Perdue Confirmation Hearing Underscores Role of Ag in the 21st Century

Today a confirmation hearing for President Trump’s nominee for agriculture secretary, former Georgia Gov. Sonny Perdue, is finally taking place. Assuming he is eventually confirmed by the Senate, he will take the helm of a federal agency whose constituencies and mission are far broader than what most Americans assume.

Twenty-first century agriculture is much different than 20th century agriculture when many of the current federal policies, programs and other initiatives were enacted. Today the U.S. agriculture sector produces much more than the food, feed and fiber needed to sustain our economy and quality of life. It also provides clean, renewable energy; biodiversity that enhances habitats; stewardship of natural, sustainable resources; and in most cases, a line of defense in efforts to reduce global emissions that contribute to a changing climate. In providing safe, abundant and affordable products, farmers, ranchers and foresters continue to serve an essential role in maintaining a strong economy, especially in rural areas.

USDA assumes the wide and complex responsibility of enabling agricultural and forestry producers to viably generate from the land these important solutions to our society’s needs.

Once in office, Perdue will manage a department with diverse mandates, from managing federal lands through the U.S. Forest Service to managing the nation’s food stamp program. For the energy sector, he will oversee USDA’s Rural Development Office and renewable energy programs. Funding for these programs is not particularly large, relative to other federal budget outlays. But these programs offer opportunities for investment in renewable energy and innovative energy projects across rural America.

Conservation efforts by farmers, ranchers and forest owners today means a thriving and sustainable agriculture for our future. Seventy percent of the nation’s land is privately owned and the conservation of private lands not only results in healthy soil, water, air, plants, animals and ecosystems, it also provides productive and sustainable working lands.

The Conservation Reserve Program (CRP) pays a yearly rental payment in exchange for farmers removing environmentally sensitive land from agricultural production and planting species that will improve environmental quality (an enhanced offshoot of CRP focuses on conservation issues identified by both government and non-governmental organizations). The Emergency Conservation Program (ECP) provides funding and technical assistance for farmers and ranchers to restore farmland damaged by natural disasters and for emergency water conservation measures in severe droughts, while an Emergency Forest Restoration Program offers similar assistance to forestland owns. The Farmable Wetlands Program (FWP) also offers land owners annual rental payment to restore wetlands and wetland buffer zones that are farmed, while the Grassland Reserve Program (GRP) pays farmers a rental payment to prevent grazing and pasture land from being converted into cropland or used for urban development. The Source Water Protection Program (SWPP) is designed to protect surface and ground water used as drinking water by rural residents.

On the energy front, USDA administers the Rural Energy for America Program (REAP), which provides financial assistance in the form of grants and loan guarantees to agricultural producers and small business for purchasing and installing renewable energy systems and making energy efficiency improvements in rural locations. The Business and Industry (B&I) Guaranteed Loan Program is designed to assist credit-worthy rural businesses in obtaining needed credit for most any legal business purpose, including energy projects. The Rural Utility Services (RUS) Rural Energy Savings Program (RESP) provides loans to entities that agree to make affordable loans to help consumers implement cost-effective, energy efficiency measures. Similar to the RESP program, the RUS Energy Efficiency and Conservation Loan Program (EECLP) allows rural electric cooperatives and utilities to borrow money and re-lend it to help homeowners or businesses make energy efficiency improvements. And there is the so-called “9003” programs, which provides guaranteed loans for the development and construction of commercial-scale facilities or the retrofitting of existing facilities for the development of advanced biofuels, renewable chemicals and biobased products.

The intent of these programs, many of which pre-date the Obama administration, is to save and create jobs in rural America. Given the strong support President Trump received in rural America, we would expect – and call on incoming Secretary Perdue to ensure – that these programs to remain in place and assist investment interests in overcoming market barriers to rural energy development. We believe these and other programs the new agriculture secretary will oversee should continue to be key policy tools for rural development, generating job creation and economic development.

In providing safe, abundant and affordable products, America’s farmers, ranchers and foresters continue to serve an essential role in maintaining a strong economy, especially in rural areas. The 25x’25 Alliance extends our best wishes of success to the presumed agriculture secretary and we pledge our assistance in keeping rural America productive and the major economic engine it can – and should – be.

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White House Budget Proposal Endangers Clean Energy Efforts and Rural America

President Trump this week unveiled his first budget plan, a $1.1-trillion, 62-page “blueprint” that calls for massive cuts to programs important to rural America and renewable energy interests.

The new budget proposal is more a statement of Trump’s priorities than a detailed spending plan, emphasizing the need for a military buildup at the expense of domestic spending. A more detailed, line-item budget proposal for fiscal year 2018, which begins Oct. 1, is expected to be sent to Congress by the White House later this spring and offer more specific cuts. The outline published Thursday – “America First: A Budget Blueprint to Make America Great Again” – would cut or scrap funding for virtually anything that does not “advance the safety and security of the American people.”

