Biomass Energy — Rewriting the Advocacy Agenda: Part II

In part one of this series on advocacy in the biomass industry, I discussed the need for key stakeholders to come together on core policy issues.

The following is 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.

Abigail’s Law: Identifying core policy/advocacy issues and establishing a collaborative agenda

Blessed with a keen mind for the obvious and years’ of experience as a renewable energy collaborator, I urge biomass energy industry leaders to come together to debate and ultimately agree on a cooperative advocacy agenda. Sounds simple, I know. It’s not! To achieve the goal of collaboration I wish to suggest a useful aide in determining specific policy/program objectives around which the industry can collaborate.

It is a simple measure taught me by the young daughter of a friend of mine. The tool is quite simple and depends on a brief question: “what if.” I learned of this simple but effective planning tool when the precocious Abigail asked her mother for whatever was au currant with the kids in her kindergarten class that day. Predictably whatever the this was, was not something Sally was about to run out to buy and she said “no.” The disgruntled Abigail said, without a second thought: “ok Mommy, what if I say****?” Although shocking to Sally, the brilliance of the question has stuck with me; I have found it is a question well worth asking when considering whether or not I should recommend a particular policy approach to clients.

How then to apply Abigail’s Law? The law requires a simple iterative process of questions and answers. Based on the most likely answers to a series of pertinent questions, it is possible to arrive at a listing of options. Based upon available time, resources and the willingness to cooperate, it is then possible to establish a prioritized industry agenda. The reader should note that because of space constraints I cannot do more than give an example of how to apply Abigail’s Law. However, I will be following up this introductory article with a series of more targeted “what if” examinations. In the meantime I urge readers to devise their own series of questions and would appreciate your passing them along to be included in future articles.

Applying Abigail’s Law

Q. What if the industry continues to direct most of its efforts and policy resources in the pursuit of federal tax credits and other federal initiatives the focal point of its advocacy agenda?

A. The current trend in Congress is to reduce and ultimately phase out the tax and investment credits that have been granted renewable energy systems. PV and large wind have come to define the renewables market; they are well accepted by public and private sector consumers and would remain market competitive even without federal tax credits because of reductions in system costs, coupled with innovative financing mechanisms, e.g. leasing, community clean power options, etc., and a regulatory structure that lends itself to both central and distributed applications.

A technologically agnostic CPP, mounting federal deficits, the partisan divide in Congress, and the movement from federal to state leadership should raise at least a spectre of doubt concerning the current federal focus of the industry’s advocacy agenda. It is telling that in the case of New York’s ReEnergy that current efforts both by the company and Senator Schumer (D-NY) are focused on the state and not the federal government. The simple fact is that little relief is found by focusing such advocacy efforts at the national level.

But wouldn’t a federal declaration that sustainable biomass is carbon neutral stimulate demand?

Possibly. Assuming that legislative supporters can overcome the opposition of a number of influential environmental organizations and the inertia, indifference or opposition of members of Congress as regards clean energy in general and biomass in particular, the problem remains that the impact of a federally mandated definition would primarily be of limited value, useful only for the purpose of counting sustainable biomass installations as contributing to carbon reduction targets. As mentioned earlier, there are other more economically efficient alternatives for reducing carbon emissions currently available to the states, e.g. solar and converting coal to natural gas.

Should the industry abandon a federal agenda?

No. It would be wise, however, to re-think the objective(s) of that agenda and pair any federal strategy with a collaborative one directed at the states. It is appropriate at this point to ask: (1) what if the current regulatory, fiscal and definitional objectives of the current advocacy agenda were replaced with budgetary and programmatic targets; and (2) what if the industry and other key stakeholders, e.g. universities, forest owners and rural economic development advocates, devised and implemented a focused state strategy in 3 to 5 jurisdictions that successfully secured a biomass carve out in renewable in their renewable portfolio standards?

Focusing federal advocacy efforts on tax credits, a blanket declaration of carbon neutrality and a common definition of sustainable biomass has shown itself problematic over the course of the past several years. Problematic in the sense that significant effort has been expended with few positive outcomes. As well, even if these targets are acquired, it is not at all clear that they will significantly stimulate private sector adoption and investment. After all is said and done, these federal priorities do not really answer the questions or respond to the doubts of either public or private decision makers.

Repeatedly members and staffs of Congress have identified the lack of baseline industry data, e.g. industry characterizations, substantiated studies of the value proposition of sustainable biomass energy systems–including potential economic and environmental impacts–as a significant barrier to more aggressive federal support for biomass energy technologies. Although much of the information mentioned by frontline Congressional supporters, e.g. Senator Wyden and Congressman Westerman, exists, rightly or wrongly it lacks the imprimatur of the national energy laboratories and key federal agencies. With the exception of the US Department of Agriculture (USDA), biomass energy receives very little attention or support by federal agencies and departments, e.g. the US Department of Energy (USDOE) or the US Environmental Protection Agency (USEPA).

A federal advocacy agenda with the objective of increasing directed appropriations for biomass research, demonstration and deployment programs within these departments and agencies offers several significant benefits to the industry. These benefits include:

  • Documenting value proposition claims, e.g. rural economic growth, improve the health of forests, reduce the frequency and intensity of forest fires, increase the resiliency of communities, naturally sequester carbon and serve as a water management tool.
  • Capitalizing demonstration projects.
  • Supporting industry efforts to devise new financing mechanisms, e.g. community biomass.
  • Funding technological research to improve existing technologies and support innovation.
  • Providing a strong foundation upon which to pursue future federal fiscal and definitional targets.

Check out part three, in which I apply Abigail’s Law with another question that addresses the potential of focused attention on several states to broadcast the value proposition of biomass energy.

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Joel Stronberg, Esq., of The JBS Group is a veteran clean energy policy analyst with over 30 years’ experience, based in Washington, DC. He writes about energy and politics in his blog Civil Notion ( www.civilnotion.com ). Joel recently returned to private practice after serving as the Executive Director of the Biomass Thermal Energy Council.  He has worked extensively in the clean energy fields for public and private sector clients at all levels of government and in Latin America. His specialties include: resiliency; distributed generation and storage; utility regulation; financing mechanisms; and, sustainable agriculture; and human behavior. He has recently taken on the duties of managing partner for LAC Solar Light, Inc. a B-type corporation working in the Americas. Joel can be contacted at thejbsgroup78@gmail.com .

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