USDA to Expand Taxpayer Handouts to Biomass Industry

USDA Announces Initiative to Expand U.S. Wood-to-Energy Efforts

- by Sue Retka Schill, September 13, 2013. Source: Biomass Magazine 

The USDA announced a partnership agreement to expand wood energy use, which will help improve the safety and health of U.S. forests. The new partnerships include USDA, the Alliance for Green Heat, the Biomass Power Association, the Biomass Thermal Energy Council and the Pellet Fuels Institute. Ag secretary Tom Vilsack also announced more than $1.1 million in grants to five organizations to form state-wide teams that will stimulate development of wood energy projects in Idaho, California, Minnesota, New Hampshire and Alaska.

"Today's announcements will help us find innovative ways to use leftover wood to create renewable energy and support good jobs in rural America," Vilsack said. "Wood to Energy efforts are a part of our 'all of the above' energy strategy. Appropriately scaled wood energy facilities also support our efforts to remove hazardous fuels and reduce the risks of catastrophic wildfires."

The partnership agreement focuses on promoting wood energy nationwide as a means to address fire risk, bolster rural economic development, improve air quality and help meet the Obama Administration's renewable energy and energy efficiency goals. These organizations support the use of wood energy across the scale of users – from residential users, to commercial and institutional facilities, to industrial production of heat and/or electricity to drive businesses and feed the electrical grid. The memorandum of understanding (MOU) signed by representatives of the four wood-energy organizations and USDA recognizes the shared goals and interests amongst the signers in expanding the use of wood to energy: creating local jobs, increasing affordable heating and electricity options for rural Americans, improving forest health, reducing wildfire risks, and promoting efficient biomass technologies across residential, commercial and industrial segments of the wood energy arena.

“This is the culmination of conversations over the past four years,” explained Doug O’Brien, USDA acting undersecretary for rural development. “We formalized some of the things we talked about on what we can do together to kick it up to the next level.” Among the focus areas will be to coordinate and prioritize private and public research, he said. “And, for us at rural development, just the outreach component is important.”  Through the MOU and state-wide efforts, the initiative will help more communities learn about the federal programs available to support wood-to-energy efforts. One is the Renewable Energy for America Program that has aided a number of projects across the nation. One example, O’Brien said, is a greenhouse in Connecticut that reduced its energy costs by 70 percent through biomass utilization. O’Brien also mentioned that the USDA’s electric loan program, which typically supports rural electric cooperatives, has included $500 million for biomass utilization in the past few years.

In addition to the outreach for broader utilization of the federal programs, O’Brien said, “we’ll be working with the groups to identify and lift up successes and best practices, making sure others understand how well these projects work.”  While the potential for wood-to-energy utilization is well-understood in the Northwest and northern New England, he added, the new initiative hopes to expand that understanding into other regions.

Under the terms of the five state grants announced, private, state and federal organizations will work together to stimulate the development of additional wood energy projects in their states. Collectively, $2.9 million will be spent on this effort – $1.1 million in federal funds and $1.8 million in nonfederal funds. Grant recipients include the Idaho Governor's Office of Energy Resources, the Watershed Research & Training Center in Hayfork, Calif., the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources, the North Country Resource Conservation & Development Council in Gilford, N.H., and the Alaska Energy Authority in Anchorage.

The USDA held an event in Washington Sept. 11 to make the announcement with representatives of the four national organizations. "This MOU shows a significant commitment by the USDA and the biomass industry to work together to expand use of wood energy in our country," said Scott Jacobs, president of PFI.  "I know I speak for all of our membership when I say that we are thrilled to be working in a more deliberate partnership with USDA and our colleagues within the biomass industry.”

"The USDA is uniquely positioned to help rural families better use wood and pellets to heat their homes and we look forward to working with them on that," said John Ackerly, president of the Alliance for Green Heat. “With the resurgence of wood and pellet heating, it's the third most common form of heating in America after gas and electricity,” he said in his remarks at the USDA event, “but we need even cleaner and more efficient stoves on the market, and we need to help remove the older, less efficient wood stoves.”