National Bioenergy Day Recognizes Sector's Economic, Environmental Benefits

More than 50 companies, institutions, agencies and organizations around the country today are celebrating the fourth annual National Bioenergy Day and highlighting the energy, environmental and economic benefits of bioenergy, biomass, and biobased products.

So, what exactly is bioenergy? Bioenergy is the use of any organic material, such as forest thinnings, agricultural residues and urban wood waste, to generate electricity, heating and cooling. Renewable biomass can also be converted to biofuel to power transportation. Energy from biomass represents close to half of all renewable energy production.

The benefits of bioenergy are enjoyed at the local, state and national levels. Many independent power producers generate electricity for the grid using bioenergy. Hospitals, college campuses, school districts and government buildings also use bioenergy for heat and electricity. Thousands of homes and businesses have installed stoves and other appliances fueled by wood pellets, reducing their heating costs. Working farms and other businesses with organic waste products recycle their “leftovers” to power or heat their facilities.

Sponsored by the Biomass Power Association, Biomass Magazine, the U.S. Industrial Pellet Association, the Biomass Thermal Energy Council, the Hearth, Patio and Barbecue Association, Pellet Fuels Institute, Drax and Enviva, the day’s events aim at educating more people – media, elected officials and communities – about the benefits of bioenergy as a critical renewable energy source, along with the many solutions it presents.

Events are being held in Arizona, California, Colorado, Connecticut, Florida, Iowa, Louisiana, Maine, Maryland, Massachusetts, Michigan, Minnesota, Missouri, Nebraska, New Hampshire, New York, North Carolina, Oregon, Pennsylvania, Tennessee, Vermont, Virginia, Washington state, and Washington, D.C., as well as a number of locations in Canada.

As an example, one of the events that is being held this afternoon will be at the University of Tennessee Arboretum Auditorium. There, with the help of DOE’s Oak Ridge National Laboratory and the U.S. Forest Service, as well as contributions from several other sponsors, young aspiring scientists can spend a couple of hours investigating the world of bioenergy with hands-on experiments, handling switchgrass seeds and talking with experts who are building bioenergy resources to power the world.

Why the hoopla? Because bioenergy produces some 5.3 percent of this country’s total energy and is responsible for sustaining tens of thousands of jobs, many of which are in rural communities where they are most needed. On an international scale, countries like the United Kingdom, Belgium and Denmark meet ambitious national renewable energy standards, in large part, through densified wood pellets – produced here in the United States that originate from low value wood gleaned from forest-thinning operations in sustainably managed forests.

There is a more than ample supply of bioenergy feedstocks, as verified by the latest update of an ever-evolving DOE report on biomass. The Billion Ton Update reaffirms that by the year 2040 the United States has the potential to sustainably produce at least one billion tons of nonfood biomass resources that could be used for low- and no-carbon biofuel and biopower, as well as other bioproducts.

Research from scientists with the DOE’s Argonne National Laboratory, the University of Illinois and the International Food Policy Research Institute in Washington, D.C. – who collected and analyzed data from worldwide field observations of major land use change from cropland, grassland and forests to land producing biofuel feedstocks – demonstrates the huge carbon sequestration capabilities of energy grasses, tree systems and even corn. The maintenance of healthy North American forests, for example, puts forest trimmings to good use while also reducing carbon emissions that can emanate from dying trees or forest fires.

Critical to maintaining and accelerating the success of bioenergy are the policies that promote its development. For example, Congress is negotiating an energy bill that proposes biomass be deemed “carbon neutral,” recognizing that sustainably produced and managed biomass can offer valuable clean energy contributions and important carbon sequestration services to mitigate climate change. The designation would offer harmony to what are currently 13 different definitions of biomass in various laws and regulations, and allow for the full potential of bioenergy solutions.

The 25x’25 Alliance commends the sector for its contributions and encourages all to learn more about bioenergy. But efforts must extend beyond a single day. The work must be sustained to convince policy makers and regulators that bioenergy can help bring about an energy future that creates jobs, improves our air and water, and strengthens our energy security.

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Renewable Energy Generates Billions for Rural America

A report published last week by Bloomberg New Energy Finance (BNEF), an investment research arm of Bloomberg news service, highlights a principle that 25x’25 has been preaching since its origins in 2004: Renewable energy offers farmers, ranchers, forestland owners and rural communities huge income opportunities.

Focusing principally on wind energy, the BNEF analysis 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. Alex Morgan, North American wind energy analyst at BNEF, says that by 2030, rural landowners will receive up to $900 million a year from wind developers for land leases.

The projections from BNEF build off of data released earlier this year by the American Wind Energy Association (AWEA). The data showed 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. Those lease payments range from $3,000 to $6,000 per megawatt of installed capacity, along with payments for power line easements, road rights-of-way, or royalties based on the project’s annual revenues.