But there is time to remind the president that security can also come from a growing economy, which can be sustained through policies and programs targeted by his proposal that, in fact, promote the development of clean energy and the jobs and increased incomes that come with it. Congress now must rescue the worthy programs at risk in this initial blueprint.

The president’s “safety and security” message at the heart of his budget plan is demonstrated by his call to increase military spending by $54 billion and to build a wall along the border with Mexico – a structure that has been estimated to cost anywhere from $12 billion to $25 billion, depending upon the source being quoted.

Unfortunately, DOE spending under the budget plan issued Thursday would be cut by $1.7 billion, or 5.6 percent. The proposal would eliminate the Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy (ARPA-E), despite vast success the program has had in driving new energy technologies that would otherwise have been too risky for the private sector to undertake. Since 2009, ARPA-E has awarded more than $1.5 billion for more than 500 projects, which, in turn, have attracted $1.8 billion in funding from the private sector.

The Trump budget plan would also slash some $900 million – or about 20 percent – from DOE’s Office of Science. While no specifics have been offered, the plan says the cuts will ensure the department “continues to invest in the highest priority basic science and energy research and development as well as operation and maintenance of existing scientific facilities for the community.”

The DOE’s Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy is among a number of energy research offices expected to be cut to achieve what the plan calls a focus “on limited, early-stage applied energy research and development activities where the federal role is stronger.”

USDA is facing a $4.7-billion cut – or 21 percent – down to $17.9 billion. Longstanding farm energy initiatives like the Rural Energy for America Program (REAP), the Biorefinery Assistance Program and the Biomass Crop Assistance Program (BCAP), are not specifically mentioned in the budget plan, but, given the massive scale of the overall department spending reduction, can be expected to face huge cuts when a detailed proposal is issued in the next couple of months.

Facing even larger cuts proportionately under the Trump proposal is EPA, where funding would be slashed by 31 percent, down to $5.65 billion, and agency staff would be cut by more than 3,000 employees, a drop of more than 20 percent.

EPA’s Office of Research and Development would see its funding drop roughly by more than half in the next fiscal year, from $512 million to $250 million. A big focus of that cutback will be the agency’s clean energy programs, including renewable energy programs like AgStar, which promotes the use of biogas recovery systems to reduce methane emissions from livestock waste; and energy efficiency initiatives like Energy Star, a joint program of EPA and DOE that promotes efficient choices that can save money on energy bills, with similar savings of greenhouse gas emissions.

While the White House budget proposal paints a rather bleak picture for those who have championed federal policies that promote a cleaner, renewable energy future and the economic and security benefits that come with them, some encouragement must be taken from the reaction to the budget plan from key congressional leaders, who say much of what is offered in the “blueprint” is “dead on arrival.”

It is the hope and belief of 25x’25 that by working with clean energy advocates in Congress, governors who recognize the value of clean energy to their states, and corporations that recognize the boost renewable energy gives their bottom lines, the president will come to see that to achieve the economic and environmental goals he has espoused (most recently in last week’s speech to a joint session of Congress), the policies and federal investment that support the clean energy sector must be maintained or strengthened.

We would also point out – again – that rural America is a primary beneficiary of these policies and the jobs and economic boost they promote. Rural Americans will hold the president to promises he made to improve their way of life after they helped get him elected to the White House.

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U.S. Military Continues Push for Renewables

An extensive analysis published earlier this month by Reuters news service offers in full detail the reasons why clean energy alternatives continue to be pursued by what can best be described as the largest special interest in this country – the Department of Defense.

The military’s ongoing, aggressive support for cleaner alternatives in powering vehicles, planes, ships, installations and operations offers welcome and reliable reassurances to renewable energy stakeholders and advocates in this time of energy policy uncertainty at the national level.

In compiling its story, Reuters was told by senior military officials that the nation’s armed forces remain committed to an effort to transition high fuel-demand operations to renewable power, citing logistical reasons that have remained unchanged since the move to shift power sources began more than a decade ago.

The U.S. armed forces are the nation’s single largest consumer of energy. Twenty percent of the military’s energy consumption occurs at its installations and the Defense Department pays around $4 billion annually to provide power to its 300,000 plus facilities in the United States and around the world.

The U.S. military uses more oil than any other organization in the world, powering everything from tanks to fighter jets to Humvees to generators. The military’s dependence on oil and its variability, despite increases in domestic production, continues to be identified as a national security threat.

Defense officials and military officers say there is no real control over this single source of energy, and U.S. reliance on oil empowers countries and regimes hostile to the United States. Furthermore, because oil is traded globally, the risk posed by vulnerable trade routes – and the cost of protecting those routes – is a constant threat to U.S. security. And, as was learned during the military’s engagements in Afghanistan earlier in the last decade, delivering that oil on the battlefield is a dangerous job – one in every 24 fuel convoys there ended with a casualty.

