Proposed House Farm Bill Falls Short in Properly Underpinning 21st Century Agriculture – updated

Editor’s Note: This update of our blog clarifies the amounts and conservation program targets of funding reductions called for in the House farm bill legislation.

As U.S. agriculture makes its way well into the 21st century, the sector finds itself at a critical juncture in its pursuit of the sustainable production of food, feed, fiber and fuel, not just for domestic consumption, but also for much of the world.

The economic downturn America’s farmers have found themselves experiencing over the past four years demonstrates their vulnerability to changing conditions, including often uncertain market forces that impact commodity supply and demand. And in recent decades, changes in climate have placed additional pressures on productivity, net farm income and soil and water resources.

Given these uncertainties, it is important that policy makers provide U.S. farmers, ranchers and forestland owners the tools – programs, funding mechanisms, incentives, tax breaks and research, among others – they need to meet the challenges that will likely further intensify going forward.

But in the light of this reality, a draft farm bill intended to set agricultural policy in this country for the next five years, is, at best, disappointing in its weak approach to programs that can help insure a stable path through uncertain times, such as farm-based energy development, energy efficiency initiatives for rural businesses, and land conservation.

Scheduled for markup by the House Agriculture Committee this morning, the proposed legislation drops the traditional “Energy Title” and folds its programs under the Rural Development Title. Furthermore, the bill would strip programs of mandatory funding they may have received in previous years, making their chances of survival daunting in a budget-hawkish environment. (The bill will undergo intense scrutiny whenever it gets to the Senate, where it has drawn criticism on several fronts.)

The Energy Title, which has been included in the farm bill since 2002, has helped farmers, ranchers, small businesses and rural communities generate thousands of jobs and millions of dollars in economic development.

Those programs at risk include the high-profile, widely used Rural Energy for America Program (REAP), which carries no funding in the actual bill, though it is marked in a bill summary for $45 million in discretionary funding. REAP has supported more than 15,000 energy-saving and clean energy-producing projects in rural areas across the country since 2012.

Other programs seen as critical in their contributions to agriculture’s economic health are left with small, annual discretionary amounts, including the Biomass Crop Assistance Program (BCAP, $25 million), which supports U.S. cellulosic biofuel production; and the Biorefinery, Renewable Chemical and Biobased Product Manufacturing Assistance Program ($75 million).

The Conservation Title of the draft farm bill also falls short. The voluntary conservation programs are incredibly popular – some 75 percent of those applying for the program have to be turned away for lack of funding – and contribute to our increasing need to protect water resources and mitigate climate.

While acreage would increase under the Conservation Reserve Program (CRP), the nation’s largest in terms of land enrolled, rental payments would go down, offsetting – if not lessening – the benefits it offers in taking environmentally sensitive lands out of production.

As for what advocates call the nation’s premier working lands initiative, the Conservation Stewardship Program (CSP) would be rolled over into the Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP), despite distinct differences in the programs’ respective approaches to conservation. A Congressional Budget Office analysis shows the move to incorporate the CSP into EQIP would  ultimately reduce combined funding for the two programs by $5 billion. When calculating spending called for by the bill for all programs in the Conservation Title, including some increases, total funding over the next decade would fall by nearly $800 million. And that follows a $4 billion cut in the 2012 farm bill.

Solutions from the Land (SfL) reminds federal policy makers that 21st century challenges require 21st century solutions. The policies and programs of the past will not meet the needs of today and tomorrow. SfL urges House members to retain and properly fund the Farm Bill’s Energy Title and conservation programs like CSP that reward producers for applying systems and practices that deliver multiple solutions from the land – food, feed, fiber, energy, clean water, biodiversity and a host of ecosystem services that benefit farms, ranches, forests and the environment.


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Agroforestry Can Offer Greater Land Resiliency, Productivity, Profitability

More than ever, farmers, ranchers and forestland owners in this country are being challenged to meet food, feed, fiber and fuel demands in the face of uncertain and changing climate conditions, including the volatile weather-related conditions – tornados, drought, flooding, wildfires – that come with them.

Agricultural producers are constantly looking for land management practices that can help them deal with these often-unpredictable conditions. USDA and the U.S. Forest Service have recently released a report – “Agroforestry: Enhancing Resiliency in U.S. Agricultural Landscapes Under Changing Conditions” – that addresses the concept of intentionally integrating trees and shrubs into crop and livestock production systems, a move that can enhance not only the resiliency, but also the productivity and profitability of agricultural operations and lands.

