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Chuck Bushman Farm flipped the switch earlier this year on 360 solar panels spread across its chicken barn in Castalia, Iowa.
Each panel is capable of generating 240 kilowatts of power for the supplier of organic milk and chickens. Some days, the solar panels are able to produce more power than what is needed, and the farm banks it for when the demand for electricity exceeds what the panels provide. The farm also has smart meters for the chicken coop and the rest of its buildings to monitor where electricity demand is highest.
The Department of Agriculture provided the funding for the project through its Rural Energy for America Program, whose mission is to help farmers and ranchers install renewable energy technologies and improve energy efficiency. Since its creation in 2002, the program has given rural landowners grants and loans for about 7,000 projects in all 50 states.
But USDA’s ability to carry out projects like the installation of solar panels was left to dangle last night with the expiration of the farm bill. Without a new bill that includes mandatory funding, conservationists warn, REAP and other programs will run out of fuel and USDA won’t meet rural landowners’ demand for renewable energy and energy efficiency.
“There’s a great degree of uncertainty around the program, and word is getting out that funds are getting cut, but USDA still had demand in excess of what the funding would supply,” Andy Olsen, a senior policy advocate at the Environmental Law and Policy Center, said late last week. “What we really need is for Congress to pass a new farm bill.”
After months of wrangling, mostly on the House side, the sun set on the farm bill at midnight with little fanfare, dwarfed by the larger government shutdown.
This is the second time in two years that Congress has allowed the farm bill to expire. Last year, U.S. farm policy lapsed for three months before Congress early this year tacked a nine-month farm bill extension into larger legislation to avoid the “fiscal cliff.”
Last year’s farm bill expiration was unprecedented in U.S. farm policy history, but this year’s had been long expected as the House has proposed cuts to the bill’s food stamps program. The farm bill’s expiration, though, has been downplayed by senior agriculture leaders in Congress because funding and authorities for major commodity subsidies and food stamps will not begin to expire until the beginning of next year (E&E Daily, Sept. 20).
But several of the bill’s smaller programs — such as those in the energy, conservation, organic and trade-promotion sections — are facing uncertainty at best and shutdowns at worst as of last night’s expiration. For energy programs, it’s a question of funding.
USDA operates seven energy programs, including one that provides loans to biorefinery producers to commercialize the next generations of fuels made from agricultural residues, perennial grasses, municipal solid waste and algae.
Most share a foxhole with REAP, which the department also uses to install pumps at gas stations capable of dispersing higher blends of ethanol.
While they retained their authorizations to operate when the farm bill expired at midnight, the programs are left with a dwindling supply of carryover dollars and no certainty that funding will be available in the future. Planning for future projects will likely become more complicated the longer the nation is without a new bill.
“This year in a couple of the programs we had some carryover mandatory dollars that we were able to utilize. But those opportunities are just about gone,” said Doug O’Brien, USDA’s acting undersecretary of rural development, in an interview last week. “We’re running out of that fuel that is moving these renewable energy programs.”
Rural advocates say the programs are already on life support because of both uncertainty over the farm bill and diminished dollars from congressional appropriators — discretionary funding for REAP this year totaled about $3 million, compared with the $25 million that the farm bill had authorized for each of the past four years.
A year ago, all of the farm bill’s energy programs were among 37 “stranded” programs that did not have an authorization beyond fiscal 2012. While they were reauthorized in the farm bill extension, none of the programs was provided with any mandatory funding.
The 2008 farm bill provided for a total of $255 million in mandatory funds for REAP and $320 million for the Agriculture Department to offer to biofuels producers as part of its Biorefinery Assistance Program.
In the absence of fresh cash, USDA is using carryover mandatory funding from the 2008 farm bill to enroll new participants in the programs, according to the agriculture official. Though the department expected to be able to exceed $35 million this year in grants through the Rural Energy for America Program, energy program accounts are just about tapped out.
O’Brien, whose office administers the programs, said the department is doing its best to work with the funding it’s been given.