Given those concerns, the pursuit of clean energy alternatives is an operational imperative. The deployable and decentralized energy production possibilities offered by renewable sources, and by enabling technologies like microgrids, have tremendous implications for the safety, security and effectiveness of the military. Military leaders point out that renewable energy and efficiency improvements can increase warfighter capability, enhance the energy security of its installations, and cut operational and military base energy costs.

The Pentagon’s deployment of biofuel-blended aviation and shipping fuels, or gas-electric hybrid battleships stand to reduce petroleum consumption by the world’s largest single oil buyer.

The Reuters story notes a Defense Department report showing the military nearly doubled renewable power generation between 2011 and 2015, to 10,534 billion British thermal units, or enough to power about 286,000 average U.S. homes. The number of military renewable energy projects nearly tripled to 1,390 between 2011 and 2015.

That kind of growth has the benefit of boosting the private sector economy, generating contracts with solar, wind, biofuel, energy storage and other clean energy providers, which, in turn, create tens of thousands of jobs.

Military officials also are aware that bases independently powered by renewables don’t fall vulnerable when natural disasters, physical attacks or cyber attacks take down the public grid.

The military appears set to continue demonstrating innovation and leadership by building on a commitment made by the Pentagon nearly a decade ago to meet 25 percent of its facility energy needs with renewable resources by 2025. It helps that Defense Secretary Jim Mattis is a longtime proponent of reducing the military’s dependence on petroleum, citing his service as Commander of the Marine Corps Combat Development Command in Afghanistan and Iraq in the early 2000s. In 2003, he called on the Navy to find ways to release troops from the “tether of fuel.”

What the U.S. military has accomplished over the years through the pursuit of its own 25x’25 goal serves as demonstrable proof to our nation’s policy makers of the need for domestically produced, clean energy sources. By supporting new fuels, low- and no-carbon power sources, and stronger efficiency standards, the nation’s military shows the value of clean energy to all Americans.

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Clean Energy Programs Can Help Meet Goals Espoused by the President

President Trump was generally lauded for the tone of his speech to a joint session of Congress Tuesday night, when he offered a more positive and optimistic assessment of the nation’s future than he had in his inaugural address or while on the campaign trail. Still, there were few specifics given as to how his administration will move into what he called a “new chapter of American Greatness,” particularly regarding his energy strategy.

His remarks reiterated his long-expressed desire to protect and grow manufacturing jobs in the country, and he said his administration “wants to work with members in both parties…to promote clean air and clear water.”

To those ends, we would suggest the president look to clean energy solutions as a pathway to the manufacturing, and air and water quality improvements he is seeking. This will require maintaining and enhancing key enabling policies and programs at USDA and DOE.

The president is preparing his fiscal 2018 budget proposal for presentation to Congress in about two weeks. An outline was sent to federal agencies Monday with “suggested” areas for spending reductions at each. Initial reports indicate the White House will seek huge increases in military spending, paid for in part with some $54 billion in discretionary spending cuts at most other agencies. (EPA spending would reportedly be cut by 24 percent, mostly at the enforcement level in Washington.)

As with the speech to Congress, there are no real specifics in the budget plan as to how these proposed cuts would be achieved. But we have made the case before – and continue to make it here – that the nation’s clean energy sector has become critical in its provision of economic benefits, (i.e. jobs) as well as environmental advantages, including improved water and air.

So, it only makes sense that to achieve the economic and environmental goals espoused by the president in his speech, the policies and federal investment that support the clean energy sector must be maintained or strengthened. It’s also important for the White House to remember that principal beneficiaries of these programs are rural Americans, a constituency that played a key role in Trump’s election last November after promises he made to improve their way of life.

The administration would do well to maintain support for farm bill energy programs, which have already seen mandatory spending cuts of nearly 50 percent per year since the 2008 Farm Bill. Lawmakers are conducting hearings now as they begin drafting the 2018 legislation that will authorize farm, food and, to a large extent, renewable energy policy for the five years to come. We hope the White House will join rural Americans in supporting these important policies.

For example, the Rural Energy for America Program (REAP) provides significant incentives for farmers, livestock producers and rural small businesses to make energy efficiency improvements, and to purchase or install renewable energy systems. REAP also generates much-needed job and economic benefits in every state, serves all agricultural sectors, and leverages private investment at a cost-sharing rate of more than three-to-one. Still, the 2014 Farm Bill dropped mandatory funding for REAP by 22 percent compared to what was provided in the 2008 Farm Bill.

The Biorefinery Assistance Program, which provides financial incentives for the development of commercial-scale advanced biorefineries, is an initiative that helps reduce investor risk for emerging technologies and, like REAP, supports good-paying, American jobs. The Biomass Crop Assistance Program (BCAP), which has repeatedly been under assault by appropriators, provides financial assistance to owners and operators of agricultural and private forestland who are working to establish and produce sustainable, non-food, biomass feedstocks for delivery to advanced biorefineries.