These payments not only better the lives of farmers, ranchers and forestland owners – in some cases, says AWEA, they allow producers to keep their family farms, giving owners the chance to pass their operations on to the next generation – 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. An Oklahoma State Chamber analysis released last year shows that owners of wind farms will pay some $1 billion in ad valorem taxes over the projects’ 40-year life span.

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. With more than 1.1 million residential solar installations nationwide and utility-scale solar facilities in the construction pipeline totaling more than 20 GW, the industry is on pace to nearly double in size over 2016.

These solar facilities, including a number being built by an array of electric cooperatives around the country, are pumping more than $15 billion a year into the U.S. economy. The North Carolina Sustainable Energy Association says that landowners in that state are leasing sites for solar farms for $300 to $700 an acre per year, three times the average rent for cropland and pastureland.

The biogas industry is a renewable energy sector that is only beginning to make an economic impact in rural America. The American Biogas Council (ABC) says that as more biogas systems are built, many sectors of our nation’s economy will be strengthened, including agriculture and renewable power. Later this month, ABC will recognize biogas projects and technology advancements from across the country for their innovation and potential for replication during their 16th annual conference.

Citing a recent study by the Innovation Center for U.S. Dairy, ABC 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.

Meanwhile, as one of four pillars USDA has identified to boost the country’s rural economy, the department has invested heavily in growing the biobased economy. USDA has been working closely with farmers and ranchers to make investments that spur a new generation of renewable fuels and biobased products. A new USDA report released last week shows that in 2014, the biobased products industry contributed $393 billion and 4.2 million jobs to America’s recovering economy. The report also indicates that the sector grew from 2013 to 2014, creating or supporting an additional 220,000 jobs and $24 billion over that period.

It is worth noting the job creation that is generated by renewable energy development, especially in rural areas. A study released earlier this year by Environmental Entrepreneurs, a clean energy advocacy group of business executives, shows nearly 414,000 people work in the sector, many in rural areas.

As we often remind policy makers, the 25x’25 Vision – by 2025, America’s farms, ranches and forestlands will meet 25 percent of our nation’s energy needs through renewable resources – brings with it vast environmental and energy security benefits. The third takeaway from the vision is the enormous range of economic returns it offers, not only to consumers who pay less for cleaner, domestically produced power and fuels, but also to rural America where energy innovation is being nurtured.

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Growing Collaboration Easing Disputes over Net Metering

After years of conflict between utilities and the developers of distributed energy systems like wind and solar – with state regulators usually caught in the middle – there have been some encouraging developments of late to suggest there is a growing move toward collaboration that gives all sides, including consumers, what they want.

These disputes had centered on claims by utility companies that the growing number of customers with solar systems, which has greatly increased as installation costs have fallen to under $3 per kilowatt, are not paying their fair share of the fixed costs of infrastructure maintenance and other grid supports, increasing the financial burden on non-solar ratepayers. The utilities have been asking regulators to decrease net metering rates (the money paid to residences with solar systems for excess power generated and sent back to the grid, usually at retail rates) and impose high fixed fees to compensate for what the utilities say are lost maintenance costs.

Solar interests say residential installations actually provide a net benefit by reducing the need to construct or purchase more power sources, cutting electricity prices for all by reducing peak demand on the grid and avoided pollution costs. Solar advocates say utilities seeking to end or weaken net metering, or calling for high fixed fees for solar customers, are simply trying to discourage solar installations to maintain their share of the power market.

The ongoing debate could not be better demonstrated than the heated dispute witnessed in Nevada sparked by a vote by the state Public Utilities Commission (PUC) late last year to roll back net metering rates from 11 cents per kilowatt hour (kWh) down to 2.6 cents per kWh by 2020, not only for new solar customers but for existing residential solar systems as well, taking the unprecedented step of denying “grandfather” status to some 32,000 existing solar customers.

The regulatory and legal challenges that have taken place since have, for the most part, been ended by an agreement reached between the utility (NV Energy), SolarCity and PUC staff to allow rooftop solar customers to retain the original retail rate of 11 cents per kWh for net metering.

The settlement coincides with a recommendation from a task force convened by Nevada Gov. Brian Sandoval that state lawmakers adopt legislation reinstating retail rate net metering for solar customers until regulators can approve a comprehensive investigation into a possible Value of Solar tariff, a rate of compensation based on the real value provided by solar installations to the electric system. (Disputed allegations that the PUC acted last year in reaction to overly aggressive advocacy efforts by solar groups have since been eased with Sandoval’s replacement of two members of the PUC, and the exit of the head of a principal solar group, who was replaced by a former state regulator who has experience working for both utilities and clean energy groups.)

The compromise demonstrated by the solar-valuation regulatory decision reached in Nevada is one of several other that have helped to ease net metering disputes in states this year, including similar agreements reached in Arizona and Colorado. But it’s still a sensitive issue to the solar industry, depending on the value assigned to solar (as well as other distributed energy sources, such as small wind farms).

