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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With a New Administration Comes Opportunity to Address Policy Shortfalls

As Donald Trump prepares to assume the presidency next week, it is appropriate to take a moment to appreciate the remarkable progress that the renewable energy sector has made, even in just the past year, as well as what opportunities may lie in the future. 2016 marked the inevitable emergence of clean energy as a major player in the nation’s energy market, evidenced by stunning growth and advances in technology, coupled with significant – and ongoing – drops in the cost of production.

As we have cited in numerous blogs over the years, much of this tremendous growth is attributable to policies that encourage, drive and accelerate renewable energy development – such as production and investment tax credits, state Renewable Portfolio Standards (RPS) and the federal Renewable Fuel Standard (RFS), just to name a few.

With the uncertainty that comes with the ascension of any new administration, it is imperative for renewable energy advocates to defend these core, enabling policies at all levels, and to highlight the economic and energy security benefits they provide.

Despite the uncertainty, we also believe that with a new tenant in the White House, those in the renewable energy sector have a great opportunity to reach out and forge win-win outcomes with the new administration.

For example, with a new president who strongly voiced his support for ethanol and the RFS during his election campaign, the transition in federal government leadership could provide a good opportunity for ethanol interests and their allies in the auto industry to renew their push for high-octane, low-carbon (HOLC) fuels to help meet efficiency standards for cars and light trucks over the next decade. This has already shown progress with the president-elect’s choice for EPA administrator, Oklahoma Attorney General Scott Pruitt, meeting with senators from major ethanol states and affirming his support to follow the RFS as Congress directed through the 2007 Energy Independence and Security Act.

A glaring omission from the draft Technical Assessment Report (TAR) – a federal-state, 1,200-plus page “report card” issued in 2016 on the progress auto manufacturers are making in their pursuit of fuel economy standards – is any recognition or consideration of fuel quality and higher-octane pathways that are viable, near-term solution for meeting the very aggressive fuel economy and emission targets for model years 2022-2025 cars and light trucks.

Despite the draft TAR being a combined effort by EPA, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) and the California Air Resource Board, the failure to even mention high-octane, low-carbon (HOLC) fuels is a surprise, given that DOE’s national laboratories have been reporting extensively over the past two years that major engine-efficiency and emission-reduction benefits can be derived from HOLC fuels – specifically blends of ethanol in the 25-30-percent range – coupled with higher-compression engines. They represent an option that increases the amount of ethanol that can be blended into the nation’s fuel supply and, in turn, generate jobs and boost local economies, particularly in rural areas where they are most needed – and where the new president drew overwhelming support in the election.

Another critical issue to the renewable energy sector – and more specifically to rural America – that could be addressed by the new administration is achieving the full potential of sustainably managed and harvested biomass for bioenergy solutions. Unfortunately, there are regulatory roadblocks and a morass of varying definitions of biomass within federal law and regulations that create a massive uncertainty that impedes the optimal development of woody biomass as a strong source of sustainable energy.

Waste from timber harvests, pre-commercial thinnings, or wildfire fuel reduction treatments can be used as a substantial source of renewable energy and improve the overall health of our forests. The harmonious treatment of biomass in federal statutes – as well as expanding the definition to include biomass from federal lands – can promote innovation in low-carbon fuels, generate greater production and create economies of scale. Increasing the supply of biomass will promote further investment to encourage the development of more renewable energy, particularly cellulosic biofuel.

Renewable energy advocates would do well to press the incoming administration to address these and similar issues that the president-elect has vowed to resolve. Impress upon our new policy makers that more than 400,000 people work in the renewable energy sector, with many living in rural areas. Remind them that the economic benefits of renewable energy not only better the lives of farmers, ranchers and forestland owners, they also help boost local tax revenues that allow rural counties to renovate roads, build schools and update infrastructure, while simultaneously paying down our national debt.

Furthermore, renewable energy interests would do well to encourage the new administration to recognize the wide, positive impact renewable energy development has made on rural America, a constituency that proved important in this past election, and which will continue to play a major role in changing and expanding our clean energy resources.