Beyond the farm bill, DOE renewable energy and energy efficiency programs have been subject to funding threats through annual water and energy development spending bills. And now advocates of research funding for innovative energy projects like the Advanced Research Project Agency-Energy (ARPA-E) program fear it may face cuts from White House budget writers. That’s despite vast success in driving new energy technologies that would otherwise have been too risky for the private sector to undertake. Since 2009, ARPA-E has awarded more than $1.5 billion for more than 500 projects, which, in turn, have attracted $1.8 billion in funding from the private sector.

25x’25 strongly urges stakeholders to remind the White House and lawmakers that these farm bill and DOE programs should receive priority consideration within a budget that strictly adhere to principles of fiscally responsible, as well as homegrown development. The programs are important to securing the contribution that agriculture and rural America can, and should, make to our national energy strategy, and they also represent modest investments that are producing huge economic and technological returns. They must be preserved.

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Balance Needed in Meeting Transportation Fuel Challenges of the Future

As it does every year, the National Ethanol Conference this week in San Diego generated a considerable amount of policy discussion. Highlighting that talk was the arrival of a letter from President Trump reiterating his strong support for ethanol and the Renewable Fuel Standard (RFS).

While ethanol industry leaders have insisted since the election that Trump will stay committed to campaign promises he made in Iowa early in the campaign to support ethanol and the RFS, that confidence was somewhat shaken within the sector after the president nominated several high-profile RFS critics to his cabinet and White House staff.

But there was a collective sigh of relief from those in San Diego this week, as Renewable Fuels Association President and CEO Bob Dinneen read to the conference Trump’s letter, which stated: “Rest assured that your president and this administration values the importance of renewable fuels to America’s economy and to our energy independence. As I emphasized throughout my campaign, renewable fuels are essential to America’s energy strategy.”

The missive offers some certainty to the future of biofuels as a significant element in the nation’s transportation fuel supply. Still, some concerns remain, as were expressed in other discussions coming out of San Diego about the growth rate of electric vehicles (EVs) in the U.S. market and the future implications that this growth could have on both the biofuels and oil industries.

In addition to the transportation fuel policy discussions in San Diego, there have also been increasing calls from the nation’s automakers for the new administration to revisit the Corporate Average Fuel Economy (CAFE) standards. One of the last acts of the Obama administration was to give final approval of standards that call for light duty cars and trucks to achieve, on average, 51.4 miles per gallon by 2025, despite industry claims that the standards could prove unrealistic and require further review of current and future technologies.

At the heart of all of these discussions, is the basic challenge for those in the transportation fuel and auto industries to best meet the desire from a growing consumer market for diverse, efficient, dependable, cost-saving means of mobility. It’s important for policy makers to understand that when facing choices, rarely is there a “silver bullet.” Those interests touting single solutions (EVs or reverting to 100 percent petroleum gasoline, as examples), need to remember that consumers want choices.

There are vehicles available to meet a wide variety of personal preferences, whether they be electric vehicles, hybrid (fuel and electric) vehicles, flex-fuel vehicles and, as seen in recent times of low oil prices, larger vehicles like full-size trucks and SUVs. But they all must meet the demands of consumers driven by economic considerations, the need for long-term reliability and the pursuit of a reduced environmental footprint.

Automakers and fuel providers need increased clarity on the long-term objective so they can design solutions to meet these targets. Going forward, these market demand forces will become increasingly more important. Attention needs to be paid to what consumers are looking for – flexibility, choice, efficiency and, yes, cleaner vehicles.

While some in the policy debate are dismissive of some pathways (the oil industry has made its objections to EVs fairly clear), a better way forward is to embrace a pathway that provides the benefit of efficiency without imposing a single “solution” for everyone.

From its origins, the 25x’5 Alliance has held that renewable energy is part of a mix of sources needed in the decades to come to power our cars, trucks, planes, homes, businesses and industries. Fossil fuels will be a constant in our energy future through much of this century. The role of policy makers and stakeholders must be to find the right balance of all resources that meet the energy, economic and environmental challenges ahead.

One course of action being touted by biofuel advocates and the auto industry is to put more focus on the composition of fuels to best deliver on the engine technologies that can best meet fuel efficiency and greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions standards in the decades to come. By putting greater emphasis on how, and what types of fuels the engines of cars and light trucks can burn best, regulators will ensure consumers that they are using more efficient, more economic and more environmentally friendly transportation fuels.

While technology is still emerging, we know that high-octane, low-carbon (HOLC) fuels – particularly those that contain blends of ethanol in the 25-30-percent range – represent an important pathway to meeting future goals. The research from DOE’s national laboratories makes very clear that major engine-efficiency and emission-reduction benefits can be derived from midrange, ethanol-blend, HOLC fuels. The combination of HOLC fuels and higher compression engines can enable a compliance pathway that is much more cost-effective than many other more expensive and complex technologies.

