June 21, 2007 | General

Tracking The Velocity Of Bioenergy Growth

BioCycle June 2007, Vol. 48, No. 6, p. 47
Mark Jenner

BURNING Bio News is a monthly newsletter/scorecard for tracking the velocity of growth in the bioenergy industries. In the void of limited historical data on biomass energy projects, my company, Biomass Rules, LLC, has set out to collect it. We mine the daily biomass news and add it to our databases for two purposes: 1) Noteworthy news is separated from the noise; and 2) Tracking projects adds the new dimension of time to bioenergy adoption. At the same time, the biomass energy news links (i.e., the “burning” news) are loaded on www.biomassrules.com.
As a professional manure visionary in political agriculture for the last dozen years or so, I have learned that communication is easier when some structure is imposed on very broad topics. For biomass energy, I have developed three general categories to facilitate data tracking – bioscience, bioprojects and biopolicy. Science represents all known and unknown science and technology. Bioscience is the part related to biology and biomass. Bioprojects (representing economics) serve as an indicator of “human choice” – how we spend money. Biopolicies are the bridge between science and human choice – the law as well as incentive programs that motivate economic development and environmental protection.
The category of Bioscience covers advances in technology (research announcements) and small-scale projects. During the month of April, there were technology announcements in New York, Indiana, Pennsylvania, California, Colorado, and Louisiana. USDA-Agricultural Research Service (ARS) had four research announcements in Colorado, Pennsylvania, Wisconsin and Iowa.
Bioprojects are the category with the greatest interest. These are the commercial-scale projects where the money is flowing and significant volumes of biofuels and bioenergy are being produced. In this category, the big four bioenergy products tracked are ethanol, biodiesel, electricity and fuel pellets. These four have the most news activity and typically report an annual rated capacity (i.e., million gallons, megawatts, tons). In addition to 57 “big four” projects in April, there were 17 bioprojects that produced compost or organic nutrients, bioplastics and biolubricants, and heat/natural gas substitutes. These projects had no reported capacity.
Locations also are summarized. Through April this year, it is clear that some states are investing heavily. Biomass project news leaders are California (21), Indiana (17), Illinois (13) and Wisconsin (12).
This is a good time for a disclaimer. News data is not the same quality as traditional government or industry data on mature industries. There are errors in the stories. If I can’t figure out what is being reported, the article doesn’t make my data sets. Also, I do not like to repeat information about a specific project unless there is a shift in its construction status. Also, it takes seven to eight months to announce and complete construction of a fuel pellet plant, and several years to announce and build an ethanol plant. So some fast moving projects reappear if they shift from a “proposed” status to a “construction” status.
Biomass project status is the other news statistic summarized in Burning Bio News. There are five project status categories: Proposed, Planning (preconstruction), Under Construction, In Operation, and Tabled/Postponed. So far this year, the Proposed projects represent about a third of the total. These are mostly just ideas that someone has that make the news.
The Planning category indicates that land has been purchased, and local and state permits and approvals are occurring. The project is more than just an idea. Money is flowing. These categories also represent about a third of the reported projects. The final third is covered by combining the Under Construction and In Operation categories.
The last category, Tabled/Postponed, is very important. Biomass energy production isn’t all forward progress. Some projects are not only at a standstill, they are going backwards. Each month, at least one reported project has been tabled, postponed, or cancelled.
The last major topic, Biopolicies, reports biomass news related to laws, policies and programs. Incentives, grants, loans, tax credits and other sources of funding are reported here. If the news is about a transfer or a transaction taking place, it ends up being reported as a Biopolicy incentive rather than Bioproject above. Hundreds of millions of dollars were reportedly made available in April. Most came from the U.S. Department of Energy, but also from industry, and state, county and city programs.
Also reported in the Biopolicy section are lawsuits and environmental regulations and fines. In April, both Wisconsin and the U.S. Congress introduced legislation to provide tax credits to farms that make methane gas from manure. This is a great idea. Traditionally, methane has only been eligible for heavy punitive regulation as a toxic greenhouse gas. Just weeks prior to this tax credit initiative, several states and the U.S. Congress were debating legislation to exempt manure-derived ammonia as a hazardous waste. Manure policies are a bit schizophrenic. Is it a resource or a toxin? Should we get a credit or a fine? Only the legislators know for sure. Stay tuned. These are growing pains of a fledgling bioenergy industry.
With this structural discussion behind us, we’ll be able turn to specific economic implications of the progress tracked in Burning Bio News.
Mark Jenner, PhD, is an independent information specialist. He developed the biomass locally grown power plant concept for the Indiana Dept. of Ag’s BioTown, USA project. He has conducted data analysis for USDA-NASS, guided on-farm value-added manure projects and planning.

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