Among the practices cited in the assessment is alley cropping, in which trees or shrubs are grown around or among crops, to reduce wind velocity, decrease erosion and improve soil health. Silvopasture, the sustainable production of livestock and trees on the same plot of land, allows trees to be managed for timber or other tree crops, while providing shade and shelter for livestock.

Riparian buffers – vegetated areas along streams and other water bodies – stabilize banks, reduce nutrient runoff, and provide shade that helps keep rising stream temperatures in check. Forest farming, or the cultivation of high-value crops like ginseng or shitake mushrooms under a forest canopy, is another agroforestry tool used to diversify farm portfolios and provide economic stability for landowners.

As highlighted in the new USDA report, research suggests that in addition to helping mitigate greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, agroforestry provides production and environmental benefits by:

  • Modifying the climate around production fields (microclimate) in ways that can enhance livestock productivity and well-being and improve crop yields from 6 to 56 percent, depending on crop type.
  • Reducing soil erosion from water and wind, improving soil physical conditions and fertility, and thereby protecting future soil productivity.
  • Protecting streambanks and infrastructure, moderating runoff, and ameliorating high stream temperatures, thus protecting water quality and aquatic ecosystems.
  • Creating habitat refuge areas and connectivity across highly fragmented agricultural landscapes, protecting biodiversity, including pollinators and beneficial insects.
  • Generating innovative food-producing systems that diversify farm portfolios and increase economic opportunities and stability for the landowner.

Regional perspectives offered by the document on the status and potential future role of agroforestry include the Midwest, where more than two-thirds of the land is in agricultural use, with corn and soybean constituting 85 percent of crop receipts. The report also points out that increased heat stress, alternating flooding and drought cycles, and higher populations of harmful insects are major climatic challenges faced by producers in the region.

However, the report also cites that riparian forest buffers are already being used in the Midwest to reduce water-quality concerns, and the practice is expected to grow as extreme rainfall events increase. Furthermore, the expanded use of windbreaks and alley cropping there will buffer the effects of warmer temperatures on crops and livestock and help boost populations of beneficial insects.

The report states that the range of climate-related threats to U.S. agriculture may exceed those generated by the 1930s Dust Bowl. But so is the potential for agroforestry to address them.

Solutions from the Land urges producers to look over this assessment and take advantage of the technical assistance offered through federal and state conservation programs, which provide planning and design processes for implementation. Agroforestry can be a “win-win” solution in increasingly uncertain times and conditions.


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EPA Decision Offers Potential New Pathway for Meeting Vehicle Efficiency, Emission Standards

Yesterday, EPA announced its decision on whether the corporate average fuel efficiency (CAFE) and greenhouse gas (GHG) standards adopted by the Obama administration for model year 2022-2025 light vehicles are “appropriate.”

Not surprisingly, EPA Chief Scott Pruitt said they are not and should be revised. While that has drawn criticism from many, especially in the environmental community, other stakeholders see the rule-making process set in motion by Pruitt’s announcement as an opportunity to put forward new ways of reaching ambitious efficiency and emission-reduction goals for the next decade’s vehicle fleet.

In its formal notice, EPA concedes for the first time the role high-octane, low-carbon fuels can play in meeting higher, fuel-efficiency targets. Glaring in its omission from the 2016 intermediate assessment proffered by the previous administration was 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 since 2012.

The previous administration’s failure to include these pathways was surprising, given that DOE’s national laboratories had been reporting extensively over the previous 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. Another study published in 2016 by DOE’s Oak Ridge National Laboratory shows mid-level ethanol blends (E25-E40) could offer an improvement in vehicle fuel efficiency by 5-10 percent in vehicles designed and dedicated to use the increased octane, and could provide lower well-to-wheel GHG emissions from a combination of improved vehicle efficiency and increased use of ethanol.

This week’s formal notice acknowledges the recent comments submitted to the agency from ethanol producers and agricultural organizations who support high-octane blends from clean sources as a way to enable GHG reducing technologies, such as higher compression-ratio engines. EPA now recognizes that mid-level, high-octane ethanol blends such as E30 and other new technologies should be considered as part of the evaluation of the standards.

EPA officials need only look a short distance across town to find DOE research touted in February that identifies high-octane blendstocks that could be blended into gasoline for better performance. Released by the department’s Co-Optimization of Engines and Fuels initiative (Co-Optima), the reports represented a major milestone in the first-of-its-kind research that aims to simultaneously transform both transportation fuels and vehicles to maximize performance and efficiency, while minimizing their environmental impact.