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States Making Case for Needed Growth in Renewable Energy

2016 closed out last month with a flurry of activity that underscores the leadership states are bringing to renewable energy throughout the country. As we noted in this space last month, determined state policy makers have demonstrated that there are viable policies, technologies and funding mechanisms that can promote and advance the kind of renewable energy growth this nation needs.

In Iowa, state leaders culminated a year-long process and unveiled a comprehensive energy plan that assesses the state’s current and future energy supply and demand, examines energy policies and programs, and identifies emerging challenges and opportunities, all to set state priorities and provide strategic guidance for investors in Iowa’s energy future.

The plan reinforces renewable energy goals, calls for solar tax incentives, boosts energy efficiency, and recognizes the need for transmission and grid modernization to meet increases in electricity from wind and solar sources.

Renewable energy advocates note that congressional renewal of federal energy tax incentives has been inconsistent, chilling private investment in the sector. And while Congress last year agreed to extend renewable energy tax credits for large wind and solar projects through the next several years (though at gradually declining rates), Iowa leaders recognize that the state can establish a permanent – or long-lasting – incentive for solar that could provide long-term certainty and drive the market.

Iowa, which is already the nation’s leader in ethanol and biodiesel production, is on track to meet more than 40 percent of its power needs from wind in the next few years. Looking ahead, with wind energy development in the state continuing to boom, the state could readily achieve a 50-percent goal within a few years, and a 100-percent goal in just two short decades.

Elsewhere, for the fourth consecutive year, the Minnesota Commerce Department is making funding available through its Made in Minnesota Solar Incentive Program, which supports new solar PV and solar thermal systems for Minnesota residents, businesses and communities. In the program’s first three years, it has supported nearly 1,100 solar projects statewide.

The state legislature established the 10-year incentive program in 2013 to expand the state’s solar industry. In that same year, lawmakers set a Solar Electricity Standard that requires investor-owned utilities to obtain 1.5 percent of their power from solar by 2020, with a goal of 10 percent by 2030.

In Michigan, Gov. Rick Snyder signed into law last month legislation that raises the state’s Renewable Portfolio Standard (RPS) from the current 10 percent to 15 percent by 2021. The package also endorses energy efficiency targets.

Michigan’s previous 10-percent RPS, which was achieved by the end of 2015, led to the development of more than 1,660 megawatts (MW) of renewable energy capacity and has attracted nearly $3 billion in renewable energy investments to the state since 2008.

It’s also important to recognize the wisdom of regulators who have corrected their course and backed off actions that hamper renewable energy development. In Nevada, the Public Utilities Commission – looking to resuscitate the state’s rooftop solar industry that the commission nearly killed in late 2015 by voting to phase out retail net metering and set high fixed fees on residential solar systems – reinstated net metering for existing solar customers and, later in the month, restored retail net metering rates for all solar customers in NV Energy’s Sierra Pacific Power Company’s service territory.

As commission Chairman Joseph Reynolds noted in the draft order: “Abraham Lincoln once said that ‘Bad promises are better broken than kept.’ The PUCN’s prior decisions on [net energy metering], in several respects, may be best viewed as a promise better left unkept.” Solar advocates say the ruling may foretell a wider return of favorable net metering rates throughout the state.

And renewable energy advocates are recognizing a strong stand taken by Ohio Gov. John Kasich in vetoing legislation that would have rendered the state’s renewable electricity and efficiency standards “voluntary,” and essentially killing them. As Kasich noted in his veto message, the state has “enjoyed the most improved business climate in the nation.” The legislation, he said in his veto message, “risks undermining this progress by taking away some of those energy generation options, particularly the very options most prized by the companies poised to create many jobs in Ohio in the coming years.”

States continue to help make renewable energy a steadily growing – and necessary – segment of the U.S. energy market. Lawmakers in Washington would do well to emulate their counterparts in state capitols across the country, and recognize the role renewable energy can play in creating jobs and diversifying our nation’s energy supply.

