Conference: Biomass shines in the Golden State

By Anna Austin
Posted January 12, 2010, at 9:00 p.m. CST

Forget gold. The biomass rush is on in California. A major consensus at Biomass Magazine's Pacific Northwest Biomass Conference & Expo held Jan. 11-13 in Sacramento, Calif., was that strong government support is essential for the biomass industry to reach its peak potential in the Pacific Northwest, and other regions across the U.S.

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

Dolcini emphasized the huge success the USDA-FSA's Biomass Crop Assistance Program has seen in the state since its inception. 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. Is the program working? I think the answer is yes."

Dolcini said the FSA has approved 36 biomass conversion facilities in California-more than any other state-and allocated $15 million in fiscal year 2009. "So far in FY10, we're off to a great start. We've allocated about $30 million, and expect to allocate almost $20 million more before the end of the year," Dolcini said. "This is a program that 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., he added, and California constitutes about 10 percent of them. "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 the bioenergy conversion."

From Dolcini's perspective, the economic recovery of the U.S. 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 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."