BCAP Webinar informs, addresses concerns

By Lisa Gibson | June 03, 2009
Report posted June 29, 2009, at 11:20 a.m. CST

Sustainability and availability of biomass crops is a crucial element to a potential biomass market, as outlined by two of three presenters who participated in a Biomass Crop Assistance Program Webinar hosted by the Minnesota Project on June 25.

Farmers, landowners and producers from all over the country, especially the Midwest, tuned in to learn more about BCAP, which is part of the 2008 Farm Bill. A Notification of Funds Availability for the program was released June 11, specifying that matching funds can total up to $45 per dry ton of biomass, for up to two years. BCAP implementation was recently expedited, with the program start date moved up to 2010.

A major benefit of BCAP is that it promotes sustainable land use, said presenter Joel Tallaksen, gasification project coordinator at the University of Minnesota, Morris. The required supply for industrial facilities can be staggering, he said, using a 100,000 ton per year biomass plant as an example. A plant that size would require a prairie grass supply of 25,000 acres, a miscanthus supply 6,667 acres, 40,000 acres of corn stover or 52,632 acres of wheat grass. "It's possible," Tallaksen emphasized. "But it needs to be done sustainably. If we don't do it sustainably, we're going to have problems in the long run."

Sustainability is only one of several benefits to the program, according to Tallaksen. "I think the BCAP really has the opportunity to help us by helping the biomass market along," he said. "One of the biggest things we'll have to do is form a biomass market. It's hard to get new facilities to start up, unless they know there's a market out there." BCAP can help provide predictable revenue for biomass producers and reasonably priced biomass for consumers, he added.

The BCAP program is one of the most exciting opportunities in state policies, according to presenter Gary Radloff, director of policy and strategic communications at the Wisconsin Department of Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Protection. It will assist in building up the biomass infrastructure, he said, echoing Tallaksen's statement that sustainability is crucial. To ensure sustainability, he believes states need to improve policies and implementation tools. Radloff is a champion for small-scale distributive energy and he co-authored "How Could Small Scale Distributed Energy Benefit Wisconsin Agriculture and Rural Communities?" published in late April 2009. Feedstocks for local energy plants will need to be grown nearby, he explained. "BCAP presents a tremendous opportunity for states."

The USDA is still working on some technical assistance pieces and development of regulations, according to presenter Kelly Novak, program analyst for the USDA Farm Service Agency. An environmental impact study is also underway, but everything will be completed by the 2010 start date, she said. Regulations under consideration include the issuance of producer contracts and BCAP project areas.

Participants wondered about the BCAP timeline, yields of certain crops and types of processing technologies, like wood pellet mills, and crops that will qualify. The definition of biomass conversion facilities in BCAP includes those that produce heat or bioenergy, Novak responded that there is a biobased product portion that allows for intermediate ingredients and wood pellets qualify. Miscanthus can yield up to 15 tons of biomass per acre in warm climates, Tallaksen said, but it can be difficult to grow in cold climates and is tougher to plant, as it requires rhizomes, not seeds. Agricultural switchgrass can produce six or seven tons per acre, he said, but on natural CRP land it will yield only about two to three tons per acre.

Participants also asked about the number of project sites that will be selected, which Novak said hasn't been determined yet. It will depend on the amount of funding available, which also is unknown, she added.

Cash flow might be the biggest hurdle in starting up a farm or conversion facility, Radloff said, addressing another question, but BCAP is designed to help with that.

It's vital to evaluate economics before deciding to participate in BCAP, Radloff and Tallaksen agreed, adding that readiness is important, too. Novak recommended all interested parties look at the BCAP Web site and make comments and suggestions. NOFA comments will be taken through Aug. 10. BCAP has a lot of flexibilities, she said, so comments can have an impact. "The world is run by those who show up," she said. "So this is your chance to show up."