Conference: NY Poised for a Bioenergy Future

5/5/2012 10:00 AM
By Doreen Barker New York Correspondent

DRYDEN, N.Y. — The savings and efficiency of bioenergy, and its future in New York state, were the focus of a conference held April 27 at Tompkins Cortland Community College.

“The U.S. economy ran on wood until the Civil War, then came coal and fossil fuels. We are at the peak of the fossil fuel era and we need to start thinking about moving on to other fuel sources,” Tim Volk, of SUNY College of Environmental Science and Forestry, told the 45 people in attendance at TC3 ACRES (Agriculture Consortia on Renewable Energy and Sustainability).

“Biomass has historically provided the largest portion of renewable energy through wood and other biofuels,” he said.

One objective of the day focused on the diverse knowledge and base of material already established within the state, which will create an easier transition into renewable fuels for New York.

Representatives from New York State Energy Research and Development Authority (NYSERDA) discussed best practices, which involve running units at full output and the use of boilers and water storage tanks.

Energy efficiencies testing and research is being done at colleges like SUNY Canton, Cornell University and Clarkson University. Another pilot project, Hudson Valley Grass Energy, involves a mobile pelleting unit for agricultural biomass.

Research into energy efficiency, emissions and best practices for use of fuel sources was discussed by Ellen Burkhard, a senior project manager in NYSERDA’s Biomass Heating Research and Development Program.

“Many people don’t realize that efficiency and emissions of units is very different when comparing seasoned wood to green wood for home heating,” Burkhard said.

Energy conservation programs for farmers and producers, primarily under the Agriculture Environmental Management program (operated through New York State Department of Agriculture and Markets), include all aspects of conservation, from resources like soil, water and air to biodiversity, the economy, businesses, food security, personal health and being a good neighbor and thinking about doing what is best for your community.

“The base of conservation in New York can handle the development of biomass and agriculture because it’s something that agricultural producers are already doing,” said Greg Albrecht, an associate environmental analyst with the state agriculture department. “With 35,000 farms across New York, biomass will add more variety to what farms can provide within the economy.”

Matt McCardle of Mesa Reductions in Auburn, N.Y., talked about the establishment of energy crops and adding a co-firing of biomass with coal that could generate $4 billion in savings over the current use of coal within the state’s economy.

With big cost savings and efficiency drivers behind the market for bioenergy, a growing concern is education of the next generation. An easy way to educate the younger population is through video and interactive smart boards.

A program featuring “Eddie the Enzyme,” developed by Mary Wrege of the Oneida County Cooperative Extension and a digital art class at Mohawk Valley Community College, was highlighted during the session. The program is part of an educational outreach that will be released later this year for public use.

Cornell University also has developed a program to train teachers on how to incorporate bioenergy into their lessons.

Hands-on laboratory projects have been developed through the Boyce Thompson Institute to help students learn about different plant characteristics and environmental effects on growing plants.

On the college level, two colleges discussed their courses on wood energy, dedicated energy crops and efficiencies of systems. SUNY Cobleskill’s John Kowal shared how the school’s educational programs were developed and how the college focused on the mathematical and scientific components of bioenergy.

Several agencies discussed the financial aspect of bioenergy within the marketplace moving forward. The main concerns for the bioenergy sector are budget cuts within governmental agencies like the USDA and stricter lending regulations for banks like Farm Credit East. Currently, in the eyes of financial institutions, bioenergy is still a risky investment, which hinders its development within the state. A USDA representative also expressed concerns for funding items like grants and guaranteed loans.

Several people from within the bioenergy industry discussed some projects that are already up and running. For example, Ithaca Biodiesel produces biofuel by recycling waste vegetable oil, and Erhart Propane offers a biofuel as an alternative for home heating.

Best practices for land use also were discussed, with experts noting that not all land is suitable for bioenergy production or dedicated energy crops. Land cooperatives, such as Danby Land Bank Cooperative in Danby, N.Y., prove that neighbors can work together to establish a bioenergy crop, and then work with bioenergy businesses to establish a base market within a region.

New York sits on the precipice of being a leader in new energy generation. But funding concerns are a current barrier when it comes to the progression of bioenergy statewide. There may not be an immediate future until the budgetary process is complete for the new Farm Bill. Funds that would be appropriated to the renewable energy sector of the USDA could be used to secure funding for several projects across the state, with the potential for additional grant funding as well.

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