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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GAO Reports Show Policy Makers Must Commit to RFS Goals

Two reports issued this week by the General Accounting Office (GAO) are being touted – unsurprisingly – by critics of the Renewable Fuel Standard (RFS) as proof of the biofuel-blending mandate’s failings. But, just as those who in the past have campaigned against the far-sighted energy policy, the detractors this week are putting a negative spin on what are essentially recommendations for improving the RFS. They are slanting the facts to justify their claims that the program must be ended.

The GAO reviewed the questions of whether the RFS program is going to meet its 2022 targets for reducing greenhouse gas emissions and for expanding production of U.S. renewable fuels in accordance with congressional statutes. Cited in particular by the watchdog agency was the shortfall in the production of advanced biofuels.

Advanced biofuels, which are defined as those that offer a reduction in greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions of 50 percent or more when compared to petroleum-based fuels, aren’t being produced at the levels called for by the RFS when it was strengthened and reauthorized by Congress in 2007. As an example, the GAO notes that in 2015, less than 5 percent of the 3 billion gallons of cellulosic ethanol called for by the RFS was produced. Cellulosic ethanol is a biofuel made from plant material such as corn stalks and leaves – even wood trimmings – that offers lifecycle GHG-emission reductions of at least 60 percent.

The report notes that EPA has reduced the RFS targets for advanced biofuels through waivers in each of the last four years, attributing the shortfall to high production costs. The GAO asserts that the investments in the research and development required to make advanced biofuels more cost-competitive with petroleum-based fuels “are unlikely in the current investment climate.”

But, a continued and more thorough reading of the reports shows that the GAO offers a number of proposals that the agency says can incrementally improve the investment climate for advanced biofuels.

Maintaining a consistent tax credit for biofuels, for example, rather than allowing it to periodically lapse and be reinstated – the second-generation biofuel producer tax credit has been allowed to expire about every two years – could reduce uncertainty and encourage investment in advanced biofuels.

Other suggestions cited in the GAO reports include making the producer credit more long-term, possibly up to 10 years; make the producer credit refundable to make sure biofuel producers receive the subsidy in early years when they are sustaining financial losses; and couple the producer tax credit with an investment tax credit to decrease capital costs and improve the financial incentives for building cellulosic biofuel plants.

In other words, an update to policies that give the advanced biofuels sector a chance to meet the economic, energy security and environmental goals Congress envisioned when it established the RFS, as well as help boost production within reach of the 2022 goal of 36 billion gallons.

Disheartening, however, was the announcement this week from House leadership that the $1-per-gallon blender tax credit for biodiesel, along with a variety of additional tax incentives promoting cellulosic ethanol production and alternative fuel infrastructure – all set to expire at the end of December – will not be renewed in the remaining “lame duck” days of this Congress. This is just the kind of policy inconsistency cited by GAO that is causing the shortfall in meeting the RFS goals.

It’s unfortunate that the GAO report tends to dissect the component parts of the RFS to focus on the shortfalls of advanced biofuels. A broader view of the program shows the RFS has boosted the production of biofuels, which, over time, are getting cleaner and cleaner. According to the DOE’s Argonne National Laboratory’s Greenhouse Gases, Regulated Emissions, and Energy Use in Transportation (GREET) model, average corn ethanol reduces GHG emissions by 34 percent.  Meanwhile, gasoline produced from oil extracted from increasingly difficult locations is getting dirtier and dirtier, according to research from Steffen Mueller of the University of Illinois at Chicago’s Energy Resources Center, and Stefan Unnasch, managing director of Life Cycle Associates.

Conventional and cellulosic ethanol, as well as biomass-based diesel and advanced biofuels are all positive economic engines, and they bring many security and environmental benefits. When it comes to the RFS, it’s time to make sure the message is clearly heard – renewable fuels are important today, and will be even more important tomorrow. As the GAO reports suggest, it’s time for policy makers to steady the course with the RFS and implement resounding policies that can make the standard work the way Congress intended more than a decade ago.

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On Thanksgiving, Generous Servings of Renewable Energy On Menus Everywhere

The value of renewable energy is being reaffirmed with a constant flow of new developments that underscore the energy security, economic benefits and environmental enhancements that the sector offers. The projects, policies and research that are coming to light on a weekly basis give notice that as this country looks to its future for solutions to its energy challenges, clean, renewable energy is an answer that holds a top priority.

These developments are not only benefiting the country as a whole. We are seeing the direct impacts to states and local communities from renewable energy investments as well. For example, the University of Minnesota recently found that planned additions of wind and solar projects in the state will result in more than $7 billion in direct investment, at least 5,000 jobs in rural Minnesota related to construction alone, and nearly 4,000 megawatts of newly installed energy capacity.