We urge policy makers and regulators to take a more universal look and find realistic solutions to the nation’s transportation fuel challenges of the future. Those solutions, including HOLC ethanol-blend fuels, can best serve to boost the economy, enhance our energy security and improve the quality of our air.

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Maryland Recognizes Critical Role States Can Play in Ag Energy Solutions

This week, the Maryland governor and agriculture secretary toured a state-subsidized, pilot, on-farm manure-to-energy project on Maryland’s Eastern Shore. The project burns poultry litter that heats the poultry house while also reducing humidity and ammonia. It also underscores the role states can play in helping ag producers produce clean energy, meet their stewardship responsibilities and even potentially open new revenue streams for their operations.

The system that Gov. Larry Hogan and Ag Secretary Joe Bartenfelder saw on Monday uses the litter from 160,000 chickens to produce an array of value-added benefits including heat, electricity, an improved environment for the birds, and a potentially high-value concentrated phosphorous fertilizer by-product. The facility at the Double Trouble Farm, which opened in December, represents one of several manure-to-energy projects that the state is funding to reduce poultry-related nutrients from entering storm water runoff and impacting the Chesapeake Bay.

The facility compliments the work being done by the Delmarva Land and Litter Challenge (DLLC), an ongoing initiative facilitated by 25x’25’s parent organization, Solutions from the Land, to improve the management of poultry-related nutrients by focusing on issues related to the storage, transport and land application of poultry litter on the Delmarva Peninsula.

During the tour and ribbon cutting ceremony at the Double Trouble Farm on Monday participants saw a system in which the builder and operator of the system, Ireland-based Biomass Heating Solutions Inc. (BHSL), uses electricity generating technology to process poultry litter into energy for heating two of four poultry houses on the farm. Adding “dry” heat to poultry houses has been proven at other sites to improve the flock growth rate and overall bird health – benefits that will enhance potential profit margins, reduce payback period for the technology and improve the likelihood of transferability to other poultry operations.

While the innovative technology aims to reduce the environmental impact of the poultry litter, the farm’s owners hope the system will generate additional revenue. They are working with BHSL to explore markets for the high-phosphorus, ash by-product, including outreach to regional fertilizer companies.

Overall, the system will reduce energy costs through the use of manure as a fuel source for heating poultry houses; improve animal welfare and reduce the risk of diseases; help the birds to reach target weight more quickly; and potentially expand producer revenue streams through earnings from the sale of excess electricity and the fertilizer by-product.

The Double Trouble system was made possible in large part due to a $970,000 animal waste technology grant from the Maryland Department of Agriculture to BHSL, the firm that built the manure-to-energy project. The company has also received an additional $139,000 from the state to monitor its operation for one year. Simultaneously, the University of Maryland is tracking data from the project and helping with other testing.

At the heart of Maryland’s support for innovative technologies that address agricultural residues is the state’s Animal Waste Technology Fund, a grant program that provides seed funding to companies that demonstrate innovative technologies to manage or repurpose manure resources. To date, the program has approved $3.7 million in grants to six projects.

Also to be commended are Bob, J.B. and Brad Murphy, the owners of Double Trouble, who, in the words of Bartenfelder, have taken “the time and risk involved in being the test case for a promising new way of doing business.”

The collaboration that is shown with this project between producers, the state of Maryland, academia and businesses is quite impressive. The 25x’25 Alliance urges officials and stakeholders in other states to study the model established in Maryland, taking to heart the principles that there are ways to meet daunting energy and environmental challenges with forward-thinking, sustainable solutions.

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MN Water Initiative Reflects Multiple Benefits of a 25x'25 Future

This week, Minnesota Gov. Mark Dayton announced a proposal aimed at improving the state’s water quality by 25 percent by the year 2025. Given that water quality in the state is currently on track to only improve by about 8 percent by 2034, Dayton’s goal is respectfully ambitious. Yet we believe it is an extremely attainable target.

Without adding any new regulations, Dayton’s “25x’25” plan would rely on public engagement and diverse stakeholder collaboration bringing together local governments, farmers, scientists, business leaders and environmentalists. These partnerships will have the flexibility to devise the strategies and means needed to address water quality challenges in each of the state’s eight watershed regions.

Dayton’s policy initiative in Minnesota shares more than just a name with our 25x’25 Vision that would enable America’s farms, ranches and forestlands to meet 25 percent of this nation’s energy needs with renewable energy by 2025. They both aim to better the public good through initiatives that leave our world a better place.

While the clean energy and energy efficiency goals being pursued under the 25x’25 Vision offer both economic and national security benefits, it also aims to enhance our environment. Both the Dayton initiative and the 25x’25 Vision promote diverse stakeholder commitment to efforts that boost our water quality, expand clean water access, promote biodiversity, support conservation, and even contribute to the mitigation of soil erosion.

