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Biomass energy production seen as agricultural renaissance


Last updated 4/26/2007 at Noon

Significant agricultural by-products exist to provide both energy to Californians and additional revenue to farmers.

Sharon Shoemaker, the executive director of the California Institute of Food and Agriculture Research at the University of California’s Davis campus, addressed the subject at an October conference in San Diego. “California Initiatives in Bioenergy” was presented during the sixth annual symposium of the Association of Advancement for Industrial Crops.

“We are indeed in a real renaissance,” Shoemaker said. “We have never been at the place we are now.”

Shoemaker acknowledged that challenges exist but noted that California has urban clusters and major agricultural production. She also noted that California has more than 350 “specialty crops”. “It fits very well with existing industries,” she said.

In August 2005 Governor Schwarzenegger convened a working group which meets once a month and whose charter is to develop a comprehensive state plan for energy. In April 2006 Schwarzenegger issued an executive order on biomass, including direction to create a bioenergy action plan. The executive order seeks to increase in-state production of bioenergy including ethanol and biodiesel fuel. “Corn is king, but California’s really a cellulosic state,” Shoemaker said of the biodiesel alternative to ethanol.

The California Energy Commission has a July 2007 deadline for an alternative fuels plan.

California produces a total biomass of more than 80 tons per year. More than 20 tons apiece are derived from agriculture, forestry, and urban sources such as yard waste. That would equate to a cumulative impact of 1.5 billion tons of biomass through 2050 if the biomass were converted into energy. That also equates to 16,000 additional jobs.

The program has five components: resource access including market and supply, market expansion and access to technology development, research and development along with demonstrations, education and training along with outreach, and policy and regulatory incentives.

“The coordination among state agencies is occurring. There is a plan in California,” Shoemaker said. “Incentives are being put in place.”

Shoemaker emphasized that different plans would be necessary for different regions.

Shoemaker expects initial difficulties. “When a new industry’s getting off the block, it’s never going to be perfect the first time,” she said.

She also said that supply and demand issues might create alternatives. “There’s always competition for it. There may be better things,” she said.

If biomass energy projects become successful, however, farmers will likely benefit in ways besides lower fuel prices. “I do believe we are in a paradigm shift with agriculture being at that core,” Shoemaker said.


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