It’s not hard to extrapolate from the Minnesota job and economic numbers for renewable energy development to recognize the huge impact these clean energy projects are having on dozens of other states, and that when put together, the cumulative figures help us to grasp the broad range of the sector’s effect throughout the United States.

If you need a recent indication of how corporate America views the impact of renewable energy on the bottom line, look to Virginia. There, 18 big corporations – Microsoft, Walmart, Best Buy, Ikea, Staples and Mars Inc., among them – have written state legislators and the Virginia State Corporation Commission calling for “an explicit legal framework” to expand access to renewable energy from utilities and third-party sellers. A key to their demand, the companies say, is the reliability renewables bring in supplying the power needed to sustain and build their businesses.

Also on the corporate front, Microsoft announced its largest purchase of wind energy to date with the signing of two agreements representing 237 megawatts of wind energy for its data center in Wyoming, bringing the multinational technology company’s total investment in wind energy projects in the United States to more than 500 megawatts.

Looking to the skies, a single airline flight has had huge ramifications for the growth of renewable fuels. Alaska Airlines recently flew the first commercial flight – from Seattle to Washington, D.C. – powered in part by a new, 20-percent blend of biofuel made from the limbs and branches that remained after the harvesting of sustainably managed forests in Washington state, Oregon and Montana. To mark the significance of the event, Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack was among many officials and policy makers on hand at Reagan National Airport in Washington to greet the cross-country flight.

Elsewhere in the biofuels arena, NASCAR has kicked off the celebration of the expected attainment by the end of the 2016 season of 10 million competition miles powered by E15 – a biofuel blended with 15 percent American-made ethanol. Six years ago, NASCAR entered into a groundbreaking partnership with Sunoco and American Ethanol to launch its long-term biofuels program to reduce emissions across its three national race series.

Now into the laboratory, where scientists with the University of California, Berkeley, and the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory earlier this month publisher a paper showing solar cells made from perovskite, an inexpensive and increasingly popular material, can more efficiently turn sunlight into electricity using a new technique to sandwich two types of perovskite into a single photovoltaic cell. The researchers say that devices made from the material can be made more easily and cheaply than silicon. The first perovskite solar cells, all with a range of efficiency equivalent to those made from traditional, more expensive materials, could be available to the market as soon as next year.

This Thanksgiving, we urge all 25x’25 champions to give thanks and help spread the good news about renewable energy developments in their towns, cities, counties, states – even at the national level. We should all be especially grateful of the economic, environmental, national security and public health benefits that these burgeoning biofuel, bioenergy, solar, wind, geothermal and small scale hydro industries are providing to our communities. Raising awareness is a valuable tool for helping people understand that the 25x’25 national energy goal is readily achievable.

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Solutions from the Land: A New Way Forward

As the incoming administration contemplates the path forward for America’s energy, agriculture, conservation and climate polices, it will be important to carefully assess the role that farms, ranches and forests – our nation’s working lands – can play in meeting desired outcomes.

For too long we have been managing these lands and the services they provide in “silos,” often looking narrowly at either food, habitat, water quality or endangered species objectives and outcomes. A new way forward is needed – one by which land is managed in a more integrated way.

21st century problems require 21st century solutions, and it’s time to accept the fact that many of the policies and programs of the past cannot meet the needs of tomorrow. The new way forward begins with recognizing that to achieve the outcomes society wants and needs, there must be an economic return.

In recent years, the U.S. agriculture and forestry economies have struggled mightily. Today’s commodity prices are well below the cost of production. Furthermore, nonaligned, disjointed and often conflicting regulatory programs are crippling efforts to feed and fuel a growing population, while also trying to reverse historical losses in ecosystem integrity and seeking to meet the challenges of a changing climate.

As politically difficult as this latter point is, the climate is changing and impacts are being felt by those who make their living off the land. Regardless of the cause, it is producing volatile weather conditions – drought, flooding, wildfires and tornadoes – that are impacting agricultural and forestry production, elevating risk and causing huge economic losses.

The question is not: Should we do something? The question is: What do we need to do?

This week, the Obama administration released the Mid-Century Strategy for Deep Decarbonization, which sets out a long-term vision for achieving emission reductions of 80 percent or more by 2050 while meeting growing demands on our energy system and our lands.

It is understandable that a new administration will bring with it significant change. But we urge those about to take power not to wholly reject sensible programs and policies developed by their predecessors, such as the sound concept of using agricultural and forestry landscapes to sink carbon, as is discussed in the mid-century strategy. Terrestrial soil carbon sequestration improves soil health and, in turn, productivity and profitability for farmers and forestland owners.

