Editor’s note: This is the second of a two-part article featuring the Food and Agriculture Climate Alliance. The first part was published in the Dec. 31 issue of Agri-View. The alliance recently published 40 recommendations for mitigating the effects of climate change. This article features perspectives from the alliance’s founders about renewable energy and energy efficiency.
Farmers are on the frontlines of climate change and have an important role to play in developing solutions to mitigate its adverse effects. One way in which they have already made strides is in the production of corn for ethanol and soybeans for biodiesel. Biofuels help reduce the environmental footprint of the country’s transportation sector. The Food and Agriculture Climate Alliance has published recommendations to streamline the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s renewable-fuel approval process as well as to increase cost-share programs for on-farm renewable energy and energy-efficiency projects.
The American Farm Bureau Federation has stated its support of a comprehensive energy policy to help alleviate energy-related economic hardships. It supports creation of a more-diverse energy supply with renewable-energy sources such as ethanol, biodiesel and wind. It also supports tax provisions that incentivize production of biofuels and renewable energy.
Andrew Walmsley, director of congressional relations for the Farm Bureau, said a growing number of farmers have adopted on-farm renewable energy. He cited the 2017 Census of Agriculture, which showed that on-farm renewable-energy production systems increased by 132 percent from 2012 to 2017.
During the same timeframe the number of farming operations with solar panels increased by 148 percent, wind turbines by 56 percent and methane digesters by 28 percent.
“The price of solar has been declining and more farmers have been making use of barn rooftops to install solar,” Walmsley said.
Jenny Hopkinson, senior government-relations representative for the National Farmers Union, said farmers have opportunities to reduce their production costs by generating their own energy. But there are a lot of upfront costs, she said. That’s one of the reasons the Food and Agriculture Climate Alliance recommends changes to the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Rural Energy for America Program.
The program provides grants and loan guarantees for farmers and rural small businesses for energy-efficiency improvements and renewable-energy systems. It also provides grants for energy audits and feasibility studies. The program has mandatory funding of $50 million that doesn’t expire.
The Food and Agriculture Climate Alliance has recommended an increase in USDA cost-share for bundled renewable-energy and energy-efficiency projects.
“The cost-share amount would be left to the discretion of the administrator but must be no less than 30 percent,” the alliance stated. “Currently the grant program provides no more than 25 percent of the total project, and a loan guarantee in combination with a grant can cover 75 percent of the project.”
The alliance recommends increasing the cap for bundled projects to $650,000. Currently there’s a $500,000 maximum for renewable grants and a $250,000 maximum for efficiency grants.
The alliance also recommends establishing a pilot program that would enable states, nonprofits and other third-party entities to apply for grant funding for energy-efficiency and renewable-energy projects. The alliance recommends funding such a program at $25 million per year.
The types of renewable energy that have the greatest potential for helping to reduce greenhouse-gas emissions and for helping farmers reduce production costs vary.
“It depends on the type of farm and where it’s located,” said Callie Eideberg, director of government relations for the Environmental Defense Fund. “It also depends on the local infrastructure.”
Iowa, for example, already is a leader in wind energy, she said. According to “Wind Powers America, Annual Report 2019,” published by the American Wind Energy Association, Iowa now generates more electricity from wind turbines than any other technology. Wind energy’s share of electricity generation in 2019 in Iowa reached about 42 percent. Conversely wind energy’s share of electricity generation in Wisconsin was just 2.6 percent.
And California is a leader in the development of anaerobic digesters on dairy farms. Due to the adoption of digesters, the state’s dairy farms are on track to meeting a goal of a 40 percent reduction in methane emissions from dairy manure, according to Dairy Cares. California has 127 digester projects; 34 are already operating. Dairy Cares reported the digester-grant program provides 1 ton of greenhouse-gas reduction for every $9 invested by the state.
Digester projects are currently eligible for USDA’s Section 9003 program. The Food and Climate Alliance recommends expanding eligibility to also allow for non-digester manure-management projects.
“Given that the Section 9003 program is generally undersubscribed we suggest opening up eligibility to (alternative manure-management projects),” the alliance stated.
The alliance also recommends that the USDA conduct a study of on-farm energy initiatives. The study should identify barriers and opportunities to increase on-farm energy initiatives and scale renewable-fuels production, the alliance stated.
Farmers might start small and gradually add projects, Eideberg said. They might pursue energy-efficiency audits first and perhaps later add solar panels. Farmers need a menu of opportunities from which to choose.
The alliance’s recommendation for biofuels is to encourage market-based policy that also provides consistent eligibility criteria across all feedstocks. It recommends that the EPA, in consultation with the USDA, review and update the life-cycle analysis of greenhouse-gas emissions in the Renewable Fuel Standard. That would reflect the latest science such as efficiency gains in farming and production practices.
“We tried not to be too prescriptive because technologies change,” said Chuck Conner, president of the National Council of Farmer Cooperatives. “We want long-term policy.”
The alliance also recommends building upon the USDA’s Biofuels Infrastructure Partnership and the Higher Blends Infrastructure Incentive Program. That would provide grants for connecting agricultural renewable-energy sources to distribution. The alliance recommends that be codified into law with mandatory funding.
Such a program, the alliance stated, would provide consistent funding to help incentivize infrastructure expansion to support renewable energy with less carbon intensity.
Lynn Grooms writes about the diversity of agriculture, including the industry’s newest ideas, research and technologies as a staff reporter for Agri-View based in Wisconsin.