Criticism of renewable energy solutions – usually from traditional energy interests and some misguided environmental zealots – often cites dubious claims of catastrophic harm to natural resources. For example, ethanol production has long been the target of charges that it wastes water, denigrates soil quality and has a large carbon footprint.

But ethanol stakeholders have demonstrated over and over that the biofuel offers net benefits that far exceed the resources that go into making it. Just last month, the USDA issued a study that reviewed ethanol production over the past decade and found lifecycle greenhouse gas-reduction benefits from corn ethanol are far greater than those found in earlier studies. The report concludes that the biofuel produces at least 43 percent fewer emissions than conventional gasoline. That efficiency has been driven by a variety of improvements in ethanol production made over the years. We can now meet current ethanol production levels by growing the corn needed for the alternative fuel on 30 percent less land and using 50 percent less water than was needed in 1980.

Biofuel stakeholders have huge stakes in their environment. They understand that to burn off natural resources resulting in a net ecological deficit is a quick road to bankruptcy. But in addition to the economic incentives, there is also the commitment that all agricultural and forestry producers make to the orderly development, use and conservation of natural resources. As articulated in the 25x’25 Sustainability Principles, growers comprehend that any use of the gifts provided by nature must take a full and balanced account of the interests of society, future generations and other species.

Dayton and Minnesota are hardly the only actors in the Midwest pushing for improvements in water and soil quality. The Iowa Water Quality Initiative was established in 2013 to help implement the Nutrient Reduction Strategy, which is a science and technology based approach to achieving a 45 percent reduction in nitrogen and phosphorus losses to our waters. As a part of that strategy, state Agriculture Commissioner Bill Northey announced last fall that 1,800 farmers committed $3.8 million in cost share funds to install nutrient reduction practices, including cover crops, no-till or strip till, or using a nitrification inhibitor when applying fall fertilizer. The Soil Health Partnership, a National Corn Growers Association initiative, works with farmers across the Midwest to measure how cover crops, reduced tillage and other practices like the 4R principles of nutrient stewardship – right source, right rate, right time and right place – can improve soils and improve productivity.

On a larger scale, planning work is underway in the Midwest to make a transition to an integrated landscape management of a resilient/climate-smart and multifunctional agriculture sector that can insure that the finite land resources in the region meet the growing demand for local, affordable and nutritious food, feed, fiber and energy, as well as maintain watershed and wildlife habitats and provide other ecosystem services.

The governor’s initiative in Minnesota serves to highlight the broad array of efforts – local, regional and national – that will enable our lands to meet our production needs while sustaining the good health of the water and soil we depend on. And it’s important to remember that while the 25x’25 Vision has been about food, feed, fiber and energy, it has also promoted clean water and stable soils, among other environmental goals. 25x’25 is not an “either/or” choice. Thanks to technology, innovation and stewardship, multiple solutions can be reached from the land. Finding those solutions can serve as an aspirational goal that policy makers, regulators and stakeholders at all levels would do well to pursue in the service of communities all across the country.

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Debate Over Executive Order Can Prompt New Look at Inconsistent Energy Regulations

Among the flurry of executive orders signed by President Trump in the past two weeks, one pertaining to regulatory oversight has drawn a share of controversy, yet it also opens up a conversation about current regulatory impediments to clean energy development.

The Trump order directs federal agencies to eliminate two existing regulations for every new regulation they add, “unless prohibited by law.” Furthermore, the order requires that the “total incremental cost of all new regulations, including repealed regulations, to be finalized this year shall be no greater than zero,” meaning the cost of any new regulation cannot be more than the combined costs of the two rules that are being repealed.

There is ongoing debate over how the order will be implemented, due to the limitations as to what federal agencies are permitted by law to do. But the subject of regulation has always been one that requires a nuanced conversation. No one should doubt the need for oversight of our natural resources at the local, state and federal levels to assure their integrity, while also protecting the public health and wellbeing.

Still, it is incumbent upon those who enforce those regulations to insure that they are fair, equitable and based on sound science. And while the Trump order may carry big political overtones, it can also serve to address those regulatory issues that seem to run counter to the innovations and clean energy goals they aim to promote.

For example, for the past several years the EPA has operated under the aegis of outdated models and data as it carries out its oversight of ethanol-blended transportation fuels, claiming that the blends actually increase greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions compared to conventional gasoline. This incorrect assertion stems from an EPA fuel effects study (“EPAct study”) and a vehicular emissions computer model called MOVES2014, both of which have been demonstrably proven again and again to be well behind the findings of more recent studies, and need to be updated. Among the new studies, is one released just last month by USDA showing GHG emissions associated with corn-based ethanol in the United States are about 43 percent lower than gasoline when measured on an energy equivalent basis.