As the mid-century strategy notes, U.S. lands have been sequestering much more carbon than they emit (a net “carbon sink”) for the last three decades. In 2014, the U.S. land carbon sink sequestered a net 762 million metric tons of CO2, offsetting 11 percent of economy-wide greenhouse gas emissions. The strategy also recognizes the critical role to be played by bioenergy, as energy demand is expected to grow in the decades to come. The sustainable management of our forests and other biomass resources can help supplement non-renewable fossil fuels in the transportation, building and industry sectors, while also supporting domestic industries and improving our national energy security.

How we manage our land resources, both in the near-term and over the next several decades, will determine whether U.S. lands can remain a robust carbon sink, while delivering food, feed, fiber, forest products and bioenergy.

There is a need for wider implementation of sequestration-supporting conservation practices that are already in use, and which are advocated for in the mid-century strategy. Those practices are paying off for thousands of farmers, and for our country as a whole, in the form of increased crop yields, better resilience to weather extremes, less soil erosion, improved nutrient management and enhanced cropping system diversity. But much more is needed to feed a growing global population and counter vulnerability in an unpredictable future.

We respectfully urge the Trump administration to exercise patience – go slow and take a fresh look at ways agricultural landscapes can be managed and repurposed to deliver production, environmental and economic returns to our country, and especially to farmers, ranchers and foresters, the guardians and stewards of America’s working lands.

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Commitment to Renewable Energy is a Commitment to Rural America

Donald Trump has been elected the 45th president of the United States and his campaign is to be commended for earning the support of rural America – a voting constituency that most analysts say assured his election. We hope that support will, in turn, prompt a commitment from the new administration to America’s farmers, ranchers, forestland owners and small communities that represent the driving force behind the 25x’25 Vision.

We are encouraged by the president-elect’s vigorous support for the federal Renewable Fuel Standard and for the biofuel industry in general. We would also urge the new administration to stay the course that has accelerated the wide development and deployment of other renewable energy technologies in rural America, such as biomass, wind, solar, hydropower and geothermal. This progress is keeping the nation on track to meet 25 percent of the its energy needs coming from renewable energy sources by 2025.

25x’25 has nearly 1,000 partners – agricultural and forestry trade groups and organizations, large and small businesses, academic and governmental interests – all with deep roots in rural America and all with the understanding of the wide economic benefits that clean, domestically produced renewable energy is contributing to communities that might not otherwise share in the prosperity that that has been experienced by many of the nation’s urban centers.

There is much indisputable evidence that supports the development of renewable energy and the implementation of energy efficiency measures – more jobs, fewer emissions, improved energy security, and many others. But the point that we hope is most resonant with the new administration is the difference that clean and conserved energy can make to the nation’s bottom line.

Low- and no-carbon renewable energy continues to grow at an incredibly rapid rate, in large part due to sharply dropping production costs. Federal tax credits and multiple state policies have helped push exponential growth in the wind energy and solar power sectors, and we urge all who take office next year – at both the state and federal levels – to maintain those policy mechanisms.

By extension, the push for renewable energy offers farmers, ranchers, forestland owners and rural communities huge income opportunities, a principle that 25x’25 has been preaching since its origins in 2004.

In a report that we detailed here last month, Bloomberg New Energy Finance (BNEF) says 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. American Wind Energy Association (AWEA) data show U.S. wind farms currently pay more than $220 million a year to farming families and other rural landowners, and more than $156 million of that is going to landowners in counties with below-average incomes.

The solar energy sector also makes massive financial contributions to rural landowners and the counties and states where solar farms are being located. Through June of this year, solar has reached 31.6 gigawatts (GW) of total installed capacity. Many of the new solar facilities are being built by an array of rural-based electric cooperatives around the country, pumping billions of dollars into the national, state and local economies.

Citing a recent study by the Innovation Center for U.S. Dairy, the American Biogas Council says the dairy sector alone could create $3 billion in products from biogas/anaerobic digestion systems. Biogas industry experts say building 11,000 new systems would result in at least $33 billion in capital expenditures for construction activity, generating approximately 275,000 short-term construction jobs and 18,000 permanent jobs to run the digesters.

The biofuels sector contributed nearly $44 billion to the nation’s gross domestic product in 2015, with close to $24 billion coming from agriculture. The Renewable Fuels Association says the economic activities of the ethanol industry put $9.1 billion in rural American pockets last year.

Also worth noting is a study released earlier this year by Environmental Entrepreneurs, a clean energy advocacy group of business executives, that shows nearly 414,000 people work in the sector, many in rural areas.

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, as well as pay down debt.

The 25x’25 Alliance has always recognized that renewable energy is one part of an “all-of-the-above” national energy strategy. Natural gas and other fossil fuels will remain the largest part of our energy resource base for decades to come. But we also urge the new administration to recognize the wide, positive impact renewable energy development has made on a constituency – rural America – that proved important in this week’s elections, and has played a major role in changing and expanding our clean energy resources.

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