively on federal policy and public perception issues, noting that last year’s International Biomass Conference & Expo helped set the stage for that cooperative effort. He also made a call to action for the audience, encouraging the biomass industry to get involved in the political process and help support the objectives of their respective trade groups. “We need all of you to be engaged, and we need all of you to come to Washington and we need all of you to talk to your [Congress] members when they come home, and you need to tell them about the jobs you’ve created and the vision of the future for diversity of biofuels and biopower that this country needs…You can make a difference.”

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