The research builds on Co-Optima data first released last June that showed ethanol is the leading candidate fuel additive to achieve 2025 efficiency and clean air goals for the American transportation system.

As ethanol interests have noted this week, some might fear Pruitt’s decision means will lead to a relaxation of GHG standards, allowing more gasoline use and tailpipe pollution. But as the DOE research has shown, if mid-level ethanol blend fuels are approved for use in future engines, transformative reductions in GHG emissions and improvements in fuel economy could be realized.

Some auto industry leaders have said in recent weeks that they are not necessarily advocating a reduction in the average fuel efficiency standards proposed for 2025 (currently 51.5 mpg). But they do want the flexibility to explore different technologies to get them to improved performance, including raising the octane level of gasoline. And they acknowledge that the world market is shifting to low-carbon transportation, and for U.S. auto manufacturers to remain competitive, they must reduce emissions.

The 25x’25 Alliance encourages EPA, which oversees vehicle emissions, and the National Highway Transportation Safety Board, which sets efficiency standards, to establish a higher minimum octane level for transportation fuels and remove non-sensical regulatory barriers which block their use. By doing so the agencies can open a near-term, low-cost pathway that auto manufacturers can use to achieve stringent emission and efficiency standards.


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NACSAA Advances Recommendations to Shape UNFCCC Agricultural Work Program

Last November, we wrote here of a major breakthrough occurring at the global climate talks in Bonn, Germany, where, for the first time, delegates approved plans to establish an agricultural work program.

What that meant is that representatives of nations around the world officially recognized the need to address agricultural adaptation and mitigation challenges, an objective that has been sought by Solutions from the Land (SfL), 25x’25’s parent organization, since the climate talks in Paris in 2017.

Now, only a few months later, the North American Climate Smart Agriculture Alliance (NACSAA), an initiative launched by SfL, has submitted to two subsidiary bodies established by the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) a series of recommendations in an initial stage of the formation of a joint agriculture work plan. That an agricultural approach to climate change is now being considered is a major policy breakthrough. It positions agricultural landscapes as a solution to climate challenges, and particularly in its focus on ways agricultural landscapes can be managed to produce clean energy and sequester carbon.

It’s only appropriate that these recommendations come from NACSAA, a farmer-led platform for inspiring, educating and equipping agricultural partners to innovate and implement effective local adaptation practices that sustain productivity, enhance climate resilience, and contribute to the local and global goals for sustainable development. Signing off on the recommendations is an extraordinary group of 60 principal interests and organizations from the agriculture, conservation, biofuel, academic, government and environmental fields.

The recommendations from NACSAA, which reflect and embrace all forms and scales of agriculture in Canada, Mexico and the United States, ranging from small landholders to midsize and large-scale producers, come in support of the directive out of the Bonn talks that the joint work on agriculture take into consideration the vulnerabilities of agriculture to climate change and approaches to addressing food security. The alliance also makes clear that the work effort should be undertaken within the context of the three primary pillars of climate smart agriculture:

  • Sustainably increasing agricultural productivity and livelihoods;
  • Enhancing adaptive capacity and improving resilience to climate change; and
  • Delivering ecosystem services, sequestering carbon, and reducing and/or avoiding greenhouse gas emissions.

While the joint work on agriculture will be applicable to both developed and developing countries, the NACSAA recommendations have specific areas of focus, calling on the effort to incorporate meetings of experts and workshops that can lead to an integrated strategy that enhances the sustainability and climate resilience of working landscapes, as well as reducing and/or avoiding greenhouse gas emissions,

All of the recommendations require assessments of the state of scientific knowledge and identify innovative, efficient and state-of- the-art technologies and know-how in those specific areas of focus, including livestock production, where improved practices can enhance sustainability and climate resilience.

Others include soil health, including management of soil carbon and how crop and livestock interacts with the soil. A water resource management recommendation calls for looking at practices that sustain water productivity and protect water quality. An examination of bioenergy, NACSAA says, should offer it as a climate change mitigation solution pathway.

Assessing innovation in crop and nutrient management can produce strategies that enhance the sustainability and climate resilience of working landscapes. A similar outcome should be pursued in an assessment of the management practices related to agroforestry and other ecologically diverse cropping systems.

The process of developing the work plan for agriculture will be long and laborious. But the organizations that proffer these recommendations understand the unprecedented opportunity being presented by the global discussions of resilience and mitigation solutions that can been offered by agriculture. These policy proposals are going to be developed, regardless of the farm sector’s participation. Now, agriculture interests have earned a meaningful place at the table and can discuss solutions they can offer, not just watch from the sidelines. The organizations are united in their pursuit of the ultimate goal: good policy that enhances agriculture and the environment.


