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Answers to Questions Taken from the Biomass Crop Assistance Program Webinar

July 24, 2009

In response to the high level of interest in BCAP and biofuels witnessed at the BCAP webinar held by The Minnesota Project on June 25th we have asked our presenters to answer a number of questions asked by webinar participants.  Because of the high volume of questions we were able to answer only a small portion during the webinar question and answer period.  With that, we have pulled in conference speakers to address a number of questions specific to BCAP and more generally about biofuels issues.

 

Question: Please explain the difference between BCAP NOFA, and eventual BCAP rules.

Answer from Dr. Stockwell: The NOFA, or Notice of Funding Availability, is the first step taken by government agencies to announce the opening of grant, loan, or other assistance availability.  Typically, government programs have the rules established before the NOFA goes out, but due to the interest on the part of the Obama Administration to move forward quickly on advancing biofuels, the NOFA has been released during the rule making process.  Compounding the confusion, the recent NOFA pertains only to the collection, storage, harvest, and transportation portion of BCAP.  Moreover, USDA is using this NOFA as an opportunity to collect more comments on rulemaking before they make a full release of the rules or release the NOFA for the entire BCAP.

 

Question: Are small producers eligible, for example a farmer wants to grow 5 acres of biomass crops?

Answer from Dr. Stockwell: Small producers are eligible.  All participants must collaborate with a biomass conversion facility to become eligible for BCAP participation.  Biomass conversion facilities may contract with any producer in order to garner enough biomass supply.

 

Question: Is algae an approved crop?

Answer from Ms. Novak: Algae is NOT an eligible material according to the 2008 Farm Bill.

 

Question: Any concerns about establishing huge bioenergy crop monocultures?

Answer from Dr. Stockwell: At this point there have been no statements in BCAP regarding the establishment of sizeable biomass crop monocultures.  There is an economic advantage to concentrating biomass near a biomass conversion facility to reduce transportation costs, but the program Environmental Impact Statement, to be released in August, may explore this issue.  Little research has been conducted on the environmental impacts, other than greenhouse gas emissions, of establishing new biomass crops. 

 

Question: How many project areas are likely to be funded?

Answer from Ms. Novak: There is no estimation on how many BCAP Project Area proposals we might receive.  However, according to EISA data, there are approximately 300 – 500 bioenergy facilities in operation and the number of producer groups in unknown.  To be clear, the 2008 Farm Bill reads that BCAP Project Areas are geographic areas where the participating producers would be eligible for contracts with the Secretary that provide establishment payments and cost-share for renewable biomass crop production.  The volume of producers and their biomass yield capacities are not known, because the BCAP rule has not been published yet and the proposals are, obviously, not be submitted yet.

 

Question: Does the CHST (collection, storage, harvest, transportation) facility decide how much a ton of biomass is worth, and then the producer is paid that matching amount by FSA (Farm Security Administration)?

Answer from Dr. Stockwell: The price of the biomass ostensibly will be established through conversations between biomass conversion facilities and biomass producers.  However, that process could likely take the path of already established commodities in which demand establishes a market clearing price to which producers may respond.  However the price gets established, the participating producer would qualify for a price match from FSA for up to $45 per ton of biomass.

 

Question: Can we have assurance that BCAP will be ongoing for 5 to 10 years or even longer?

Answer from Ms. Novak: The BCAP is authorized through the 2008 Farm Bill until FY 2012.  Contracts with producers can be from up to 5 yrs. for perennial and annual crops and up to 15 yrs. for woody biomass.  Eligible material owners can receive matching payments two years from the date that their submission to a County office is approved.  The biomass conversion facility enters into a MOU with the Secretary for until contract termination. 

 

Question: Why does the payment for the biomass go to the producer and not the conversion facility? 

Answer from Dr. Stockwell: The biomass matching funds in fact benefit both the producer and the conversion facility.  While the matching funds are direct payments to biomass producers for the biomass they provide to the conversion facility, they also provide a subsidy to conversion facilities by essentially paying up to $45 per ton of the cost of purchasing the biomass.  In essence the subsidy is like a government provided coupon, much like those offered on grocery items.  With the coupon, the conversion facility can purchase the higher priced item.  The recipient of the coupon then goes to the coupon originator to redeem the monetary value, the manufacturer in the case of a grocery item and the government in the case of biomass crops.  Another way to look at the issue of subsidy impacts is to examine what would happen without this biomass payment.  In this situation, conversion facilities would have to shoulder the entire payment to biomass producers.  That payment would have to be high enough to convince landowners to switch to biomass crops from established traditional commodity crops.  Few conversion facilities would have the funds, nor would they be able to operate for long, while paying perhaps twice as much for the biomass as they would with the government support going to the biomass producers.

 

Question: Could biomass from protected public or private lands participate?

Answer from Ms. Novak: Eligible material may come from private non-industrialized forest lands and National Forest and BLM provided the applicable Forest Stewardship Plans and Conservation plans or applicable environmental laws are abided

 

Question: Do we have any indication of what the total budget for BCAP is likely to be in FY 2010-FY 2012?

Answer from Ms. Novak: Not yet, sorry; an apportionment request has been made is all I can tell you. 

 

Question: Will there be any help available in this program to help develop the regional biomass conversion facilities?

