A Caucus of its Own

Two U.S. lawmakers create the first Congressional Biomass Caucus to put the industry on the front burner of energy policy.
By Matt Soberg | September 20, 2011

Renewable energy is on the radar of every nation in the world as they all try to find the best sustainable solutions.

Various political leaders support renewable energy and are advancing different legislative solutions that include everything from clean coal to solar and wind power, and geothermal. With the perceived difficulty of deciding on which energy stream to focus, the political net appears to be cast rather wide.
In March, President Obama expressed the need for sustainability by introducing the Blueprint for a Secure Energy Future. “We cannot keep going from shock to trance on the issue of energy security,” he said. The blueprint outlined a three-part strategy to develop and secure America’s energy supplies, to provide consumers with choices to reduce costs and save energy, and to innovate our way to a clean energy future. 

Although the biomass industry shares Obama’s sentiment, biomass seemed to be left out of the energy security equation. It was only briefly mentioned and generally linked with wind, solar and geothermal energy.  

To narrow the focus, U.S. Reps. Charles Bass, R-N.H., and Peter Welch, D-Vt., have taken their support a step further by co-chairing the first caucus focused directly on biomass.  

Biomass-based energy benefits provide needed solutions to the blueprint’s three-part strategy because it uses local renewable resources, it has been proven to reduce costs and it is certainly ecofriendly. 

With the inherent need to promote and educate the masses on Capitol Hill, Bass and Welch hope the first Congressional Biomass Caucus can put the industry on the front burner of policy and legislative change.

Long Overdue

While numerous renewable energy-driven caucuses meet on Capitol Hill, including liquid transportation fuel initiatives and others, no caucus has existed specific to biomass power and thermal. Likewise, there are tax credits and mandates for other renewable resources, but few support the biomass industry. 

Joseph Seymour, acting executive director of the Biomass Thermal Energy Council, notes that biomass as an alternative energy was relatively absent in congressional discussions at the time of BTEC’s inaugural year 2009. Policymakers need to understand that thermal energy is approximately one-third of the nation’s energy portfolio, Seymour says. 

“The first Congressional Biomass Caucus is long overdue,” says Patrick Rita, legislative representative for BTEC. Rita credits Bass, and his long history of renewable energy experience, with spearheading the caucus. “When Rep. Bass came back to Congress in 2010, he made biomass a priority,” he says. 
  BTEC and other allied groups worked with Bass to initiate the caucus. Welch agreed to co-chair and to help seek the involvement of other members. The original idea was to include a diverse membership from each region, and to do it in a bipartisan way. 

The intent was to create a member-led government affairs group that would spread bioenergy initiatives. BTEC plans to help build the caucus from the ground up.  “The biomass caucus needs to be active, and BTEC intends to visit Congress regularly to keep the initiative alive.” Rita says. 

Co-Chairs at a Glance

Along with being co-chair of the biomass caucus, Bass is a member of the House Energy and Commerce Committee and numerous other environment- and economy-related subcommittees.
Bass was elected to represent New Hampshire in 2010, after having served the state from 1995 to 2007. He has a history of promoting clean, alternative energies that help lessen the nation’s dependence on foreign sources of oil. 

His experience with the bioenergy industry includes an appointment to the board of managers at New England Wood Pellet, a wood pellet manufacturer in Jaffrey, N.H. The company produces pellet fuel from clean sustainable biomass to reduce the demand for fossil-based heating fuels.

The congressman also served as a senior adviser to Laidlaw Energy Group, a company that manages a portfolio of renewable energy facilities through development, acquisition and conversion. The group promotes biomass power initiatives nationwide.

Bass regularly communicates the importance of sustainability to his constituents, and the biomass caucus provides the avenue to promote bionergy to Congress for policy purposes. 

Welch is a member of the House Agriculture Committee and various subcommittees dealing with biotechnology, rural development and agriculture. He has served Vermont, which is in the biomass-rich northeast region of the U.S., since 2007.

Vermont has an existing bioenergy industry and a solid base of constituents interested in renewable energy. According to Welch, Vermont is a good source state for harvesting biomass and it’s a model for producing efficient energy through biomass. 

The representative specifically mentions Middlebury College’s biomass system in Middelbury, Vt., as a good example of how biomass-derived energy is beneficial to the community. The college strives to be a sustainability leader and considers its biomass gasification plant to be a milestone in carbon neutrality. 

