Biomass shines in the Golden State

By Anna Austin
The consensus at Biomass Magazine's Pacific Northwest Biomass Conference & Expo held Jan. 11-13 in Sacramento was that strong government support is essential for the biomass industry to reach its peak potential in the Pacific Northwest, and other regions in the U.S.

Sacramento City Councilman Steve Cohn, California Energy Commission Vice Chair and Commissioner James Boyd and USDA Farm Service Agency of California Executive Director Val Dolcini kicked off the conference. "We have made sustainability a key goal here in Sacramento and California, and more importantly I think for our local area, it's also a major source of jobs," Cohn said, adding that green jobs in the city increased 36 percent in 2009. "That's remarkable in the midst of the worst recession that we've seen since the Great Depression," he said. "In any sector it's impressive-and that was the highest percentage in California."

Dolcini talked about the success of the USDA-FSA's Biomass Crop Assistance Program in California. Historically, the FSA has worked closely with the growers of food and fiber, and is now working closely with the growers of fuel, he said. "In California, [the BCAP program is] off to a great start."

The FSA has approved 36 biomass conversion facilities in California-more than any other state-and allocated $15 million in fiscal year 2009, Dolcini said. "So far in FY10, we're off to a great start," he said. "We've allocated about $30 million, and expect to allocate almost $20 million more before the end of the year. This program has been met with real enthusiasm here in California and we anticipate that application number will continue to grow steadily."

There are currently about 360 qualified BCAP facilities across the U.S., Dolcini said, with California's constituting about 10 percent. "Facilities are getting all the materials they can handle right now, and I think that should continue into the next year," he said. "And this is only the first phase of this program; the second will stimulate the production of eligible
crops for bioenergy conversion."

From Dolcini's perspective, the country's economic recovery will largely depend on the continued development of a renewable energy economy. "Biomass energy has a lot to offer right now, but will it be easy to harvest? Let me just say this, all of the low-hanging fruit has been picked," he said. "We're doing things across the board here that haven't been done before so there will be some experimentation and adaptation, but we're pretty good at that here in California. I know we can continue to light the path for the rest of the nation."

-Anna Austin