Farm Bill Crucial for U.S. Renewable Policy

This week the Senate Agriculture Committee is expected to take up the 2007 Farm Bill, giving the U.S. an excellent opportunity to advance clean energy production in these crucial next five years. The prospects are at hand for significant renewable energy progress if the U.S. Congress can rise to the occasion by committing sufficient funding to make them effective.

When federal funding is being divided up among priorities it often seems that more primitive rules, such as “big dog eats first,” apply more than sound policy. And the Big Dogs have not left much for energy, certainly not non-ethanol energy. The compromise has left the Energy Title with anemic funding, only $1.3 billion over five years. But with the right programs in place and greater funding this Farm Bill could yet provide a watershed difference.

Senate Agriculture Committee Chairman Tom Harkin’s (D-IA) draft Farm Bill contains innovative Energy Title programs, several of which proposals seem to have survived the negotiations. His office consulted with a wide variety of farm and environmental groups, energy and agriculture experts and other Senators.

The result is a well-balanced and coordinated set of policies to finally move energy crops forward beyond the “chicken and the egg” dilemma, as well as development programs for rural renewables and energy efficiency.

Energy Crop Progress at Last?
Great expectations have been placed on energy crops in many projections for significant renewable energy growth. Developing a reliable energy source from energy crops is key to reaching the ambitious clean energy goals shared by a broad majority of Americans.

We can’t just expect to “turn the switch” on for energy crops once cellulosic ethanol technology is viable. Energy crops can advance toward market reality with innovative efforts all along the fuel supply and use chain; growing, harvesting, delivery and incentivizing other uses. The Farm Bill can be an effective vehicle for sustainable and commercially viable energy crops.

The energy crop transition programs in the Harkin draft would overcome major logistical barriers and would directly aid growers. One program would provide cost-sharing to early farmers who convert fields to energy crops. These incentives would be targeted to supply regions for new or existing biopower or biofuel plants. Grants to aid infrastructure improvements from field to biorefineries through development and demonstration of harvesting and storage systems will help fuel needed innovations.

The Rural Repowering proposal calls for creating short-term markets for energy crops and other biomass by repowering fossil fuel boilers to biomass for heat and/or power, large and small. Community-scale initiatives can succeed where larger, more rushed energy crop scale-up efforts have faltered.

Rural Repowering, with sufficient funding, can spark regional efforts, employing region-specific biomass sources and expertise. This concept seems to have gotten a boost in negotiations with inclusion in the biorefinery loan guarantee programs.

Rural Energy for America Program
Under the Harkin plan, as in the House Farm Bill, the successful Section 9006 program becomes the “Rural Energy for America Program” or REAP. This program has led to over 1,100 project awards for a wide variety of clean energy options—demonstrating farm energy is not just ethanol anymore but includes wind and solar, energy efficiency, biogas, biopower, and geothermal.

The Harkin proposals simplify incentives for smaller projects with block grant rebate programs and eligibility for grants and loans expanded to schools and hospitals. Including feasibility studies will help get more projects from under-served areas into the pipeline.

But the REAP funding levels in the compromise are very reduced from the initial Harkin-Lugar Bill that called for a ramp-up to $250 million per year in 2012, for a total five year investment of $710 million. Word from negotiations is that the five-year total will reach just $270 million, or $54 million per year. Given that applications area already running well over $60 million, more funding would result in more clean energy capacity.

The Missing Piece: Energy Education & Technical Assistance
Politicians like big ideas, but some times little ones can provide a lot of bang for the buck. Energy education and technical assistance would provide a lot of information, energy audits and practical energy investment advice to help farmers, ranchers and others. Energy investment decisions are often complicated and benefit from technical advice, which can also help weed out bad ideas.

Unfortunately, such a sensible idea to increase energy knowledge has yet to garner even modest funding support. This program might ultimately be added to the REAP program, hopefully with added funding to reach rural America effectively. This is one change that may yet happen before the Ag Committee takes its final vote.

13 of the 21 members of the Senate Agriculture Committee have signed on as sponsors of the 25x`25 resolution (to provide 25% of our energy from renewables by 2025). But the 25x`25 Steering Committee recommendations call for much higher Farm Bill energy investments—$1.25 billion for Section 9006, alone.

Anemic funding levels will not soon get us to the 25x`25 goal. Reaching the 25x`25 goal requires leadership from Congress now to improve upon the compromise.

The next 8 years, addressed by this Farm Bill, are crucial to effective global warming action to stave off a crisis. Fortuitously enough, the Farm Bill can give us five crucial years of renewable energy growth. A recent report by the Environmental Law & Policy Center showed that a robust Farm Bill energy title can provide significant global warming reductions.

If you would like to see plans such as these and other take hold, now would be an opportune time to contact your local Senator or Agriculture Committee member to let them know you care. We need such policies in the face of the historic challenges our nation faces for energy security, global warming, trade treaties and rural economic growth.

Andy Olsen is a Senior Policy Advocate responsible for field organizing and constituency building for the Environmental Law & Policy Center’s Farm Bill – Clean Energy Development program. Olsen managed Wisconsin Governor Tommy Thompson’s Alternative Fuels Task Force where he authored the proposal for the first manufactured E85 cars. He has led several collaborative biomass energy efforts in Wisconsin. He has served as a Dane County Supervisor, Dane County Lakes & Watershed Commission member, and as the Board President of RENEW Wisconsin. M.S., Energy Analysis & Policy.

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