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Renewable Energy – A Major Economic Engine for Rural America

Since 9/11, this country – including more than half of the states – has taken significant steps to achieve the 25x’25 renewable energy goal. Over that time, sustained growth in renewable energy has been an economic boon to rural America, creating new markets for bioenergy feedstocks, well-paying jobs and increased national security. Farmers, ranchers and forest landowners have helped lead the way in crafting 21st-century clean energy and climate solutions, and they have reaped economic benefits by doing so.

Unfortunately, the agricultural economy today is in a sharp downturn, with net farm income expected to drop more than 17 percent from 2015, the third year in a row that number has fallen. Land values are also falling.

Given the rather bleak economic forecasts coming out of USDA, it is important for policy makers to understand that any effort to scale back or thwart the continued growth of renewable energy production will only exacerbate these conditions and economically disadvantage a segment of the electorate that helped shape the outcome of the 2016 presidential election.

To appreciate the role that renewables play in rural America, we offer the following “snapshots” of the contributions they have played in shoring up counties and towns that don’t have the benefits of industry and commerce enjoyed by our nation’s more populated areas.

Ethanol production in the United States has more than doubled since 2007. Biodiesel production has also steadily increased. In addition, biofuel production co-products in the form of dried distillers grains and solubles (DDGS) and soy meal are cost- effective animal feed ingredients and supplements.

Last year, the biofuels sector contributed nearly $44 billion to the nations’ gross domestic product, creating jobs for nearly 420,000 Americans and resulting in nearly $28 billion dollars in wages and nearly $5 billion in state and local revenues. Much of this activity is occurring in rural areas of the country. In the near future, advanced biofuels in the form of cellulosic ethanol, renewable diesel, drop-in aviation fuels and other clean fuel pathways are the next big opportunity for rural America. Significant amounts of sustainably- produced biomass will be needed to satisfy the feedstock requirements of the next generation of biorefineries.

The production of chemicals and products from biomass offers a promising opportunity to reduce U.S. dependence on imported oil, as well as to improve the overall economics and sustainability of an integrated biorefinery. Based on current growth, the market for bio-based chemicals is projected to reach $19.7 billion in 2016. USDA estimates the overall bio-based products industry supported four million jobs with a value of $369 billion to the U.S. economy.

Wind turbines generate significant revenues for landowners and create much needed financial certainty and diversity. U.S. wind farms pay $222 million dollars a year to farming families and other rural landowners, according to data released by the American Wind Energy Association (AWEA), with more than $156 million dollars going to landowners in counties with below average incomes. A Bloomberg New Energy Finance (BNEF) report shows that more than $100 billion has been invested by companies in low-income counties, where some 70 percent of the nation’s wind farms are located. BNEF analysts say that by 2030, rural landowners will receive up to $900 million a year from wind developers for land leases.

According to the national Solar Jobs Census, the solar industry employs approximately 210,000 people across the country and counting. Last year alone, the solar industry added 31,000 new jobs, 12 times the national average for job creation. While residential rooftop solar systems are the most common type of installation, community solar and utility-scale solar applications are becoming more visible. Utility-scale solar projects have pushed North Carolina to third in the nation in installed solar capacity. Most of the installations have occurred in rural areas and have provided landowners another income option. In fact, the U.S. added a record 4,143 GW of new solar in the third quarter of 2016.

America’s $1 trillion-plus electrical power grid encompasses over 450,000 miles of high-voltage transmission lines delivering power to more than 144 million end-use customers. And new transmission additions are being built specifically to move renewable energy from high-resources areas to population centers of high energy demand. The new infrastructure creates new opportunities for rural-based renewable energy and jobs.

While fossil energy production creates jobs only in certain areas of the United States, resource assessments from the National Renewable Energy Laboratory and the Union of Concerned Scientists’ Clean Power Green Jobs project show that wind power, solar power, biofuels or some combination of them can create clean energy and jobs in virtually all rural areas of the country.

