“Biomass is a huge percentage of the renewable energy portfolio in this country, where a lot of the biomass energy is consumed not by the general public, but by industrial facilities – namely paper mills,” Bob Cleaves, President and CEO of the Biomass Power Association (BPA) of the United States says.
“Obviously biomass is an important source of renewable energy but it’s not well known and it’s not publically available if you will, so again it doesn’t receive the same attention as a wind turbine or a solar panel. Our campaign is dedicated towards that and the fact that people don’t really understand this resource.”
The BPA are taking it from the top as they set about the monumental task of educating the nation.
“As recently as a year ago we would go up to Capitol Hill and meet with congressional staffers and they really wouldn’t even know what biomass was. Certainly if you were to go to a school, plenty of children would know about renewable energy; what a wind turbine is or what a solar panel is but again they don’t really know what biomass is – how biomass material gets converted into energy,” Cleaves explains.
“The concept of converting that biomass into steam which powers a turbine is something where very few people really understand how that works. There’s not so much misinformation as a complete lack of information.”
IRJ caught up with Cleaves to discuss the BPA efforts to shape and develop biomass and wider climate legislation today, their goals for tomorrow, and to talk about the vital changes needed to raise public awareness of this precious resource in the United States.
Taking on the Tax Incentive
Cleaves worked for a waste management company called Wheelabrator Technologies of Houston, Texas.
“Wheelabrator owned a number of wood-fired biomass plants around the country and have been involved since 1999 in efforts in Washington DC to get federal production tax credits – essentially tax incentives – for their facilities. Because of my background in law and government I was asked to assist in that effort,” he says.
Cleaves had already racked up weighty experience working with the federal tax breaks for renewable energy projects by the time he went to lead the BPA in 2008. The association has long-been focused on the same goal however the appreciation for biomass as a resource in its own right has changed along the way.
“Historically the association was an effort by a number of companies to get favourable treatment from a tax incentive perspective but what I don’t think any of the members anticipated was the strong interest in biomass as a result of global issues about our climate and also a strong push to increase the portfolio of renewable energy in the United States,” he says.
“What started as a very narrowly focused effort on tax over time became a much more expansive effort to not only become part of the solution in terms of dealing with climate change, but also because biomass as such an important resource became an integral part of satisfying what we call Statement Over Portfolio Standards or a federal Renewable Energy Standard (federal R.E.S). So as a result of those in business and the policymakers realizing the importance of biomass, it became an interesting opportunity which a lot of people started to focus on.”
Today the BPA continues to focus on developing the tax incentives already in place.
“For much of this year my members have been very concerned about the expiration of the tax credit and again part of this is educating the public and part is educating those in Washington. The expiration of the tax credit is not well known and that’s our first challenge,” Cleaves says.
“The second challenge is that the cost of extending the tax credits for our industry is not significant in the scheme of things, so our biggest challenge here is to educate policymakers about the importance of it and really make ourselves known more than anything else.”
The Media Message
Cleaves explains that the relative size of the BPA compared with other resources, for example the oil and gas lobby, has been a hindrance. Coupled with a lack of public awareness about biomass, he says that educating the masses and making information on the resource more available has been a great development for the association.
“Historically the association spent its resources on the lobbying side in DC and we realized that there was a much larger public relations and communications strategy effort that needed to be undertaken so that we could both educate the public and compliment the work that we do in Washington,” he says.
“To address that we secured a number of grants from a public charity in San Francisco called The Energy Foundation and The Energy foundation has been very supportive of our mission. It has funded our ability to retain a PR firm in Washington and do some limited print and media advertising.”
This heightened media coverage has enabled the BPA to compliment their continued efforts in Washington.
“We retained a firm in DC called Rational 360,” Cleaves says.
“As the fall unfolds here and we work to get our message out we’re really going to focus on a number of different strategies that will help us to educate the public, and with a particular focus on policymakers in DC.”
These strategies include online media alerts and releases, e-newsletters and print and cable television advertisements.
“We’re doing Capitol Hill visits and to compliment those with both the members of congress and their staff, we’re going to aggressively get our message out whether it’s on Politico or Role Call or any number of ‘Hill publications. Over the next 60 to 90 days we’re going to be complimenting those congressional visits with some print, but mostly cable TV around our message and around that theme,” Cleaves says.
“We also commissioned a short video presentation which is designed to allow the public to click on the video and see how a biomass plant works, how the fuel is consumed, how energy is produced, to see the jobs that are created, to see the climate benefits that are created, and we think that it’s a pretty powerful message.”
Working with Washington
The BPA is invited to participate in a round-table discussion with the Pakistani sugar industry in Washington late in September.
“The sugar industry is quite robust in Pakistan and here (in the United States) we have a long history of taking sugar cane waste and converting it into energy. The Pakistani delegation with the state Department of Commerce wants to meet with members of our trade association to exchange information and explore joint venture opportunities between ourselves and Pakistan,” Cleaves says.
“That’s really a first significant effort by us on an international scale, to really spread the lessons learned that we’ve experienced in the United States and the kind of technology that we deploy because the opportunities internationally are quite significant.”
This is an example of the new and internationally-focused efforts undertaken by the BPA as it continues to work with Washington. Cleaves also cites development in Europe as something “I think we could learn some lessons from.”
“I’d like to see greater collaboration with what’s happening in the UK and other parts of Europe too,” he says.
Cleaves explains that the association retains its original focus on the tax incentives in both its short and long term goals.
“Our short term goals are very focused on legislative milestones that need to occur and probably the most important one is the extension of the tax credit. That’s something that needs to happen before the end of 2009,” he says.
“I don’t think anybody in Washington realistically expects congress to pass climate legislation this year, they’re going to make some progress but I don’t think they’re going to get it over the goal line for a lot of different reasons. I think there’s still a profound misunderstanding within congress about the role that biomass plays in climate and I think that part of our long term goal is for the resource itself to be appreciated and for us to be a player in that debate and ultimately the legislation that is crafted. That’s not going to happen in the next three or four months, that’s going to happen in the next couple of years.”
He explains that the capital market crash of last year put part to many renewable energy projects, particularly in the South Eastern United States.
“To correct that the administration, in a stimulus package that was passed in February, provided an alternative means of financing renewable energy in the United States through what essentially are grants from the Department of Treasury. That has had a great benefit to many of our members,” he says.
“The Department of Energy is very keenly interested in how those programs are being implemented. I think things are definitely on the mend and we’re seeing a lot of new projects, particularly in the South-East.”
As an American trade association cultivating strong international ties and constantly improving upon their communications, public education and relationship with policymakers, the BPA is going from strength to strength.
‘America can depend on the biomass industry to provide clean, renewable electricity and create thousands of green jobs in communities across the country. Biomass power is the natural solution for energy independence,’ the BPA mission statement says.
Judging by their progress over the past year, the BPA are ready to help make this a reality.