“As folks who work in the department, we certainly are cognizant and concerned about what happens about policy in the future,” O’Brien said, “but at the end of the day, we have — and have had — great tools and we’ve just been focused on making sure we’re implementing those in the best way possible.”
The farm bill’s expiration won’t affect ongoing projects but instead hampers the department’s ability to sign up new farmers and ranchers.
“Without the new mandatory funding or appropriated dollars, which is highly unlikely in the short term, they’re essentially not going to run those programs. They’ll remain dormant to nonexistent,” said Lloyd Ritter, co-chairman of the Agriculture Energy Coalition who has worked on four farm bills.
The Obama administration and rural energy advocates are pushing for a farm bill conference committee to include the Senate version of the farm bill’s energy title, which would provide $900 million in mandatory funding for programs. REAP would receive about $48 million a year for the five-year bill’s duration, while the Biorefinery Assistance Program would receive $100 million this fiscal year and $58 million in fiscal 2014 and 2015.
The House version authorizes $1.4 billion in discretionary funding for energy programs but does not provide any mandatory funding.
Stakeholders are simply looking for a clear signal from Congress, Ritter said.
“It’s a very poor way of doing business in the federal government,” he said. “It’s just inappropriate to have programs exist and not exist and exist again. … I don’t think there’s any question it’s turning people away.”
Today, ELPC and 114 diverse groups from around the country sent a joint letter to Congress calling for renewal of the clean energy programs in the Farm Bill. Congress Agricultural Committees are working on their third attempt to renew the Farm Bill.
The text of the letter follows and may be downloaded here (PDF).
Senate Passes Farm Bill with Funded Energy Title, House Should Act Quickly to Get Bill to President
WASHINGTON, DC – With a bipartisan vote of 64-35, the U.S. Senate today passed a Farm Bill that includes $800 million in mandatory funding to grow rural America’s clean, reliable, domestic energy from wind, solar and geothermal to biodigesters and homegrown biofuels.
“This Farm Bill support clean energy in America. This Energy Title includes policies and funding to help agricultural producers of all sorts benefit from the growth of energy efficiency, wind, solar, geothermal and homegrown energy,” said Andy Olsen, Senior Policy Advocate with the Environmental Law & Policy Center.
The Energy Title passed by the Senate reduced mandatory funding by 23% from 2008 levels. Some rural energy programs were also eliminated. However, the funding for core programs such as the Rural Energy for America Program (REAP), the Biomass Crop Assistance Program (BCAP) and the Biorefinery Assistance Program will enable them to continue having a significant impact and benefit all agricultural sectors. Corn kernel ethanol is not included in the Energy Title.
“We urge the House to pass a bipartisan bill that preserves core Energy Title programs with mandatory funding for rural energy production, rural communities and rural jobs,” said Olsen.
The Environmental Law & Policy Center is the Midwest’s leading environmental legal advocacy and eco-business innovation organization.
ELPC recently joined the National Journal’s energy experts blog. In our first post, we take a look at what the Senate Agriculture Committee’s vote on the Farm Bill means for energy in rural America.
The Rural Energy for America Program (REAP), in particular, is a success story. It crosses agricultural sectors and provides value in every state. REAP’s competitive cost-share grants have helped support a broad range of 8,000 wind, solar, biogas and energy efficiency projects in rural communities. Since the 2008 Farm Bill, REAP grants have leveraged more than $1 billion in private investments, creating jobs during a historic economic crisis.
ELPC Commends Senate Agriculture Committee Support of Homegrown Energy
WASHINGTON – The Senate Agriculture Committee took an important step to support America’s farmers, renewable homegrown energy, rural development and national security by funding core energy programs through a Farm Bill amendment passed today.
“We commend Chairwoman Sen. Debbie Stabenow (D-Mich.) and the bipartisan group of 11 Senators who supported a bipartisan amendment supporting mandatory funding for programs that reduce dependence on polluting fossil fuels and help farmers cut energy costs and produce innovative renewable energy for America,” said Andy Olsen, Senior Policy Advocate with the Environmental Law & Policy Center.