The 25x’25 Alliance believes that solar has proven to provide net benefits across the grid. The Solar Energy Industries Association (SEIA) reports that 16 states have conducted cost benefit analyses (multiple studies in some states), and none have shown solar to increase the financial burden on non-solar customers. In fact, as the Brookings Institution reported in May, net metering frequently benefits all ratepayers when all costs and benefits are accounted for, “which is a finding state public utility commissions, or PUCs, need to take seriously as the fight over net metering rages” (The North Carolina Clean Energy Technology Center says 41 states and the District of Columbia have mandatory net-metering laws).

After the many high-profile battles fought before state regulators in 2015, all players this year are beginning to understand the inevitability of the significant role distributed energy sources will play going forward. Earlier this year, six New York State electric utilities and three of the nation’s leading solar development companies formed a “Solar Progress Partnership” that aims “to encourage more solar development across the state, while ensuring that adequate funding is available to maintain a reliable and resilient grid.” California is nearing approval of a pilot program that would allow regulators to devise a way to bring a rate of return on distributed resources similar to those earned from traditional infrastructure projects like power plants. If the CPUC can incent investor owned utilities to take some of the investment normally made for traditional power sources and place it into distributed sources, that would offer utility shareholders the opportunity to achieve returns of equal or greater value. Like the New York program, the California initiative will be watched by renewable and utility stakeholders around the country.

Tools are being made available to facilitate collaboration. The Smart Electric Power Alliance, for example, has issued briefing books for state regulators, utilities and solar developers under an initiative called The 51st State: Blueprints For Electricity Market Reform Building A Structure For Collaborative Stakeholder Discussions. The project recognizes the longstanding conflicts and provides utilities and distributed technology organizations with plans for working together on new energy market structures.

25x’25 commends the utilities, solar and wind interests, and regulators for taking on the tough job of getting together in a room and coalescing around fair and equitable paths forward. These are the steps that are carrying this country to a clean energy future.

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25x'25: High Octane, Low Carbon Fuels Can Help Meet CAFE, GHG Goals

The 25x’25 Alliance has joined a wide array of other clean air, public health, renewable energy and biofuel advocates in calling on federal and state regulators to put more focus on the composition of fuels to best deliver on the promises the agencies have placed in new engine technology they say will meet fuel efficiency and greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions standards into the next decade. By putting greater emphasis on what car and light truck engines can best burn, regulators will ensure consumers more efficient, more economic and more environmentally friendly transportation fuel.

The Alliance made its argument in comments submitted to EPA and the National Highway Transportation Safety Administration (NHTSA), as well as to the California Air Resources Board (CARB), in response to a draft Technical Assessment Report (TAR), a 1,200-plus page document issued earlier this year that is essentially a report card on the progress auto manufacturers are making in their pursuit of fuel economy standards that average 54.5 mph by 2025 for light duty cars and trucks.

Here’s how we got here: In October 2012, EPA adopted GHG emission standards through model years 2017-2025, with the 2022-2025 standards subject to the midterm evaluation process required by the agency’s regulations. Meanwhile, federal law allows the NHTSA to adopt Corporate Average Fuel Efficiency (CAFE) standards for only up to five model years at a time. So NHTSA is creating fuel efficiency standards now for model years 2022-2025. EPA and NHTSA will finalize their respective standards by April 1, 2018.

But as 25x’25 points out in its comments, a glaring omission from the Draft TAR is any effort to address and consider fuel quality and octane pathways for meeting the very aggressive GHG and fuel efficiency targets that have been established for model year 2022-2025 cars and light trucks. This is surprising, given the fact 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 high-octane, low-carbon (HOLC) fuels, specifically blends of ethanol in the 25-30-percent range. And recent studies by the Ford Motor Company and others show ethanol blends of up to 30 percent (E30) would increase fuel efficiency and reduce tailpipe carbon emissions by seven percent each. Just as important, the Alliance points out, the combination of HOLC fuels and higher compression engines can enable a compliance pathway that is much more cost-effective than many other more expensive and complex technologies

“The EPA and NHTSA should put considerable focus on the composition of liquid fuels, and their co-optimization with advanced internal combustion engines through MY 2025, thereby recognizing octane – as many other federal and industry partners already have – as the single most important fuel property for maximizing efficiency and performance,” 25x’25 tells the agencies. “We believe that EPA and NHTSA can achieve the GHG and CAFE goals for 2022-2025, but only if significant consideration and analysis is given to how HOLC fuels can contribute to fuel economy and carbon reduction compliance.”

The Alliance says the draft TAR should contain a detailed analysis of how HOLC fuels and high compression engines interact and perform against other compliance pathways using cost parameters and customer acceptance metrics. The evidence demonstrates that utilizing high compression, high efficiency spark ignition engines in association with low-cost HOLC fuels represents the most affordable and sustainable pathway for achieving the desired model year 2022-2025 benchmarks.