The incoming administration and the new Congress need only to do just a little research to recognize the huge boost renewables have given to the bottom line over the years and the critical role they will continue to play to keep our rural areas economically viable. Renewable energy advocates, armed with the facts and figures that detail the financial help these resources give to those who need it, should go to the lawmakers and regulators and make clear that wind, solar, biofuels, biomass and other renewable energy development makes good economic sense.

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Businesses Get the Benefits of Renewable Energy

We used our blog last week to remind clean energy advocates that despite lingering policy uncertainty as a new administration comes to Washington, individual states continue to demonstrate that they are leading drivers of renewable energy development across the country. Another, perhaps even more significant proponent of clean energy development – especially to a Republican administration led by a businessman – is corporate America.

Besides utilities and the Department of Defense, corporations and industry are the leading buyers of energy in the United States. And as analysts note, major businesses are embracing renewable energy at unprecedented levels.

A market brief last week from the national business group Advanced Energy Economy (AEE) reports that 71 of the Fortune 100 companies have set renewable energy or sustainability targets, up from 60 just two years ago. Among Fortune 500 companies, commitments have held steady at 43 percent, or 215 firms. Of these companies, 22 have committed to powering all of their operations with renewable energy.

While some acknowledge that environmental goals motivate their choices, all recognize that renewable energy is good for the bottom line. Businesses understand that wind and solar are more than just cost competitive with fossil fuels – and will continue to be – but that they also offer price stability and supply certainty.

The vision promoted by the 25x’25 Alliance exists within an “all-of-the-above” energy scenario. The Alliance understands that while the promotion of renewables and the economic benefits they can provide rural America are of critical importance to the nation, fossil fuels, including natural gas and oil, will remain the larger source of U.S. energy for the next several decades.

At the same time, corporate America understands that fossil fuel-based energy is the most volatile commodity in the world. For example, analysts maintain that the spot price of natural gas, which hit a 17-year-low last February, can swing widely due to even the slightest variations in supply and demand, or weather. Natural gas spot prices have fluctuated since the first of the year, but have ultimately – and significantly – increased, now sitting at a level 133 percent more than those February lows.

Rapid, volatile changes in natural gas and oil prices can wreak havoc on corporations and industries, who must respond accordingly, straining their power and transportation budgets, and putting their operations at risk.

So, why are corporations as diverse as Intel, Kohls, Microsoft, Unilever, Cisco Systems, Starbucks, Goldman-Sachs, Mars Inc. and many others meeting – or nearly meeting – all of their power needs with renewables?

Although fossil fuels like natural gas have historically been less expensive than renewables, wind and solar have now become price competitive. In some U.S. markets, renewables are cheaper than fossil fuel alternatives. That is a trend that is expected to continue, given a report released in June by the International Renewable Energy Agency showing the ongoing improvement in renewable energy technologies, and that the resulting economies of scale can drop wind and solar power prices by up to nearly 60 percent globally by 2025.

Entering long-term Power Purchase Agreements (PPA) with renewable electricity generators like wind or solar farms give businesses certainty in their power budgets for up to 20 years, and often longer. And many companies are buying or building their own clean power facilities. Google, the largest corporate purchaser of renewable energy in the world, is doing both to reach 100 percent renewable energy for all global operations – including both data centers and offices – in 2017.

The web giant is among more than 80 major multinational corporations that belong to RE100, a collaborative, global initiative of influential businesses committed to 100 percent renewable electricity, and working to massively increase demand for – and delivery of – renewable energy.

Another factor drawing corporate America to clean energy is the fact it is renewable, meaning infinite in supply. Fossil fuels, while seemingly plentiful in current times, are, in fact, finite and as they become harder to find will go up in price.

Long-term extensions granted by Congress late last year of renewable energy production and investment tax credits are the kind of policy and funding mechanisms that lawmakers would do well to continue next year. We call on policy makers to heed their corporate constituents, who, in the search for energy and economic security, are vigorously pursuing renewable energy. We urge the new Congress to facilitate that growth and construct a comprehensive clean energy policy that creates jobs, boosts rural economies, encourages diversity of sources and provides wide energy security.