“The state of the economy and our continuing energy challenges underscore the need for programs like the REAP (Rural Energy for America Program) and BCAP (Biomass Crop Assistance Program) which generate rural development and provide a safety net to farmers,” Olsen said.
“We thank the energy title supporters, Senators Kent Conrad (D-N.D.), Richard Lugar (R-Ind.), Tom Harkin (D-Iowa), Ben Nelson (D-Neb.), Michael Bennet (D-Colo.), Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio), Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.), John Thune (R-S.D.), Bob Casey (D-Pa.), John Hoeven (R-N.D.), and Charles Grassley (R-Iowa) for their support of an Energy Title amendment that provides mandatory funding of these core energy programs,” Olsen added.
The Environmental Law & Policy Center is the Midwest’s leading environmental legal advocacy and eco-business innovation organization.
Broad Support for Homegrown Clean Energy Shown in National Letter
110 Groups Join Call for Farm Bill Energy Renewal
WASHINGTON, D.C. – More than 100 diverse groups representing agriculture, energy, rural development and conservation called on Congress today to renew and fund core energy programs in the Farm Bill that push forward clean, homegrown energy. These programs advance energy efficiency, wind, solar, new energy crops, biomass energy and biobased products.
In a joint letter to the leaders of the House and Senate Agriculture Committees, signers noted, “These important and growing industries all benefit agriculture and forestry and are poised to make huge contributions to our economic, environmental and national security in the coming years, provided that we maintain stable policies that support clean energy.”
The energy programs are administered by the USDA and have made a number of accomplishments since the first Energy Title was created in the 2002 Farm Bill:
* The Rural Energy for America Program (REAP) has supported nearly 8,000 energy efficiency and renewable energy projects across the nation in varying agricultural sectors.
* The Biomass Crop Assistance Program has assisted farmers in developing homegrown energy crops that support farms and supply needed energy sources
* Biofuel advancements have accelerated through support from the Biorefinery Assistance Program.
“This letter arrives at the Agriculture Committees as rising gasoline prices remind America that our long-term energy challenges to our nation’s well-being require long-term commitment,” said Andy Olsen, ELPC Senior Policy Advocate. “Polls show the American people believe the Farm Bill should support clean energy and we know Congress can pass a Farm Bill that reflects the will of the American people.”
Midwest Energy News examines the advancements of biofuel development stimulated by BCAP, and the challenges facing the program. Capturing the real life experience of Steve Flick, the founder of the Show Me Energy Cooperative, the story illustrates the promises and the hurdles in developing clean, home grown fuels.
WASHINGTON, D.C. – Today the US Senate Committee on Agriculture heard testimony from a number of expert witnesses in support of clean energy programs in the Farm Bill. Witnesses and Senators alike praised the programs’ positive job creation, environmental protection and rural economic development benefits.
“We commend the experts and Senators who took a stand for homegrown clean energy today,” says Andy Olsen, Senior Policy Advocate at the Environmental Law & Policy Center (ELPC), a long-time champion of the Farm Bill’s clean energy programs. “Through these programs, America has made unprecedented gains in rural renewable energy and energy efficiency. Congress and the White House should continue this forward momentum.”
Steve Flick, one of the nation’s farm energy entrepreneurs, called for Congressional action to renew and fully fund core Farm Bill clean energy programs, such as the Rural Energy for America Program (REAP), Biomass Crop Assistance Program (BCAP) and the Biorefinery Assistance Program. “America’s farmers, ranchers and rural residents can have a bright future ahead of them with the right incentives,” Flick says. “Renewable energy is the future of rural America.”
Bennie Hutchins of Mississippi provided numerous examples of how REAP has helped agricultural producers and rural small businesses save money and produce income across the South. He shared ELPC analysis showing that REAP produces jobs at a greater than average rate.
“Farm Bill clean energy programs have been an unprecedented success. They have helped farmers reduce their energy bills and energy waste through energy efficiency and accelerated the introduction of modern clean energy technologies into the marketplace,” Olsen says. “Congress and the White House should continue this momentum by renewing and fully funding core Farm Bill clean energy programs.”