Baseload, Bioenergy

Biomass Energy — Rewriting the Advocacy Agenda: Part I

It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief; …; it was the spring of hope; it was the winter of despair….” So wrote Charles Dickens in the Tale of Two Cities.

Depending upon which side of the policy coin a particular clean energy technology is on, these are indeed the best or worst of times. For PV solar and large wind these are the best of times. For biomass energy (heat, power and combined heat and power), not so much.

A despairing glimpse into the present state of the biomass energy sector is provided in a recent Greenwire article:

Once hailed as a renewable alternative to oil, energy from trees faces a dismal future.

Low oil and gas prices are threatening plants that make energy from wood chips and similar biomass. From California to New York, companies are on the verge of shutting down facilities that can’t compete with historically low gas prices — and the decline is prompting critics to say they’ve known all along that the biomass craze couldn’t last.

The latest potential casualty is in northern New York, where ReEnergy Holdings LLC has said it may close a 22-megawatt cogeneration plant by the end of summer if it can’t secure a customer for the power generated. The company is looking for potential government customers, and Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) has promised to help.

In California, once home to 66 biomass plants, about 30 remain in business, dashing the hopes of orchard growers looking for places to sell downed trees and branches.

Although the author does not address conditions in the biomass thermal market, it is reasonable to say that this sector of the biomass industry is fairing no better.

It is easy to attribute biomass’ current market weakness to the price of natural gas. Although low fossil fuel prices, particularly natural gas, are clearly contributors, there is evidence to suggest that such an assertion glosses over other key factors—particularly how the industry itself goes about advocating and pursuing public support for the growth of a domestic sustainable biomass market and the concerted opposition of a number of influential environmental organizations, e.g. the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC).

The sustainable biomass industry is experiencing difficulties at a time when support by the public and private sectors, including consumers, for sustainable energy technologies has never been higher. Unfortunately for biomass this support seems to be primarily focused on two technologies—wind and solar.

It is no secret that biomass energy has not benefitted from the same public policy support and consumer acceptance that has led to the preeminence of wind and solar PV within the renewables sector. Given current political and economic conditions it is unlikely that the level of federal support enjoyed by solar and wind in the past will be available to biomass energy in the future. The winding down of federal production and investment tax credits for renewables is a clear harbinger of a shift in policy; a shift likely to lessen the chance of similar support for biomass energy. Equally, the Clean Power Plan (CPP) reflects the present day reality that primary responsibility for setting energy policy, including the provision of policies and incentives in support of various renewable energy technologies, resides with the states and not the federal government.

It also portends a new reality in that the CPP represents an important shift away from emphasis on the commercial development/deployment of a diverse portfolio of clean energy alternatives towards the reduction of carbon emissions. This is not an idle distinction in that current emissions goals can be met through a combination of shuttering or converting the dirtiest coal-fired power plants and the increased use of just solar and wind. Although it is true that the dirtiest coal plants can be converted entirely or partially (co-firing) to sustainable biomass, the current trend is conversion to cheap and abundant natural gas and emphasis on solar and wind. This may prove problematic in the future as the need for the reduction of harmful emissions, including from natural gas, begins to mount. As mentioned later, technological diversity may prove an important theme in the biomass industry’s advocacy/educational arsenal.

The confluence of low fossil fuel prices and a shift of responsibility from the federal to the state level belies the current federal focus of many key biomass trade organizations. Equally given the need to focus policy efforts at the state and local levels and the dwindling vibrancy and resources of the various trade groups that comprise the core of the biomass energy industry, the reticence of these organizations to create a collaborative advocacy agenda makes the future of the domestic biomass energy industry murky at best.

In the first instance, achieving a brighter future necessitates an industry wide reassessment of the current individual organizational/corporate advocacy strategies with an eye towards collaboration and political and economic realities. It is my professional belief that the development and deployment of a collaborative agenda and branding campaign between the major biomass energy actors and other key stakeholders, e.g. forest owners, rural development interests, et. al., holds the key to any reversal of industry fortunes. Although no small task, it is an essential one if the industry is to experience an upward market trajectory.

Current conditions demand a coming together of key stakeholders on core policy issues and sharing of goals, objectives and efforts.


Check out part two, in which I discuss a methodology by which industry thought leaders can assess the current policy and program priorities; a methodology that will help to identify an industry-wide list of priorities for both the near and mid-terms.