In comments submitted by the High, Octane, Low Carbon (HOLC) Alliance, a group of stakeholders representing a wide range of energy and agricultural interests with a specific focus on motor fuels, EPA is told that “study after study from DOE and others show that dramatic efficiency gains can be had in gasoline vehicles by using higher-octane fuels (RON 98-100) than are currently available at the pump.” The group says that encouraging the introduction of optimized high-octane vehicles sooner rather than later can help to ensure that carbon footprint standards are met in 2025.

The HOLC Alliance goes on to remind EPA of its own assessment that a high-octane fuel such as a mid- level ethanol blend “could help manufacturers that wish to raise compression ratios to improve vehicle efficiency, as a step toward complying with the 2017 and later light-duty greenhouse gas and CAFE standards,” and that such a strategy would “enhance the environmental performance of ethanol as a transportation fuel by using it to enable more fuel efficient engines.”

The Environmental and Energy Study Institute cites the work of Co-Optima, a joint industry-DOE effort investigating future fuel and engine design, in asserting that “in the near term, ethanol is the best bio-based octane booster available” for today’s newer, more efficient engines.

25x’25 has long participated in an Ag-Auto Ethanol work group made up of agriculture interests, auto manufacturers and supply chain members intent on helping federal regulators understand the advantages higher ethanol-blend gasoline, ranging from 25 percent ethanol (E25) to E85, can provide in raising octane ratings, making gasoline burn cleaner and reducing greenhouse gas emissions. The Alliance has long understood the value of innovation in our transportation fuels. We urge federal and state regulators come to a similar understanding and encourage use of the fuel solutions readily available.

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Climate Change, the U.S. Military and Renewable Fuels and Energy

A bipartisan group of retired military officers and national security officials last week issued a rather pointed statement that climate change poses a major security risk both in the United States. and abroad, and that a wide-ranging policy must be adopted to address the pending hazard.

Meanwhile, the Department of Defense is ramping up its development of no- and low-emission renewable resources – including wind and solar facilities, as well as biofuels – to ensure the military’s energy security. In addition, this week President Obama ordered 20 federal agencies with national security-related missions to consider the impact of climate change in their planning, amid warnings from scientists that rising temperatures could destabilize regions across the globe.

Combined, these developments show strong leadership from the U.S. military and national security interests, which is sending a clear message: U.S. policy makers have an obligation to meet the growing threats posed by climate change using all tools available, including laws, regulations, funding mechanisms, tax credits and other steps that can accelerate the development of cleaner, domestically produced energy sources.

“We the undersigned members of the U.S. national security community conclude that the effects of climate change present a strategically significant risk to U.S. national security and international security, and that the United States must advance a comprehensive policy for addressing this risk,” says the statement from the Climate and Security Consensus Project.

The project is an initiative from the Center for Climate and Security, a Washington-based think tank, and the statement was signed by some of the foremost experts in the military and national security arenas, including retired Gen. Anthony Zinni, former commander of the U.S. Central Command, and retired Adm. Samuel Locklear, who stepped down as head of the Pacific Command just last year.

The statement lists eight “determinations” that prompted their call for a comprehensive policy, including the stress that climate change will put on water, food and energy security here and around the world, and the likelihood that those stresses will result in major conflicts, state failures and mass migration. These experts say that climate change will severely impact U.S. military readiness and pose risks to critical U.S. energy and military infrastructure, as well as populations of coastal and water-stressed regions, economic hubs on the coasts and inland, and essential agricultural lands.

What’s important to understand is that the statement from the consensus project is only the latest warning from both retired and active military and national security experts, who, for years, have been adamant in their calls for strong U.S. policy leadership in the face of the growing threats emanating from a changing climate.

The absolutely critical need to maintain military readiness is the principal reason behind the Pentagon’s efforts to reduce fossil fuel use, and power installations with renewables like wind and solar, as well as fuel planes, ships and vehicles with biofuels.

Navy Secretary Ray Mabus and his forward-thinking push for biofuels to power his fleet and aircraft have for years served as prime examples of the kind of policy leadership needed to incorporate alternative fuels into operation supplies, increasing mission capability and flexibility, while reducing fossil-fuel emissions.

In addition to the highly touted “Great Green Fleet” – which demonstrated in exercises earlier this year the capabilities of a carrier strike group to use 50-50 biofuel blends – the Navy this month successfully test flew an EA-18G “Green Growler” on 100-percent advanced biofuel, demonstrating not only energy innovation, but a commitment to cleaner power operations.

In a world in which the United States has four percent of the population, but uses 25 percent of the world’s oil, our military – by far the biggest U.S. consumer of oil, at nearly 80 percent of the total federal government use – is showing our nation that the path to a clean energy future is not only viable, but absolutely necessary.

