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Archive for September, 2011

Tony Nekut

It is with great sadness that we let you know that Tony Nekut, who was on the steering committees of Community Biomass Energy and the Danby Land Bank Cooperative and a good friend, died, after decades of struggling with depression, on Sunday, Sept 18.  Tony worked as an engineer at Vector Magnetics on Cherry Street in Ithaca, NY.   He has long been a proponent of biomass thermal combustion in the community and was involved in multiple biomass projects. among them installing one of the first biomass boilers at the Cayuga Nature Center and helping with the one at the Danby Highway Department.  His continuing leadership in the grass energy sector was exemplified in spearheading development of a new prototype grass densification, transportation and feeding system with technical assistance from the New York Biomass Energy Alliance, the New York Farm Viability Institute and SUNY Cobleskill, a project that was in mid-stream at the time of his passing.
Tony will be sincerely missed by all of his friends and colleagues in the alternative energy sector across the Northeast.
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I had a meeting with the chair of the Tompkins County Legislature and the head of the County economic development agency. I pointed out that space heating using locally produced biomass fuel was economically attractive and offered many other benefits. I suggested that local government could play a key role in building a robust local supply chain by converting some of their facilities to biomass heating. The payback time for well-chosen projects could be less than five years and capital costs could be amortized against fuel bill savings. Establishing a small but reliable market for locally produced biomass fuel will convince potential supply chain stakeholders that it is time to get engaged.

Planning is underway to organize a meeting for current and potential future biomass fuel consumers and supply chain stakeholders.  The purpose of the first meeting is to bring together current commercial and institutional users of biomass thermal energy in the Ithaca area (along with a few consulting experts in the field) with potential future users.  The goal will be to inform the potential users about the biomass energy option for their facilities.

Note from moderator: This has happened already in Danby, a village in the south part of Tompkins County, where a biomass boiler is in the process of being purchased for the Highway Department with the help of a NYSERDA grant.

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A perennial discussion point among the individuals and small businesses that are working on agricultural biomass projects is whether the New York Biomass Energy Alliance, the Northeast Biomass Thermal Energy Working Group, and the Biomass Thermal Energy Council are sufficiently focused on their specific interests to be worth joining. Aren’t those groups mostly dominated by wood energy interests who aren’t interested in grass as an energy source?
As someone actively involved with two of the three coalitions mentioned above, I can report that the question sometimes arises within those groups about how much time and energy they should spend on grass issues, given the very limited participation they get from folks in the grass energy sector. You can’t imagine how often we hear, when we suggest membership to folks from the grass energy sector, “Yeah, I’ve been meaning to join.”
The Biomass Energy Alliance came into being because its original members realized that if they just sat around talking about what politicians, government officials, and members of the public “need to understand” nothing was ever going to change. Someone has to make the case, and it has to be the right case for the right audience. And you have to get in the door to make the case in the first place.
The other thing we recognized was we were a splintered group of very small players, and that if we didn’t try to bring all the folks working on biomass energy under one roof, the very well-organized and well-funded nay sayers were very likely to shut us down, either by declaring our conversion processes insufficiently clean and green, or by continuing to put strictures into energy legislation that would effectively cut off our supplies of feedstock. We needed to be a “big tent” organization.
Including agricultural biomass interests in the coalition is obvious to us, since many of the companies working in this sector are working with agricultural materials, and those that work exclusively with forest products all recognize that wood supplies are not unlimited. Without the current supply of forest wood chips, we’d have next to no industry at all today. However, if we don’t figure out how to make purpose-grown biomass a reality, biomass energy won’t reach even a quarter of its long-term potential.
Since its inception, the Alliance has made a considerable effort to keep grass biomass in the discussion. Noting that the regular exchanges of e-mails after each Big Flats meeting weren’t producing the hoped-for systematic exchange of information, we started this blog last fall. We’ve been delighted to see the enthusiasm with which articulate spokespersons for different grass energy groups have taken up the challenging of providing useful content. As members of the planning committee for the last “Heat the Northeast” conference, Rick Handley and I made sure that there was programming on grass bioenergy, providing the names and contact information for most of the presenters to conference organizers.
The July 20 meeting in Ithaca has stimulated an excellent discussion of what the grass biomass sector needs in the research area, in public recognition, and in policy support. However, most of the suggestions looked more like goals than like strategies for getting from here to there. “Meet with the Governor” may sound like a strategy, but I can assure you, as one who has struggled to get meetings with people two or three levels below the Governor, meetings themselves are goals of a sort. They are also a waste of time for all concerned if you can’t leave behind something that’s very easy for the person you’re meeting with to act on. “Here’s my problem” doesn’t get you anywhere. A good meeting is the result of a great deal of attention to process, influence, and aligning your objectives with those of people who are more influential than you are.
Suggestions about the next place that public agencies should put money are also goals rather than strategies. Folks may imagine that funding organizations start out with a pile of uncommitted funds, just looking around for good ideas. Not so. Every petition for funds is a request that money be taken away from something that almost always has both a powerful outside constituency and probably supporters within the funding agency as well. If it didn’t have both, it would have lost its funding a long time ago. Money is directed to projects that officials believe to be worthwhile, and it’s hard for them to cut off people who have been doing good and conscientious work in the past. If you want public funds, you need to become an expert in where those funds come from, what the sidebars are for their expenditure, and who’s likely to scream when you propose reallocations. Or support an organization that can, over time, develop that expertise on your behalf.
During its monthly teleconference in August, the NYBEA Board discussed the ideas that came forward from the polling of people involved in the July 20 meeting. There was a clear consensus among those on the call that it will benefit all players to have agricultural biomass interests involved in what we are trying to do. The Board agreed that we should keep looking for ways to utilize our communication infrastructure to get the word out on what’s happing with grasses and other cropped biomass. The Northeast Biomass Heating Expo 2012 (“Heating the Northeast” conference renamed) will take place in Saratoga this year, and it can be another way to bring folks together to talk about grass biomass. The Alliance hopes to be involved in a prospective “Biomass Heating Roadmap” project sponsored by NYSERDA, and we can make sure that biomass is well-represented there as well.
The only suggestion in our discussion that did not receive strong support was the idea of the Alliance setting up special meetings in Albany exclusively focused exclusively on grass biomass. Board members who were “there at the beginning” recalled how trivial we appeared to the powers that be when we were all trying to “go it alone”. Better to include references to and suggestions in support different biomass energy segments within a broader message than to try to catch legislators’ separately for each industry segment’s individual concerns. The Board agreed that we need to keep agricultural biomass well-represented in our Board, and in meetings of all sorts, to maintain the balance that we seek to maintain among feedstocks and technologies.
So, yes, the Alliance believes it needs the active and committed support of folks from the grass energy sector to be the effective and broadly representative organization that it set out to become in April, 2009. We will keep trying to demonstrate to folks from that community that we can advance their cause, and to persuade them that they need us, and NEBTWG, and BTEC to do the things that can only be accomplished when people with overlapping (not identical!) interests work together.

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