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Clean energy development is good business for farmers

by Howard A. Learner
for CropChoice

(May 25, 2002 -- CropChoice guest commentary) -- Our nation needs a smart clean energy development strategy that can provide new renewable energy cash crops for farmers, reduce pollution, improve reliability by diversifying the power supply, and create new "green" manufacturing and installation jobs. Seizing these sustainable development opportunities makes both good environmental and economic sense.

Modern life runs on electricity. From refrigerators to computers, we depend on reliable electricity. However, at the dawn of the 21st Century when rapid technological progress is transforming society, much of the nation is still overdependent on polluting and aging coal and nuclear plants built in the 1950’s through 1970’s.

Technological advances are creating a "new economy" in which economic growth provides new jobs and creates greater wealth. These advances should also result in modern processes that produce less waste and pollution. True enough in many industrial sectors, but not for electricity services. The power sector can and should also make technological advances to give the public what it wants: clean, reliable and efficient energy at a fair price. We can keep the lights on without polluting our air and water and leaving radioactive nuclear waste for future generations to clean up. The farming community can lead the way.

Clean energy technologies are the modern resources for the 21st Century energy future. Farmers can be leaders in developing new wind power, biomass energy, and energy efficiency resources. Clean energy cash crops can provide a new income stream to help support small and medium-sized family farmers and ranchers, enhance rural economic development and create jobs, and improve environmental quality for everyone by avoiding pollution. This is sustainable development in action.

The new clean energy development provisions in the 2002 Farm Bill recognize and provide financial support to help realize these opportunities in new ways by including a new Energy Title and other important new clean energy development provisions in the Conservation and Rural Development Titles. This legislative support for renewable energy development and energy efficiency improvements is a win-win-win for farmers, rural economic development and the environment.

This innovative legislation creates significant new incentives for rural wind power and biomass energy development, and for energy efficiency improvements in the agricultural sector. It transforms the policy recommendations of the Environmental Law and Policy Center’s Repowering the Midwest – The Clean Energy Development Plan for the Heartland into action in rural communities.

There is $405 million of mandatory appropriations over six years in the new Energy Title. Half of that amount will fund new clean energy programs, including: direct financial assistance to farmers, ranchers, and rural small businesses for wind power and other renewable energy system purchases and for energy efficiency improvements ($115 million); appropriations for the Biomass Research and Development Act ($75 million); a new Federal biobased products purchasing preference program ($6 million); and a biodiesel fuel education program ($5 million). The other half will fund the existing Commodity Credit Corporation ("CCC") subsidy program to increase production of ethanol and biodiesel. There are additional clean energy programs in the Energy Title that are authorized, without mandatory appropriations.

In addition, amendments to the Rural Development Title make wind power, other renewable energy sources, and energy efficiency eligible for hundreds of millions of dollars of more funding. For example, farm- and ranch-based renewable energy projects are now eligible under the Value-Added Agricultural Product Market Development Grants program, which has received mandatory appropriations of $240 million over six years. Renewable energy projects also are eligible for rural development loans, and they have been identified as a priority in the Farm Bill Conference Committee Managers’ Statement.

The Conservation Title was also amended to allow biomass harvesting and wind turbine installations on Conservation Reserve Program land. The Research Title also has provisions calling for new farm and ranch energy efficiency research.

These new clean energy programs are now embedded in the overall infrastructure of the Farm Bill. They are a terrific victory for both clean energy and sustainable agriculture advocates.

The cost of clean renewable energy is plummeting as wind, biomass and solar power technologies have improved dramatically. Windpower is the world’s fastest growing energy source, and today’s large new wind turbines are far more efficient than even mid-1990’s equipment. The tremendous design improvements have led to a huge jump in the competitiveness of windpower in regional electricity markets.

Windpower is truly a new cash crop for farmers with typical annual lease payments of $2,000 - $3,000 per wind turbine. Moreover, there are increasing opportunities – spurred by both private sector initiatives and the new clean energy development provisions in the 2002 Farm Bill – for farmers to gain income as windpower owners, both for on-farm use and through equity participation in larger wind farms and clean power cooperatives.

Midwestern farmlands are ideal for growing the foods that energize our bodies. If the right public policies are adopted, farmers can also be encouraged to grow high-yield biomass energy crops that can be mixed with coal to generate electricity. For the Midwest, in particular, biomass energy can supply a significant part of the region’s energy supply by 2020. That will create new markets for crops, while reducing pollution and deterring soil erosion.

Advanced technologies such as fuel cells and cogeneration systems, which generate electricity and heat simultaneously, can also diversify our energy supply. In many regions, solar panels can also play a niche role on sunny summer days when peak electricity demand is highest and in hard-to-reach remote rural areas where solar photovoltaics can avoid around costly transmission line extensions, as well as for on-farm uses.

Energy efficiency is the best, fastest and cheapest solution to our nation’s power reliability problems. Best – because it avoids pollution and saves businesses’ and residents’ money. Fastest – because energy efficiency measures can be typically implemented within a year, versus the several years or more to site and build a new central power plant. Cheapest – because robust energy efficiency improvements can be implemented for less than 2.5 cents per kilowatt-hour, as shown by Repowering the Midwest and the U.S. Department of Energy’s "Five National Labs" study.

Implementing modern energy efficiency technologies and improvements can significantly reduce on-farm energy use. Energy audits can identify opportunities to avoid waste and achieve energy savings from more efficient motors, water pumps, and lighting systems. For example, energy audits of dairy farms often identify energy efficiency savings of 30% to 50%. Inefficient energy use wastes money on farms and causes unnecessary pollution. That can be changed by deploying new, energy efficient motors on almost all types of farms, modern efficient cooling technologies in dairy operations, and better lighting technologies in all circumstances.

Our nation’s clean energy resources are ready to be developed. As engineering improvements continue, many modern clean energy technologies await sensible policy shifts to reverse the incentives that prop up the polluting technologies of the past. The challenge is no longer that of engineering know-how, but, instead, one of political will. It is time to leave the 1950s behind and realize the promises of homegrown clean energy on both farms and in urban centers to provide a healthier environment and a truly new clean energy development future.

Howard Learner is the Executive Director of the Environmental Law and Policy Center, which released Repowering the Midwest – The Clean Power Development Plan for the Heartland, http://www.repowermidewest.org or http://www.elpc.org. He can be reached by email at HLearner@elpc.org.