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States Taking the Lead in Renewable Energy Growth

While there may be some uncertainty as to how renewable energy policy may play out in Washington over the next few years, ongoing developments at the state level demonstrate the persistent strength of policy leadership being demonstrated across the country.

Just last week, Illinois legislators locked in the state’s Renewable Portfolio Standard (RPS) – by 2025, at least 25 percent of the state’s electricity needs will be met with renewable energy sources like wind and solar.

Furthermore, the measure, which Gov. Bruce Rauner signed into law today, also amends some language that, until now, had hindered the use of money from a multi-million-dollar fund that was set up to help pay for renewable energy projects. The legislation also establishes certain percentages for various renewables – utility scale wind and solar, community solar and rooftop solar – to meet the RPS goal. And, the bill expands a number of energy efficiency programs. Legislators chose to reject language that would have eliminated utility compensation at retail rates for residents who send excess energy from their rooftop solar systems back to the grid.

One of the more significant provisions in the bill will require that renewable energy that contributes to the RPS target must be generated from within the state. Until now, utilities relied on renewable energy credits from wind farms in Texas, Iowa and other states. The in-state requirement will boost local economies and jobs that come from accelerated clean-energy technology development.

The final legislative package did not come without compromise. A provision sets aside funding to avoid the closure of two money-losing nuclear power plants in the state that employ more than 1,500 people. The concession makes the bill less than perfect, but legislators should be commended for finding the strength and wisdom to hammer out legislation with input from a wide range of stakeholders that will put the state on the path to clean energy opportunities.

Illinois is among 29 states with RPS policies (another eight have renewable energy goals). As reported back in April by DOE’s Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory in their status update of state renewable portfolio standards, these states collectively generate some 55 percent of total U.S. retail electricity sales. That same update also points out that increases of 60 percent in renewable electricity generation, and 57 percent of new renewable electricity capacity since 2000 are directly associated with state RPS requirements. Total renewable electricity demand under the collective state RPS policies is expected to double from 215 terawatt hours (tWh) in 2015, to 431 tWh by 2030.

Evidence of continued strong growth at the state level was also offered last week in data from DOE’s Energy Information Administration (EIA) covering the first nine months of 2016.

The EIA data showed that biomass, geothermal, solar and wind made up 29.4 percent of total generation in California through the first three quarters of this year. That’s up from 26.1 percent through the first nine months of 2015, and more than double the 13.8 percent recorded just five years ago. Utility-scale and distributed solar represented 13.6 percent of California’s generation through September. Including hydropower, renewables made up 44 percent of the state’s generation through September of this year, compared to 33.5 percent over the same period last year. California has a 50-percent-by-2030 RPS.

Elsewhere, the EIA data shows Utah increased generation from geothermal, solar, and wind energy from a little less than 3 percent of total generation during the first nine months of 2015, to nearly 6 percent over the same period this year. New Mexico saw generation from wind power double to nearly 11 percent of total generation, and Nevada has increased geothermal generation by more than 25 percent compared with 2015.

The data shows wind power is now producing more than 12 percent of total electricity demand in Texas, while Oklahoma is at 24 percent and Kansas is at 28 percent. Iowa is seeing more than a third of its power generation coming from wind.

In the Southeastern United States, solar energy is a rapidly growing source of electricity generation, quadrupling in Georgia over the first three quarters of 2016 when compared to the same time last year. In North Carolina, where two new solar plants were connected to the grid every week in September, solar power generation has tripled year to year, and the state now ranks third in the country behind California and Arizona for total generation from solar.

It is our sincere hope that as a new administration and Congress come to Washington next year, lawmakers will overcome what has been longstanding partisanship, and recognize the role renewable sources of power can play in boosting local economies, creating jobs and strengthening national security. As determined state policy makers have demonstrated, there are viable policies, technologies and funding mechanisms that can promote and advance the kind of renewable energy growth this nation needs.

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