Earlier this month, the leak in an Alabama gasoline pipeline has underscored how consumers’ dependence on petroleum-based transportation fuel infrastructure can cause price and supply shocks. In many ways, the military is also restrained by aging infrastructure and vulnerability to energy supply disruptions that can affect their mission capability. The vulnerability of our energy production and distribution system means policy makers should stop creating roadblocks that impede the further development of renewable energy, including the production of advanced biofuels and the equipment optimized to utilize them. The military needs and wants them, but inconsistent policy signals from Washington have caused uncertainty in the investment and production sectors. Stakeholders are urged to reach out to their elected officials and call on them to take the steps needed to give consumers and the armed forces access to cleaner, more secure transportation fuels, as well as other reliable renewable energy resources.

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Study Says Influx of Dead Trees Can Be Handled Through Co-Burning

Researchers at the University of Wyoming say a vast number of trees killed by a bark beetle population that is rapidly expanding due to higher temperatures could be sustainably co-fired in coal plants.

It’s an important finding, especially as Congress undertakes conference committee work on House and Senate versions of energy legislation that includes in the Senate version a provision that deems biomass “carbon neutral.”

The language in the Senate provision would recognize that sustainably produced and managed biomass can offer valuable clean energy contributions and important carbon sequestration services to mitigate climate change. Currently 13 different definitions of biomass exist in various laws and regulations, and the bill’s sponsors hope that they can all be harmonized in a way that allows for the full potential for bioenergy solutions to be realized.

Erica Belmont and Emily Beagle, professors of mechanical engineering at the University of Wyoming, say in their report, which was published by the journal Science Direct, the “widespread mortality of forests in the western United States due to a bark beetle epidemic provides a source of biomass for power generation.”

The researchers assessed the availability and economics of co-firing beetle-kill biomass with coal in power plants in the western United States and concluded that “[s]ince biomass may be considered carbon neutral under careful management, co-combustion of biomass with coal provides power plants a way to meet emission reduction requirements, such as those in the EPA Clean Power Plan (CPP).”

They note that cost has been a barrier to co-firing, “but the economics are altered by emission reduction requirements,” such as the guidelines proposed under the Clean Power Plan, which is currently on hold pending resolution of a lawsuit, probably later next year.

Furthermore, they say co-firing reduces the need for the U.S. Forest Service (USFS) to manage beetle-kill trees, noting the mitigated treatment costs from the reduced risk of wildfire were considered as an effective subsidy of co-firing. In fact, they say policymakers should look at the “novel” approach of using USFS funding to subsidize co-firing, given the burning of beetle-kill biomass is “among the most economical ways to meet emission reduction requirements.”

In June, California’s Department of Forestry and Fire Protection, citing USFS aerial surveys, said there were more than 66 million dead trees across the state (up from 29 million in 2015), killed by drought and bark beetles since 2010 and prompting “continued concern for California’s forest health and wildfire danger.”

The California estimate shows the voraciousness with which the tree mortality epidemic is gripping the region, killing trees in numbers hard to imagine. But open-pile burning in the forest – the most commonly used method of disposing of woody biomass waste – is hardly an option, given the emissions of air pollutants, greenhouse gases (GHGs) and air toxics open burning produces.

While there will always be questions over the costs of transporting dead trees to power plants, the Wyoming researchers make the case that given the tough regulations aimed at reducing climate emissions that coal-fired plants are facing, obtaining and co-burning the biomass might be the more economical alternative.

They also point out that disposing of the biomass will release emissions anyway, so it could be better used by co-firing it in coal plants and helping to offset some of the heavier emissions that come from burning coal. And though only a small fraction in number when compared to coal-fired plants, biomass-only generating plants could also use the dead trees as fuel.

Another study published in July by researchers with the USFS, a number of California universities and others seems to underscore the Wyoming findings, by discussing the use of forest wastes from fuel hazard reduction projects as a means of electricity production. It makes the case for policies that monetize the reductions in emissions as a way of making the use of dead trees for energy production more economically viable. The state legislature ultimately passed a bill that would allow dead trees to be used as a power feedstock.

It’s an approach that policy makers intent on addressing climate change should consider. Start by harmonizing the legal and regulatory definitions of biomass to ensure that properly managed forests – both private and public – can make meaningful and significant contributions to our nation’s energy strategy, while also reducing the considerable hardships and risks associated with forest fires. Let’s not hinder our access to cleaner and more sustainable resources that can power this nation forward.

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Candidates for Office Would Do Well to Heed the Certainty of a Clean Energy Future

With the election campaign heading into the home stretch, recent developments in the renewable energy sector serve as reminders of the certainty of the significant role clean energy will play in our future, and all candidates for public office – be it for the White House, Congress, the statehouse or city hall – are urged to accept this inevitability.

And those still holding their seats on Capitol Hill have an opportunity over the next few months to demonstrate their grasp of the significance of renewables this fall when they take on a major energy bill that calls for infrastructure changes to better accommodate wind, solar and other clean power sources, as well as give biomass an equal footing in our nation’s energy strategy.

Those in Congress seeking re-election, as well as all others seeking voter support, understand that most elections focus critically on the state of the economy, which, in turn, means jobs. And the economic/jobs news from the renewable energy sector has been consistently good this campaign season.