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Ag Day Recognizes Sustainable Production of Food, Feed, Fiber, Energy, Ecosystem Services

Today marks the 45th annual celebration of National Agriculture Day, which, as a White House proclamation states, acknowledges “the tremendous work ethic, ingenuity, determination and perseverance that define generations of American farmers. Because of their efforts, the United States produces an abundant supply of food, feed and fuel for a growing global population.”

It is a day during which producers, agricultural associations, corporations, universities, government agencies and countless others from across the United States gather to celebrate the benefits provided by American agriculture. It will feature policy discussions, speeches and salutations at events in Washington, D.C., and in states across the country to recognize the role America’s farmers and ranchers continue to play in meeting the world’s growing demand for food, feed, fiber – and as the White House proclamation points out – fuel.

Today’s observations and events are part of the growing recognition of agriculture’s transition into a much broader role, beyond providing the food, feed and fiber that the nation has enjoyed and the world has needed over the past 100 years. Our nation’s crop, livestock and forestry producers also give us clean, renewable energy; biodiversity that enhances habitats; stewardship of natural, sustainable resources; and in most cases, a line of defense in efforts to reduce global emissions that scientists say contribute to a changing climate.

Sponsors of National Ag Day events around the country are making it their mission to make their neighbors aware of how food, fiber and renewable resource products are produced. And they are highlighting the essential role of agriculture in maintaining a strong economy. For every $1 of United States agricultural and food exports generated by a mere fraction of the nation’s population, another $1.27 in business activity is created. U.S. agriculture exports are valued at more than $100 billion, and every $1 billion in exports supports approximately 8,000 American jobs. Also, agriculture contributes to at least 8.6 percent of the U.S. gross domestic product.

National Ag Day also aims to generate among all Americans a sense of appreciation for the role agriculture plays in providing safe, abundant and affordable products. And while agriculture in this country has typically been thought of more in the traditional sense of families putting in long hours to produce rows and rows of commodities that find their way to dinner tables around the country, what doesn’t often come to mind are the multiple roles that the men and women who farm our productive lands must take on every day – conservationist, agronomist, environmental engineer, logistician, transportation manager, manpower specialist, communicator, marketer and financial planner, among many others.

The evolution in skills required has brought with it a relatively new set of responsibilities that include not only maintaining the productive capacity of their lands, but also the implementation of land management practices that serve the wider good and contribute to a more sustainable planet.

U.S. producers understand that good conservation practices not only enhance soil, air and water quality, but also offer strong economic benefits – a finding particularly true in the production of biofuel feedstocks, an area where growers are using less land and less water to produce even greater quantities of biofuels.

Other examples of U.S. farm and forest lands meeting much of the nation’s renewable energy needs in a way that is economically and environmentally sustainable is the siting of virtually all of America’s no-carbon wind power facilities on rural land; the generation from U.S. forests of the biomass that offer low-emission alternatives to fossil-based power sources like coal or petroleum-based natural gas; and the capture and production of biogas resources from livestock operations that are used to displace fossil-based transportation and heating fuels.

As it does every year, National Ag Day underscores the part farmers and ranchers play not only in putting food and fiber on our store shelves, but also in developing and building the practices and management tools needed to sustainably meet society’s increasing demand for food, fiber, energy and a healthy environment. We commend these stewards of the land in their efforts.


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Nebraska Event Shows Where Agriculture is Heading in 21st Century

Earlier this month, Jerry Vap, a member of the board of directors of Solutions from the Land, the 25x’25 Alliance’s parent organization, addressed a “Bird & Pollinator Friendly Solar Day” program in Kearney, NE. Vap was part of a workshop panel held during the event, sharing his insights into rural electric cooperative and public power district solar development and its benefits to agriculture and the environment.

The day showed where agriculture is heading into the 21st century, offering a model of energy development, wildlife habitat conservation and water quality protection.

Being celebrated was the largest solar array in Nebraska, which also features landscaping across its 53-acre site that includes hundreds of thousands of pollinator and bird-friendly native flowers and grasses – more than that produced by the native flower gardens of 32,000 homes.

The facility represents a collaboration of Kearney city officials; the Rowe Audubon Center; Fresh Energy, an environmental and renewable energy consulting firm; and SoCore Energy, a developer, owner and operator of home, commercial and industrial solar projects across the country.

