Significance of the USDA Wood-to-Energy MoU

By Joseph Seymour | October 07, 2013

Ninety seconds, or 175 words. That was my window for brief speech conveying the positive benefits of biomass thermal energy to an audience of reporters, federal agency staff, and forestry groups during last month’s USDA Wood-to-Energy memorandum of understanding (MoU) signing. On the stage to my left were colleagues from the biomass power, pellet, and consumer advocacy sectors, and to my right USDA leadership. We were all there to recognize one thing: the vital role of woody biomass utilization for energy in promoting forest health, rural economies, and energy independence.

Groups such as BTEC, the Pellet Fuels Institute, Biomass Power Association, and Alliance for Green Heat have all—to some extent—engaged each other and the USDA on various bioenergy issues, but the signing ceremony on the morning of Sept. 11 formalized each group’s roles and set industry-wide goals. The MoU on Wood Energy had been in development with the aforementioned partners for well over a year, and was carefully tailored to address today’s energy and environmental issues. It was no coincidence that Deputy Secretary Krysta Harden announced the recipients of the USDA’s State-wide Wood-to-Energy Teams prior to the MoU signing. Fighting forest fires and funding fuels reduction efforts are straining the Forest Service’s resources, and supporting biomass utilization can help meet those needs.

Neither the federal government nor the biomass industry needs an arrangement like the MoU to promote forest health or produce renewable energy, but its presence creates new opportunities for growth and improvement. The purpose of the MoU is straightforward, “to establish the basis for cooperative programs, communications, technological advances, and project development toward an expanded use of wood energy in the U.S.” The words “communication” and “cooperation” are used nearly 10 times in the short document. In effect, USDA is creating a two-way street to improve its biomass energy programs, eligibility requirements, and research projects, among others. In turn, bioenergy groups are expected to collaborate with USDA on their projects, communicate industry advancements, and contribute expertise to agency activities. 

The concept of an MoU between the USDA and the agricultural sector is not new. Just this spring, the Innovation Center for U.S. Dairy resigned its agreement with the USDA from 2009.That agreement is also focused on the nexus of energy and environmental issues, with a clear goal of helping the dairy industry increase sustainable practices and the Innovation Center’s own goal of reducing the industry’s greenhouse gas emissions by 25 percent by the year 2020. While it is difficult to tease out whether one caused the other, the dairy industry has seen significant USDA investments and awards since its initial agreement: 140 successful REAP- (Rural Energy for America Program) related loans and grants, 180 awards for biogas systems, conservation planning assistance for 6,000 dairy farmers, 354 on-farm and in-plant energy audits, and 18 conservation innovation grants.  With its agreement, the dairy industry went from, “Got Milk?” to “Get-er-Done.” 

So what tangible progress will the new Wood-to-Energy MoU yield? That answer lies with the partners and the USDA. From a biomass thermal perspective, I see several near- and longer-term USDA activities like agency participation in BTEC’s thermal efficiency standard project, quantifying the health benefits of hazardous fuels reduction for bioenergy, increased eligibility and awareness of biomass thermal fuels and technologies in agency programs, and exploring new programs and partnerships to further biomass thermal deployment. But again, the MoU is as much about the benefitting the USDA as it about the bioenergy industry. So, how can you help the USDA improve its bioenergy capabilities?  Don’t be shy, we now have an open line of communication.

Author: Joseph Seymour
Executive Director, Biomass Thermal Energy Council