Earlier this year The Solar Foundation (TSF), an independent nonprofit research and education organization, released state-by-state data from its annual National Solar Jobs Census series via the State Solar Jobs Census Map. The census shows that one out of every 80 jobs created since the financial crisis of 2008-09 came in the solar sector alone. If you account for new jobs also created in the wind, energy efficiency and other arenas, clean energy generated one out of 33 new jobs since the recession.

Driven by growth in wind and solar, renewable energy employment in the United States increased by 6 percent in 2015 to reach 769,000 jobs, according to data gathered by the International Renewable Energy Association.

Solar employment in the country continued its rapid expansion – growing by almost 22 percent to reach 209,000 in 2015, expanding about 12 times as fast as overall job creation in the U.S. economy, which had its second best year of job growth since 1999. It’s also important to note that solar installers are making an average of $21 per hour, up 5 percent in 2014 and twice the national average, according to The Solar Foundation. Given the congressional extension of the federal Investment Tax Credit through 2021, continued fast growth in the sector is expected.

The extension of the Production Tax Credit also should ensure continued growth of the wind energy industry over the next five years. The congressional move to push the PTC to 2020 came at the close of a year in which the wind sector registered a 21-percent gain in employment, to 88,00 jobs. American Wind Energy Association data shows component manufacturing employed 21,000 people; construction, project development and transportation accounted for 38,000 jobs; and operation and maintenance for 29,000 jobs.

A closer look at clean energy employment at the state level shows a similar trend of growth. For example, the North Carolina Sustainable Energy Association (NCSEA) earlier this year issued its latest census, covering 2015, which showed the renewable energy sector has been a rapidly growing part of the state’s economy since the first version of the report in 2008. Now numbering approximately 1,000 firms, the sector provides more than 26,000 full-time equivalent (FTE) jobs in the state (3,000 more than the number reported in 2014), and generates almost $7 billion in annual gross revenues, a $2-billion hike over 2014.

A quick look at the biofuel industry shows the federal Renewable Fuel Standard has driven the creation of nearly 360,000 direct, indirect and induced jobs nationwide, resulting in nearly $24 billion in wages in the ethanol sector. In addition, the economic activities of the ethanol industry have generated nearly $44 billion in incremental economic productivity and contributed nearly $4.8 billion in federal tax revenue and $3.9 billion in state and local government tax contributions.

Biodiesel production has created more than 62,000 jobs, $2.6 billion in wages and supported a total economic impact of $16.8 billion in 2013.

Policy makers, and those who are seeking to be policy makers, would also be well served to see who those jobs are going to. Nearly 10 percent of all who work in the solar industry – more than 13,000 people – are veterans. And programs like the one launched in Colorado this summer by Solar Energy Industries to train displaced coal and oil workers are sprouting up in areas of the nation where energy sourcing is undergoing transition.

Those seeking office should recognize that renewable energy is here to stay and will only continue to grow exponentially over the next several decades. The fact that a conservative bedrock like Iowa currently gets nearly a third of its power from renewable resources shows the expansion is taking place all across the nation. Voters understand that renewable energy is bringing with it cheaper, cleaner and more secure power, as well as a boost to the national and local economies with expanding job growth. It’s a good issue on which candidates for political office can take a stand.

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California Lawmakers Offer Clean Energy Strategy that Looks to the Future

The California legislature has sent to Gov. Jerry Brown a measure that will serve as a significant driver of the move toward cleaner transportation fuels, including biofuels. It’s a policy step that could likely serve as a template for policy makers in other states seeking to reach a clean energy future.

Senate Bill 32 sets a hugely aggressive target for reducing climate-altering emissions. The state is already looking at dropping emissions to 1990 levels by 2020. SB32 would hike that target to 40 percent below 1990 levels by 2030.

Among the tools available to meet that ambitious goal is a state Renewable Energy Portfolio adopted by policy makers last year that requires retail sellers and publicly owned utilities to obtain at least 50 percent of their electricity from eligible renewable energy resources by 2030. It’s a commitment that Brown said calls for “groundbreaking steps to increase the efficiency of our cars, buildings and appliances, and provide ever more renewable energy.”

Another tool is the state’s Low Carbon Fuel Standard (LCFS), a regulatory requirement that calls for a 10-percent drop in the carbon intensity of the state’s transportation fuels by 2030. Media reports out of California indicate the LCFS weathered plans by some in the legislature to weaken or eliminate the LCFS in exchange for maintaining a cap-and-trade program that would be reinforced by SB32. But not only did the LCFS survive, the California Air Resources Board is expected to increase the standard’s carbon intensity reductions beyond 2030 to as much as 30 percent.

Of course, critical to meeting the LCFS targets will continue to be the role of biofuels, which reduce emissions anywhere from 35 to 85 percent when compared to gasoline or diesel, depending upon the type of alternative fuel used.