Answer from Ms. Novak: The overall BCAP intent is to assist agricultural and forest land owners and operators with collection, harvest, storage and transportation of eligible material for use in a biomass conversion facility and to support the establishment and production of eligible crops for conversion to bioenergy in selected BCAP Project Areas.  BCAP Project Areas will be approved by the Secretary according to the 2008 Farm Bill’s prescribed criteria for selection from proposals submitted by groups of producers and biomass conversion facilities.  Key to answering this question might also be to consider that the 2008 Farm Bill required the BCAP Project Areas to be physically located in economically practical locations to the biomass conversion facilities.

 

Question: Please discuss the energy balance of biomass gasification and the energy ratio of various biomass crops to be used in gasification.    

Answer from Dr. Tallaksen: I think it’s important first to make sure people understand gasification.  Gasification can be a starting point to produce many different forms of energy and carbon containing compounds.  However, the first products for gasification are heat energy and a combustible vaporous ‘gases’.   Neither of these lend themselves to the ‘energy balance’ discussions concerning ethanol vs. fossil fuels.   Gasification is fairly efficient at making heat, both directly from the heat released in the gasification process and from combustion of the gas produced.  Estimates are that at our facility here in Morris, we will recover somewhere between 75-85% of the BTU value in our feedstocks.

In other applications, further processing can take the vaporous gas produced in gasification and make a liquid fuel, other hydrocarbons, or electricity.  The efficiency of conversion to other forms of energy  varies considerable.  Since I’m not an expert on these, I don’t think I should guess at the efficiency.  However with each transformation in a chemical or mechanical  process, energy (efficiency) is lost.

 

Question: Should the development of different biomass conversion technologies be conditioned on life-cycle energy analysis, including greenhouse gas emissions?

Answer from Dr. Stockwell: Answers to this question can vary widely according to whom one asks.  Other policies have the potential to address life cycle carbon emissions.  The Renewable Fuel Standard has a life cycle assessment and a green house gas reduction requirement on various types of biofuels.  Plans for a national renewable energy portfolio standard could also come with a life cycle assessment for electricity sources and could have the same impact in rewarding low carbon energy sources as the Renewable Fuel Standard.  Any additional carbon reduction requirements through BCAP or other policies may complicate the policy field or might add further direction on the development of low carbon biomass energy systems.

 

Question: If growers only harvested corn cobs, how many acres would be needed to generate 400 tons of biomass collection per year?

Answer from Dr. Tallaksen: The two corn cob harvesting systems we evaluate harvested between .6 and .75 tons per acre.  In discussions with the manufacturers, we were told that there are some yield differences between corn varieties, field sites, and moisture levels. 

 

Question: Will there be a national EIS required or will they be required on a case by case basis?

Answer from Ms. Novak: Programmatic Environmental Impact Study is underway.  Six public regional meeting were held and comments were received.  A complete report is expected to be released by the end of August 2009.

 

Question: What is the current rule of thumb on how far biomass material can be transported before it becomes un-economical?

Answer from Dr. Tallaksen: The literature says 50-75 miles for bulk material.  I’m not sure I think there should be a rule of thumb.  Each feedstock and each facility have their own economics at a given time and so it’s tough to make a broad statement or rule of thumb.   Therefore, it’s hard to make a good accurate generalization on a fuel supply radius.

 

Question: How do you expect the credit crisis to impact the ability to get financing for projects of this sort ranging from $20-$200 million?

Answer from Dr. Stockwell: The credit crisis and general economic downturn have certainly made renewable energy investment difficult as investors and project developers pull back in an attempt to weather the storm.  Throughout the remainder of the economic downturn and through the start of the recovery, investors will look for only the most stable opportunities with clear returns.  One the one hand, BCAP helps create stability in biomass conversion, but on the other hand there remains a general sense that the technology is relatively untested, despite numerous projects already in operation.

Update from Dr. Tallaksen on the University of Minnesota-Morris biomass gasifier

The Morris gasification facility is designed to heat the University of Minnesota campus using agricultural and forestry residues.   An expansion project is also being worked on to give us the capacity generate a modest amount of electricity and chilled water for air conditioning.  In 2008, we finished major construction.  However, design issues with the plant were noticed during early test runs last Fall.  It appears that there are some unanticipated problems with using a ‘fluffy’ feedstock that was light weight and contained air.  The fluffy biomass and trapped air appeared to react chemically very quickly.  Typically more dense feedstocks have been gasified (coal, wood, peat) and equipment was designed around these feedstocks.   The simplest solution to our problem for the time being is to make our agricultural residues look a little more like the wood that is used in many of the current gasifiers.  Therefore, we are experimenting with methods of densifying corn stover into briquettes or pellets.  For more information about our project, check out our website at hrrp://renewables.morris.umn.edu or contact me via e-mail tall0007@ umn.edu.

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2 Comments leave one →
  1. September 2, 2009 11:51 am

    question to Dr. Brockwell – my company is at the final stages of Feasibility Study preparation – I have planned to research sources of information and technical support in the field of Biomass to bioenergy – biogasification-biofert. what USA network do you suggest I tap into for networking opportunities – i.e. Sustainable biomass production for the intent and purpose of processing to ethanol. My business partner – Prof. Ndimba is a proteomic specialist at the Univ. of West Cape, Cape Town – I am project manager; Sweet Sorghum is the ‘core crop’ of choice with other crops supporting in rotation for a consistent supply.Any suggestions??

    • Ryan Stockwell permalink
      September 2, 2009 1:32 pm

      Louis,
      There are a number of biofuels organizations/associations in the U.S. Some of the more well known are the National Biodiesel Board (www.biodiesel.org), the Renewable Fuels Association (www.ethanolrfa.org), and Advanced Biofuels USA (www.advancedbiofuelsusa.org). These organizations all have further information and various networking opportunities.

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