EPA would also do well to recognize higher-octane, lower carbon transportation fuel pathways – specifically those that certify blends of ethanol in the 25-30-percent range, which are viable, near-term solutions for meeting the very aggressive fuel economy and emission targets for model years 2022-2025 cars and light trucks.

USDA, EPA and the Department of the Interior should work with the new Congress and finally standardize the definition of “biomass,” which the congressional General Accounting Office says currently has 14 different regulatory and statutory definitions, a morass that impedes the development of a low-carbon, power-generating resource.

The wind and solar industries, along with the electrical transmission sector, have long lamented the protracted and costly pace of regulatory approval needed to upgrade the nation’s grid. Efforts to get the sanctions to build and operate new transmission lines can take as long as a decade and with a price tag in the billions of dollars. County ordinances, state regulatory agencies and federal government oversight have splintered the process that enables the delivery of clean energy from more remote locations in the nation to areas with high energy demand. Efforts to mediate these issues and harmonize the regulatory authority among the various players should be put on the front policy burner to optimize the benefits of vast new energy sources.

Renewable energy advocates should renew efforts at the local level where zoning laws can put up roadblocks to wind and solar projects, as seen recently in Michigan, where two counties have put wind development on hold pending an effort to sort out local regulations. Similar disputes have arisen in Virginia and North Carolina, as well as an effort that recently failed in Wyoming that would have penalized utility companies for purchasing wind energy.

Attacks by utilities and state legislatures on net-metering continue to consume the time of many state utility regulators, who must be shown the data proving solar rooftop systems do not increase rates for non-solar customers but, in fact, reduces the utility’s grid outlays and reduces public health costs.

The 25x’25 Alliance understands the critical need for regulation at all levels of government. However, we believe that the debate launched by the Trump administration’s executive order aimed at federal regulations can serve as a call to all policy makers to re-examine the rules and standards now on the books and take the action necessary to insure the outcomes they produce result in benefits for the public without crippling the modernization and forward-thinking they should aim to promote and protect.

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Too Early to Ascribe Long-Term Energy Plans from Trump Administration

There was obvious disappointment among clean energy advocates last Friday when the White House published on its website “An America First Energy Plan” that makes no mention of renewable energy or energy efficiency.

President Donald Trump has made it clear since his announcement to seek the presidency in June 2015 that his top energy priority is to boost oil and gas development in this country, and that is what his energy statement emphasizes. It vows to “embrace the shale oil and gas revolution to bring jobs and prosperity to millions of Americans.” It also calls for “reviving America’s coal industry, which has been hurting for too long.”

While Trump has previously expressed some disdain for renewable energy, over the course of his campaign he spoke more in support of an “all-of-the-above” energy strategy that included biofuels, wind, solar and other renewables. He has promised an energy policy and industry that promotes jobs – and that requires recognition that the current energy sector employs more than 500,000 people in the solar, wind, bioenergy, and hydropower industries. In fact, the solar industry, with more than 373,000 workers, employs more people than all other power generating sectors combined, according to DOE data.

And if he is to remain true to promises of supporting rural America – a principal constituency that helped put Trump in the White House – he will need to acknowledge that renewable energy continues to offer economic benefits through local tax revenues that help renovate roads, build schools and update infrastructure across the American Heartland.

Despite the absence of any reference to clean energy in a seven-paragraph statement on energy, it is way too early to ascribe long-term plans to this administration. In fact, a number of leaders in the renewable energy sector have said that they did not read too much into what, essentially, is a preliminary draft of a more substantial policy that is expected to be forged once the administration’s senior leadership settles in.

Among that leadership is Trump’s nominee for Energy Secretary, former Texas Gov. Rick Perry, who oversaw a major evolution of energy production and use while in the governor’s mansion. Perry called a special session of the Texas legislature in 2005 that expanded a major renewable energy portfolio. According to an analysis from the Brookings Institution, the state has long since exceeded its regulatory targets, but has also gone on to invest heavily (nearly $9 billion through electricity use fees) in upgraded transmission capacity to move electricity generation from wind-rich regions to high energy-demand centers. The Brookings analysis goes on to point out that Texas now stands as the largest generator of wind energy of any state – including renewable energy leaders like California – and is poised for continuing expansion in both wind and solar.

One would hope that Perry, who said during his confirmation hearing last week that he “regrets” his call to close the Department of Energy during his unsuccessful run for the GOP presidential nomination in 2012, will bring to this administration the experience and voice of a government leader that helped create a business environment that boosted clean energy development in an oil- and gas-rich state.

Texas is among many states that offer Trump’s administration model scenarios for building and maintaining a diverse energy portfolio. Data from DOE’s Energy Information Administration shows nearly 44 percent of total power generation in California came from renewables through the first three quarters of 2016. Over the same period, Utah doubled its generation from geothermal, solar and wind energy. Other states such as New Mexico saw generation from wind power double, and Nevada increased its geothermal generation by more than 25 percent. Elsewhere, wind power met 24 percent or more of electricity demand in Oklahoma, Kansas and Iowa. Solar power generation in North Carolina has tripled from year to year, ranking it third behind California and Arizona.