While some other states have recently set high RPS targets (Hawaii, New York and Massachusetts, among them), California has long been recognized as the most aggressive in its pursuit of policies – including the LCFS ‑ that sustain and boost clean energy as a means of reducing greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions and help stem the changes in climate that scientists say are resulting in increasing atmospheric and ocean temperatures, volatile weather patterns (including extensive drought and flooding) and disruptions in crop and livestock production.

California, which readily utilizes policy in a way leaders around world are likely to emulate to address changing climate conditions in their own countries and regions, values the role of biofuels in its strategy aimed at achieving its climate change goals. And by extension, it underscores the part that biofuels can play on a national level as the Obama administration mounts its own efforts to address climate change.

Unfortunately, the White House is still falling short in its purported commitment to biofuels, continuing to propose biofuel blending requirements under the Renewable Fuel Standard (RFS) that fall short of the levels set when the RFS was reauthorized and expanded nine years ago.

And news this week from USDA on projections for farm income this year – it’s expected to fall to its lowest level since 2009 – give even greater urgency to the need to fully implement the RFS biofuel blending requirements set in the 2007 law.

The drop in income is driven in large part by a decline in prices for a wide range of commodities, including biofuel feedstocks corn and soybeans, which are both expected to set production records this year. Reducing the requirements for biofuels and creating a subsequent drop in the domestic market for corn and soybeans not only impacts federal efforts to address climate change, it also hurts farmers.

As Chip Bowling, president of the National Corn Growers Association, recently told The Wall Street Journal, “Rural America needs help.” Low commodity prices, he said, “will result in fewer family farms, fewer jobs and economic hardship.”

Policy makers everywhere serious about efforts to reverse rising temperatures and the corresponding damages that come with climate change should look to the future and – like California lawmakers and regulators – implement the strategies that deal with the challenges to come. That means using all of the policy tools available to them, including those that boost the production and use of biofuels.

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EPA Failure to Update Lifecycle Assessment Sells Ethanol Benefits Short

News out of EPA last week caught few in the biofuel sector unaware. The agency’s inspector general (IG) issued a report finding EPA had failed to comply with the statutory requirement to provide a report every 3 years to Congress on the impacts of biofuels.

EPA’s Office of Air and Radiation last provided a report to Congress in 2011, but has failed to provide any subsequent reports. Also, the IG found that the agency has not fulfilled the “anti-backsliding” requirements for the Renewable Fuel Standard (RFS), which are to analyze and address any negative air quality impacts the national biofuel blending requirement might produce.

The report notes that in 2010, EPA completed a comprehensive lifecycle analysis to determine greenhouse gas (GHG) reduction thresholds for biofuel eligibility under the RFS. Although not required to do so, EPA committed to update the analysis as lifecycle science evolves, but the agency has never developed a process to do so.

The IG’s findings underscore to some degree EPA’s seeming obliviousness to the wide and varied benefits that recent research has shown that ethanol and other biofuels offer in support of the Obama administration’s efforts to curb climate change. The agency simply hasn’t put the means in place to formally evaluate the latest research available.

Ethanol advocates have long called into question the data EPA has used in projecting the lifecycle analysis for ethanol and gasoline under the RFS, accusing the agency of consistently using outdated and inaccurate information that short sells ethanol’s performance as a cleaner, reduced-emission alternative in our nation’s transportation fuel supply.

Last April on behalf of the Energy Future Coalition, the Urban Air Institute and the Governors’ Biofuels Coalition, Boyden Gray and Associates PLLC submitted a formal Request for Correction of Information to EPA on the agency’s lifecycle analysis. The request detailed how EPA has long failed to assimilate new evidence demonstrating significant improvements that have been made in ethanol’s lifecycle GHG emissions.

The groups’ request takes on new weight, given that EPA has been called out from within the agency to update its findings. That update will reflect a wealth of evidence that shows the lifecycle GHG benefits of the RFS are much greater than predicted back in 2010, including improved economic models and newly available land-use data from periods of increasing corn ethanol production, which show significant increases in yield but no significant increases in land use change.

More recent data will also show improved agricultural practices and technologies that are substantially reducing the carbon intensity of ethanol by increasing the ability of soil to capture and retain carbon deep below ground. There is, in fact, strong evidence indicating that many corn fields are net carbon “sinks,” capturing more carbon than land-use change and corn farming releases.

The IG’s findings also come as EPA, the Department of Transportation and the California Air Resources Board are in the midst of a midterm evaluation of light-duty vehicle GHG emission standards and corporate average fuel economy standards for model years 2022-2025. The first formal step of the midterm evaluation process is the development of the Technical Assessment Report (TAR), a 1,200-plus-page document that measures the progress auto manufacturers are making in their pursuit of GHG standards targeted to meet 163 CO2 g/mi and fuel economy standards targeted to meet 54.5 mph by 2025.

