A recent Department of Agriculture announcement of support for new biofuels and renewable energy made it sound as though production of new cellulosic ethanol and biodiesel will be commonplace in three to four years. Will ag retailers, agronomists and crop consultants be ready to assist producers in production of new, non-food, non-feed biomass renewable energy crops?
The National 25x'25 alliance, with its goal of securing 25 percent of the nation's energy needs from renewable sources by the year 2025, commended Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack and the USDA for its steps "that will boost domestic production of renewable biofuels."
The announcement, as 25x'25 described, goes "a long way toward fulfilling the promise of the U.S. biofuels industry by encouraging the development of a national network of regional biomass research centers and biorefineries, building market demand by using USDA Rural Development funds to install 10,000 blender pumps over the next five years and giving farmers greater incentives to grow new bioenergy crops."
The secretary also was commended for reasserting his support of extending tax credits that will expand ethanol and biodiesel production. It appears that in one way or another government subsidies will continue to be available for biomass, renewable energy — probably away from food and feed crop ethanol and biodiesel production.
The final rule implementing the Biomass Crop Assistance Program (BCAP) was published the last week of October. It is the expansion of a pilot program to a national program for making payments to producers paying up to 75 percent of the cost to establish eligible biomass crops. The goal is to have biomass renewable energy crops established before cellulosic ethanol production and other biomass energy technology is widespread. Producers in approved project areas also can receive payments for up to five years for annual or non-woody perennial crops and up to 15 years for woody perennial crops. Then there is matching payments for the transportation cost of certain eligible materials that are sold to qualified biomass energy "conversion facilities."
Figuring out how to grow various new energy crops on marginal land or double cropping short-growing season energy plants is going to require major education plus some trial and error. Those who can assist growers are going to be in demand and have a new channel of income for years to come.
With government subsidy money involved, it would appear that consulting on how to maximize production the most economical way could result in earning an income similar to consulting for production of corn, soybeans, alfalfa, wheat or any other commodity crop. If the volume of renewable fuels that the 25x'25 alliance is projecting comes to fruition, then there are going to be a lot of non-food and non-feed crops being grown, especially in some specific areas of the country.
It is not too early for crop consultants and agronomists to investigate learning the ins and outs of renewable crops. Also, universities, Extension, USDA and the Agricultural Research Service should recognize the advantage of educating third-party proponents of energy cropping, not just the producers.
According to a USDA's Economic Research Service report, the "next generation biofuels are considered to be a decreasing cost industry. This means that the cost of producing ethanol will decline as output increases." It is still to be seen if renewable energy can be produced without government subsidies, but the commitment to renewable "green" energy will continue to receive subsidies in my way of thinking.