Advocates say farm programs help drive renewable energy growth
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WASHINGTON, May 14, 2014 - The 2012 Census of Agriculture shows the number of U.S. farms producing renewable energy has more than doubled since the last census in 2007. But farm energy advocates say the findings mark just the beginning of a growing surge in agricultural production of renewable energy and cite energy programs in the new farm bill as a potentially strong driver.
The latest figures released by USDA show that nearly 57,300 farms were producing some form of renewable energy in 2012, up from 23,450 farms five years earlier.
The census shows solar panels were the prominent form of renewable energy on farms, having been installed on a little more than 60 percent of the operations with renewable energy surveyed. That's four times the number of geothermal systems, which is the next highest technology that's been implemented by farmers. Wind turbines are third on the list and, like geothermal systems, are in use on just more than 9,000 farming and ranching operations. An additional 10,000 farms leased wind rights on their properties - a statistical category that's new with the latest census.
The census found biodiesel was produced on nearly 4,100 farms and ethanol on just under 2,400 operations. Small hydro systems were in use on about 1,300 farms. Nearly 540 methane digesters aimed at converting manure into biogas and electricity were counted in the 2012 survey, with nearly 240 of those, according to USDA's AgStar program, in use on U.S. livestock operations.
Efforts to track down renewable energy numbers are relatively new in the ag census, pushed by the recent surge in the role of renewables in meeting U.S. energy needs.
Andy Olsen, a senior policy advocate with the Environmental Law and Policy Center (ELPC) and a principal at FarmEnergy.org, says that growth has the potential to explode, though more government support is needed.
Olsen says the ELPC was pleased with the 2014 Farm Bill's inclusion of a number of his group's recommendations, including sustaining the Rural Energy for America Program (REAP) in the measure's Energy Title to support a wide range of energy efficiency and renewable energy technologies. They include wind, solar, biogas, biomass, small hydroelectric, geothermal and hydroelectric technologies. But Olsen also said funding remains a concern.
Olsen's group has launched an awareness campaign to stimulate farmers and rural businesses to apply for REAP funding. REAP provides grants and loan guarantees to farmer, ranchers and rural small businesses for a wide range of energy efficiency and renewable energy technologies.
Last week's funding announcement is the first of two rounds scheduled for this year. The currently available funds are from the 2014 congressional appropriation of $3.5 million and an additional $24.7 million carried over from previous years for a total of $28.2 million. Later this year, USDA will release the final REAP rule and announce another $50 million in funding mandated by the new farm bill. USDA officials say the ultimate share of the funding between grants and loan guarantees will be determined by public demand. Applications for projects seeking grants and projects seeking grants and loan guarantees combined should be submitted by July 7; those seeking loan guarantees alone should be in by July 31.
Olsen said the first step for potential applicants with project plans in hand is to contact the USDA Rural Development state energy coordinator.
“It is important to work with these staff, who can help applicants through the application process,” he said, adding that “it is important to connect with your energy coordinator early in the process -and well in advance of deadlines - as they become very busy.”
Even with the availability of funding, Olsen says he is unhappy with what he calls “a number of regrettable and unneeded preferences for loan guarantees over grants that complicate the program, such as longer timelines and preferred treatment of applications.
“USDA's continuing preference for loan guarantees is quite odd, given the well-established disinterest from the public in loan guarantees,” he added. “Loan guarantees primarily help bankers and actually cost money to the project owner while not lowering financing costs. Hopefully, the agency will drop this preference and focus on the program mission.”
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