On a more political point, most election observers agree that Trump won the presidency by listening to voters and offering them a platform that heeds their needs. So, it is hoped that the new president will heed the voice of Americans who overwhelmingly support the continued development of clean energy, as demonstrated by an extensive survey of more than 9,000 voters released last fall by no less credible an organization than the Pew Research Center, which found that 65 percent of Americans give priority to developing alternative energy sources.

As Pew pointed out in its announcement of the survey results, public opinion is widely supportive of expanding both solar and wind power, but is much more closely divided when it comes to the idea of supporting expansion of fossil fuel energies such as coal mining, offshore oil and gas drilling, and hydraulic fracturing for oil and natural gas. While the survey found substantial party and ideological divides over increasing fossil fuel and nuclear energy sources, strong majorities of all party and ideology groups support more solar and wind production. We urge the new president to hear those majorities and those in rural America that put him in office, and give clean energy development its due support in the months and years ahead.

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USDA Analysis Reaffirms Ethanol Benefits; Caps Vilsack Clean Energy Legacy

Understandably those in the ethanol industry responded to USDA’s research released last week demonstrating the emissions-reducing benefits of ethanol by saying: “Yeah, that’s what we’ve been telling you for years!”

Be assured that industry leaders were elated by the report, A Life-Cycle Analysis of the Greenhouse Gas Emissions of Corn-Based Ethanol, showing that greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions associated with corn-based ethanol in the United States are about 43 percent lower than gasoline when measured on an energy equivalent basis. This is a big number – and the reduction percentage will get even bigger over the next few years, driven by ongoing improvements in ethanol production and improved land management practices.

But the study should – we hope, once and for all – end the frustration long experienced by ethanol advocates who have been bombarded over the years by unfounded or, worse, untrue criticisms of biofuels by legacy fuel stakeholders that seek to hold on to market share. Misguided environmental groups that have an aversion to burning anything to power our transportation system, have also consistently rejected good solutions for desired “perfect” solutions, which are, in fact, unrealistic.

The news for the ethanol industry, both here in the United States and across the world, got even better later in the week when the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) released its latest food price index showing that world food prices fell for a fifth straight year in 2016. The index, which measures monthly changes for a basket of cereals, oilseeds, dairy products, meat and sugar, experienced a 1.5 percent drop last year, with cereals such as corn, driving the decrease in prices.

Given that last year, the U.S. ethanol industry reached record production and export levels, the UN findings further dispel the “food-versus-fuel” myth that would have us as consumers believe that increased ethanol production drives up food prices. Furthermore, ethanol producers here in the United States use less than 3 percent of global grain supplies, thereby making more food and feed available worldwide than ever before.

Returning to the ethanol/GHG study, this is research that for the first time brings real-world experience to the table. Unlike other studies of GHG benefits that have been based on forecasts of future ethanol production systems and expected impacts on the farm sector, the USDA assessment reviewed how the industry and farm sectors performed over the past decade to assess the current GHG profile of corn-based ethanol. The report found greater lifecycle GHG benefits from corn ethanol than earlier studies, driven by a variety of improvements in ethanol production, from the corn field to the ethanol refinery.

Farmers are producing corn more efficiently and expanding the implementation of conservation practices that reduce GHG emissions, including reduced tillage, cover crops and improved nitrogen management. Corn yields are surging – between 2005 and 2015, yields increased by more than 10 percent. Advances in ethanol production technologies, such as the use of combined heat and power, using landfill gas for energy, and co-producing biodiesel helped reduce GHG emissions at ethanol refinery plants. In a scenario where these fermentation improvements and land management practices are universally adopted, the GHG benefits of corn ethanol are even more pronounced over gasoline, about a 76 percent reduction. As it is, given current trends, the GHG profile of corn-based ethanol is expected to be almost 50 percent lower than gasoline in five years.

The report serves in a way as the final act capping a tremendous legacy built by Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack over his eight years as head of the USDA, where he served as the leading voice for ethanol and biofuels in an administration that could, at times, be somewhat ambiguous about renewable fuels. Vilsack, who marked his last day in office last Friday, had the vision and tenacity to promote the major economic opportunities that biofuels continue to offer rural America and have made them an indispensable part of America’s fuel supply.

With definitive proof of ethanol’s environmental contributions, and global analyses that have repeatedly demonstrated that the “food-versus-fuel” argument as a false one, policy makers should fully reject the myths that opponents of ethanol pass off as fact and reinforce the statutory mechanisms and incentives that give biofuels a central role in improving our energy security, enhancing our environment and boosting our economy.

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