USDA Repowering Assistance Program: Underutilized Pot of Gold?

Even biorefinery-focused programs can offer funding for biomass projects
By Sarah Beth Aubrey | April 25, 2012

Grant writers for agriculture and renewable energy projects are often very popular at cocktail parties. Perhaps not the type of parties with ball gowns and tuxedos, but certainly at the after-the-session-free-cocktails-and-snacks sort of events common to trade show functions across the country. Yes, being the person who assists with finding and securing “free” funds tends to make grant professionals oft-engaged in conversation, if not necessarily the life of the post-session mixer.

It should be realized, though, that grant writing for biomass projects has its rewards and disappointments. Consultants are certainly rainmakers for many clients when they help secure hundreds of thousands of much needed dollars. But grant professionals can be heartbreakers when they advise against applying for the big federal money because their client’s project doesn’t meet the guidelines well enough to get an award. No one enjoys that conversation, but it is an essential part of the funding search process.

It seems everyone is aware of the major grants for biomass projects and can name them easily. Anyone who worked through USDA’s Rural Energy for America Program tight grant deadline for 2012 is fully aware of just how many developers and technology providers have been browsing That being said, are there really any hidden gems left out there? Or are all of the good grants—the supposed secret pots of money—all used up?

Not Secret, But Underutilized

There may not be any secrets, but there is one grant that could be considered at least underutilized: USDA’s Repowering Assistance Payments to Eligible Biorefineries, commonly called the Repowering Assistance Grant.

This program, accepting applications now through June 1, has up to $25 million available for eligible entities. Authorized as part of the Food, Conservation and Energy Act of 2009, this year's allotment includes carryover funds from 2011. Individual awards can be up to $10 million and a 50 percent match is required.

This funding is not exactly for biomass projects, unless you are working with an existing biorefinery. The payments will actually go to the biorefinery, similar to the way BCAP doesn’t pay the project developer directly. Sometimes having an order placed by a buyer with guaranteed funds is a grant in and of itself.

According to Chris Cassidy, national renewable energy coordinator for USDA Rural Development, biomass could be eligible in a variety of ways. “Combined-heat-and-power using biomass is an obvious example where a plant could convert to electricity or gas to run the plant,” Cassidy says. He also mentioned that anaerobic digestion, pyrolysis, and gasification when using biomass are all technologies that could potentially fit. In reviewing the regulation, one will find that anything besides  “feedstocks for repowering that are feed grain commodities that received benefits under Title 1 of the Food  Conservation and Energy Act of 2009” are suitable feedstock sources. Cassidy says hybrid projects could qualify, too, meaning combinations of wind, solar, or geothermal resources with biomass feedstocks could work. “The aim is to move to second- and third-generation technologies to power these biorefineries,” Cassidy says.

He adds that the definition of biorefinery is often called into question. Apparently, the definition is intended to mean existing facilities that create liquid transportation fuels using biobased feedstocks such as ethanol and biodiesel plants. Another hang-up for some potential applicants is the word existing. USDA has parameters around this, too. To be eligible for the payments, the biorefinery where the improvements are being installed must have been in operation on or before June 18, 2008.

Eligible costs for the program are fairly broad and can include just about any capital costs associated with upgrading the existing facility so that it may be repowered with less dependence on fossil fuels. “Anyone considering an energy efficiency upgrade to a facility (could) be a good candidate for this program,” Cassidy advises, saying he looks forward to good quality, well-researched applications prepared with an eye toward understanding USDA’s specific needs for complete application packages.

Accurate Applications

Besides the regulations and a partnership with a facility that has been in business long enough, there are certain hurdles to overcome in the application process. First, good grant writers will advise allowing plenty of time to document and provide the correct detail. The Repowering Assistance Program also requires that an independent feasibility study (consistent with USDA’s published feasibility study guidelines) accompany the complete application package. Third-party feasibility documentation, especially the technical component, is critical to approval. Cassidy commonly sees compliance with feasibility study requirements, especially providing the level of detail and sophistication needed for a grant award, as an issue.

Emphasis on reducing fossil fuel use in liquid transportation fuels production appears to be the original intent of the program. The more fossil fuel the feasibility study indicates can be offset, the higher scoring the application. The guidelines even require a 40 percent reduction to get the minimum score in that category.

The Repowering Assistance Program may not be the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow, but if your organization’s technology can be used by an existing biorefinery, here is a program short on quality applications with $25 million to spend for the right projects. “It’s rare when we have funds available in these programs and this one has not historically used up its money in any given year,” Cassidy says.

This may be a wide-open door for the right project and technology. When thinking of grants, always have a creative angle in mind and don’t overlook partnering with businesses outside your immediate energy focus. For application information, visit

Author: Sarah Beth Aubrey
Certified Grant Administrator, Prosperity Ag & Energy Resources
(317) 996-2777