The biomass industry, and consequently the market for handling equipment, is growing, but just how much will depend a lot on government policy. While federal legislators recently retained funding for energy title programs in the 2012 appropriations “minibus,” there could be cuts to the funding allocated for energy programs in the next farm bill.
Cuts in one program, the Biomass Crop Assistance Program (www.fsa.usda.gov), which was designed to help farmers with the start-up costs of establishing, producing and delivering biomass feedstocks, could discourage farmers.
“Cuts in BCAP could put additional pressure on the bio-energy groups using the biomass to set feedstock prices [per ton] at a profitable level for the farm,” says Jay Van Roekel, biomass business manager for Vermeer Corporation. “There is some concern that traditional energy resources are at low prices, so it will be difficult for the bio-energy companies to pay the farm gate price.”
Van Roekel says that the U.S. needs a long-term consistent energy policy. Cellulosic ethanol plants and energy facilities that burn biomass are multiyear projects that require long-term commitment. Start-up of these projects will require government funding to get to the point where fuel from biomass can be competitive with fossil fuels and economically viable for all the supply chain.
“We need to get some models, like Poet’s Project Liberty, up and running and proving themselves," says Todd Stucke, AGCO director of hay and harvesting. "I’ve been working [in the biomass area] for five years and it definitely can be done.”
With a few cellulosic ethanol projects in the early phases, there will soon be full-scale models to set the pace for the future, Van Roekel says. “And I believe we will continue to see more bioelectric or cogeneration projects come online.” This is because more states and companies want to move toward cleaner energy.
The federal government also wants to reduce the amount of pollutants associated with coal-fired energy plants, which bodes well for biomass. Stucke says that, although there is a great deal of interest in wind power, it is not as consistent as biomass fuel, which can be burned on a 24/7 basis. “Combining biomass and wind is a very viable system,” he adds.
These young industries need funding, the manufacturers say. “We need clear direction from Washington in terms of rural development, energy security and keeping billions of dollars in the United States,” Van Roekel says. “We need to develop all forms of home-grown energy.”