A Biomass Asset to Know and Use

By Luke Geiver | November 15, 2012

The USDA’s Energy Investment Map is an asset to the biomass industry that needs to be both understood, and utilized. The map contains a detailed data set regarding the number, type, location and amount of USDA-based financial assistance efforts to renewable biomass since 2003. More importantly, the map offers partial answers and limited facts to any discussion regarding the size (in installations and dollars) and current state of the biomass industry. Although the terms partial, or limited, may suggest such answers or facts do not hold a relevant value to any conversation regarding the health of the industry, the opposite is true.

The Energy Investment Map shows that since 2003, 6,284 biomass-based projects have received roughly $1.8 billion in USDA financial assistance. If that $1.8 billion in investment by the USDA has hypothetically resulted in 6,284 projects that have created only a very small return on investment or have had only a break even amount of economic impact in their respective areas, then the portion of the biomass industry touched or associated only with the USDA is either worth nearly $2 billion, or if nothing else, has created the same amount in economic activity.

Because the map can only show what projects have received assistance from the USDA, any dialogue dealing with the current state of the industry would only make sense if the Energy Investment Map’s data was used as a partial portion of the overall picture. The full picture would also include other investments from other government-backed entities and private parties, making a more complete picture look even better. And the USDA has a separate classification for anaerobic digester projects. Since 2003, 217 AD projects have received roughly $104 million from USDA.

As far as the USDA’s financial commitment for all thing biomass goes, the picture is clear, however. While we may not know what a new year will bring, or if the past four years will be a trend in the USDA’s future biomass-based investment practices, we do know this: over the past 10 years, the USDA has generally increased the amount of money invested into renewable biomass every year.

In 2003, there were 12 investments totaling roughly $2.1 million. In 2009, there were 246 investments totaling almost $305 million. And, in 2012, the USDA invested in 1,363 projects for a total of roughly $515 million.

For some investment types, 2012 was either the best year for investment dollars awarded, or close to it. For woody biomass utilization grants, 20 projects were awarded roughly $4 million. Anaerobic digester projects received $5.4 million spread over 32 projects. And through the 9003 Biorefinery Assistance Program, five projects were awarded a total of $460 million through loan guarantees (and more are on the way).

The USDA’s investment data might not provide the most comprehensive view of the number of projects, the amount of money or the various places where biomass-based utilization is happening, but the energy map does provide a glimpse and a talking point to any discussion regarding the overall scope of an industry, an industry that the USDA can show, has been infused with over $1.8 billion in less than 10 years.