A glaring omission from the TAR is any effort to consider fuel quality and octane pathways for meeting the very aggressive GHG and fuel efficiency targets that have been established since 2012. However, the IG report explains why the omission should not be that surprising, given that EPA has yet to take under consideration the work done by DOE’s national laboratories and others showing that major engine-efficiency and emission-reduction benefits can be derived from high-octane, low-carbon (HOLC) fuels, specifically blends of ethanol in the 25-40-percent range.

Somewhat encouraging are recent remarks from Chris Grundler, director of the EPA’s office of transportation and air quality, who said the agency will look at raising octane levels in gasoline as a pathway for achieving fuel efficiency targets. Ethanol is bound to be an element in those agency discussions. But those deliberations are not expected for several years and higher octane levels may not be put in place until after new fuel efficiency standards are established beyond 2025.

EPA and its fellow agencies are accepting comments on the TAR through Sept. 26. Meanwhile, the comment period for EPA’s proposals regarding biofuel blending levels is over, but the agency is not expected to finalize those proposals until Nov. 30.

Opportunities are there for stakeholders to make their voices heard, first by calling on EPA to accelerate its consideration of the readily available lifecycle analysis research from DOE and others before decisions are finalized on both the TAR and the RFS. 25x’25 urges renewable energy partners to reach out to lawmakers and ask them to call on EPA to comply with its due diligence obligations and consider all of the evidence that is critical to the agency’s evaluations.

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Energy Storage Critical to Meeting the 25x'25 Vision

A flurry of activity in the energy storage field – both high profile and relatively low key – could have major implications for renewable energy by giving constancy to the otherwise intermittent nature of sources like wind and solar, and making renewables more attractive to policy makers seeking to diversify our energy options.

The “friendly acquisition” of SolarCity – a major rooftop panel installer – proposed by Tesla – an electric vehicle manufacturer and builder of high-capability, long-term batteries – is the most recent development. And while the implications of the merger have yet to emerge, Tesla founder Elon Musk says that in five years, the solar-plus-battery dynamic will prove to be a boon to homeowners with panels installed who are seeing a potential future of fading net metering compensation.

Similar in scope is the $1.1-billion acquisition this past spring of Saft – a prominent battery manufacturer – by the French oil company, Total. The purchase follows the European oil and gas giant’s announcement last fall that it plans to spend at least $500 million annually in renewable energy such as solar and biofuel. Total spent $1.4 billion in 2011 to acquire a majority stake in SunPower Inc., a major U.S. solar panel manufacturer.

The French company’s move into the battery market, which will have the added advantage of boosting storage research, shows that even legacy energy powers understand the changing energy horizon and recognize the growing value of storage in an approaching era where clean renewable energy will replace fossil fuels in powering our homes and automobiles.

The growth of the storage market in the United States is accelerating rapidly. The Energy Storage Association says system installations grew more than 250 percent in 2015 and are continuing to trend upward this year. Costs for lithium-ion batteries have declined more than 70 percent in the last 18 months alone. Globally, installed energy storage capacity is projected to double in 2016 and grow more than tenfold by 2025. And the management consulting firm McKinsey and Company says the market will grow a hundredfold – to $90 billion – by 2025.

That growth is being driven by research like that underway in labs across the country where experts are seeking ways to enhance storage technology and drive down costs. The DOE is funding 75 projects, developing electricity storage, marshalling research teams at Harvard, MIT and Stanford, as well as at the Lawrence Livermore and Oak Ridge National Laboratories.

According to the federal Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy (ARPA-E), the technologies under study range from hydrogen bromide, zinc-air batteries, molten glass storage and new flywheel designs. DOE officials say the work can result in a drop in storage costs of up to 90 percent, reaching an industry goal of $100 per kilowatt hour within five years.

Earlier this year, the Brattle Group released a report commissioned by the National Rural Electric Cooperatives Association and the Natural Resources Defense Council that spoke to the viability of residential water heaters serving, essentially, as pre-installed thermal batteries that, otherwise, are sitting idle in homes across the United States. The report says that by heating the water in the tank to store thermal energy, water heaters can be controlled in real-time to shift electricity consumption from higher-priced hours when less efficient generating units are operating on the margin to lower-priced hours when less costly generation is operating.

Energy storage is expected to play an increasingly important role in reaching the nation’s climate and clean energy goals in the years ahead, and the growth of the technology is good reason for lawmakers to incentivize that development through policy mechanisms like a comprehensive investment tax credit (ITC).

Under IRS rules, some storage applications can qualify for a credit under existing ITC standards, but eligibility is decided on a case-by-case basis and the rules are ambiguous. Legislation has recently been introduced in both the House (H.R. 5350) and Senate (S. 3159) that would implement a clearly defined 30-percent ITC for energy storage similar to the tax credit for solar power that was extended through 2022 in a measure passed last December.

Stakeholders should call on their lawmakers to support the legislation and other federally supported research efforts that can boost the expanded development of inexpensive energy storage, which, in turn, will play a major role in implementing the renewable energy technology that can help us meet the 25x’25 Vision.

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