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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