The gasification system uses locally obtained woody biomass as a fuel source, and provides power and thermal energy to the campus. Twenty percent of the college’s electricity needs are provided through the high-pressure steam produced by biomass gasification. The institution previously used fuel oil, however, with the gasification system it has reduced its dependence on oil by half, saving roughly $1 million per year. 

Welch stressed that Vermont has been an example of how renewable energy initiatives help the local economy. Middlebury reports that its system cuts carbon dioxide output by 40 percent while simultaneously stimulating the local, renewable energy economy.

Call for Members

Through their personal and business experiences, Bass and Welch determined there was a need to focus on biomass at the legislative level. Earlier this year, the congressmen issued a joint call for members, to elevate awareness and involve other legislators with similar bioenergy interests.

In a joint press release, the representatives emphasized that biomass “is part of the key to breaking America’s dependence on foreign fuels for transportation, electricity and heating,” as America deals with the rising cost of foreign fuels and the decrease of conventional energy sources. 

The release also stressed that biomass is a homegrown resource available to every community in the nation. The term biomass was first introduced by Congress in 1978 as an alternative fuel that can be produced from many sources including crops, crop residues, plants, algae, wood and wastes such as animal, food and yard wastes.

“Green energy is the next step towards American energy independence, and biomass represents a viable and economical option,” the representatives stated.  Providing several unique benefits of biomass production, including local economic development and environmental sustainability, the congressmen invited members to join the bipartisan caucus. 

The interest has been steady and positive, according to Welch. To date, the caucus includes Reps. Cathy McMorris Rodgers, R-Wash., Aaron Schock, R-Ill., William Owens, D-N.Y., Peter DeFazio, D-Ore., Bill Cassidy, R-La., Russ Carnahan, D-Miss., Wally Herger, R-Calif., Mike Michaud, D-Maine, Greg Walden, R-Ore., and Paul Tonko, D-N.Y.

The caucus is diverse with nearly all U.S. regions represented. Diversity is key, because how biomass is used in Oregon will vary from how it is used in Vermont, Welch notes. The type of feedstock and the industry itself will differ from one region to the next and it is important to get viewpoints and input from legislators across the nation.

Importance of Bipartisanship

As Seymour and Rita note, the initial intent of the caucus was to be regionally diverse and bipartisan. As co-chair, Welch also believes the caucus must be active in a bipartisan way.

“Being a bipartisan caucus is crucial,” Welch says. With Congress deadlocked and struggling to get things done, the caucus must be able to get out a message that the legislative branch can work together with a common goal. 

The representative sees the biomass caucus as an opportunity to set an example that opposite positions can work together. 

“We think biomass is important to the environment and the economy,” Welch says. “Bipartisanship is fundamental to a strong American economy. Partisan politics and division hurt America. We want the biomass caucus to be a good example of how to create solutions and make America stronger.”
An active bipartisan caucus may be well on its way to making good policy.

Caucus Objectives

According to Welch, the first Congressional Biomass Caucus has two goals: promote biomass initiatives and address specific biomass concerns through education. Members must understand and recognize the significant local benefits of biomass.

Although the industry includes complexities, questions and even some disagreement, Rita notes that the importance of the caucus is to be an educative platform to answer questions and ease any biomass-related concerns.

Similarly, Welch acknowledges that not all biomass is the same, and questions exist that need to be answered. Members hope the caucus will answer how the nation meets its energy goals and how biomass affects the energy industry in a sustainable fashion.

Bioenergy is straightforward and noncontroversial, according to Welch, not an issue such as global warming or cap and trade. “It simply is a sustainable technology, the benefits of which go directly to rural or local economies,” Welch says. 

Potential biomass legislation should not result in Congress being hopelessly deadlocked. All members should have the common goal of developing alternative energy.

Welch expects an active caucus with members starting immediately to educate, answer questions and develop policy ideas. The caucus is intended to be constructive where the members think of ideas, questions and answers to how biomass affects their constituencies. 

The intent is to “roll up the sleeves and be proactive with this caucus,” Rita says.  The hope is to see the caucus host in-depth briefings on biomass issues that provide information and education to spur on policy and legislation.

According to Rita, there is a need for an active and creative group whose mission is to create biomass-based law. Welch concurs, saying that once policymakers understand bioenergy’s benefits, the goal with the first Congressional Biomass Caucus is to make biomass policy and legislation.
Author: Matt Soberg
Associate Editor, Biomass Power & Thermal
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