Local and regional leaders gathered this month – at a time when Kearney is a national destination for millions of Sandhill cranes – to formerly commemorate and highlight how the solar array is good for birds and wildlife, including pollinators, as well as good for economic development.

Vap, a lifelong conservationist and a past president of the National Association of Conservation Districts, was part of an event that shined a light on design and development approaches – for the land under and around ground-mounted solar arrays – that improve the quality of soil, provide superior stormwater management, offer greater resilience to droughts and downpours, and significantly benefit wildlife.

Vap’s input at the workshop was especially pertinent, given his previous, 15-year tenure on the Nebraska Public Service Commission (he served as chairman on four different occasions during his time on the commission). He has led the 25x’25 Alliance’s Energy for Economic Growth program, working with rural electric cooperatives across the country to help them integrate renewable energy generation into their portfolios.

Given that pollinator populations are declining across the country, the native plantings like those at the Kearney site, are important to maintaining those populations, which ultimately help create the food people eat. And the site is conveniently located next to power lines, eliminating the need to create additional transmission facilities.

For too long, our nation’s working lands and the services they provide have been managed in “silos,” narrowly focusing on either food, habitat, water quality or endangered species objectives and outcomes. Efforts through Solutions from the Land and other forward-thinking advocacy and collaborative interests cite the facility in Kearney as evidence of the new way forward – one by which land is managed in a more integrated way.

A principle that drives Solutions from the Land is that 21st century problems require 21st century solutions. Many of the policies and programs of the past cannot meet the needs of tomorrow. Of course, the new way forward begins with recognizing that to achieve the outcomes wanted and needed, there must be an economic return for those who invest in that path forward.

The event in Kearney offers policy makers a fresh look at ways rural landscapes – including farms, forests, grasslands and others – can be managed and repurposed to deliver production, environmental and economic returns to the country and to the people who work them, the guardians and stewards of America’s working lands. We urge officials at all levels to take note of these growing trends in land management and adopt the policies, programs and funding mechanisms that can bring about the changes needed.


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Indiana-Based Co-Op Demonstrates Clean Energy Leadership, Foresight

Wabash Valley Power, an electric generation and transmission (G&T) cooperative based in Indianapolis, this week demonstrated clean energy leadership and foresight, signing off on a 30-year Power Purchase Agreement (PPA) to be the sole buyer of electricity from a 99-megawatt (MW) solar array planned for construction in Illinois’ Perry County.

The co-op’s pursuit of clean energy is providing the impetus to build the Prairie State Solar Project, which is expected to be the largest in Illinois and will more than double that state’s current solar capacity of 81.5 MW, according to the Solar Energy Industries Association.

The significance of the move by Wabash Valley Power into the PPA is generated in part by the size of the G&T enterprise. It supplies electricity to 23 not-for-profit electric distribution cooperatives located throughout Illinois, Missouri and Indiana. Collectively, the cooperatives serve more than 311,000 homes, farms, schools and businesses.

Construction on the utility-scale solar development being built by New York-based Ranger Power is expected to begin next year. The project is scheduled to come online in 2021, when it will provide enough electricity to power nearly 15,000 homes.

The PPA and its attending project underscore a strong development environment sparked by declining prices of utility-scale solar, a factor coupled with a growing commitment from state governments to create revenue and in-state energy jobs.

Specifically, the new array will represent a nearly $100-million investment in southwestern Illinois that also will contribute millions of dollars in tax revenue without requiring additional public infrastructure or services.

And the Prairie State Solar Project supports the objectives of the Future Energy Jobs Act, an Illinois law that went into effect last year requiring at least 4,300 MW of new solar and wind energy to be built in the state by 2030. The new solar project also supports the law’s job creation initiative by creating an estimated 200 jobs during the construction phase, and 3 to 5 full-time positions once the site is operational.

While the Wabash Valley Power PPA with the Illinois facility is significant, it is not without precedent. The co-op has 16 waste-to-energy, landfill-based methane gas capture plants providing 53 MW in power; five small solar facilities spread across three states producing 1.7 MW; a PPA with four anaerobic digestion facilities generating 6 MW; and PPAs for some 64 MW in wind power.

The co-op’s leadership has long demonstrated a desire to explore the renewable option. Greg Wagoner, WVP’s executive vice president for stakeholder and government relations, joined other utility executives and rural energy leaders on a weeklong, 25x’25-sponsored renewable energy tour of Germany in late 2012.

Greg was part of the leadership of 25x’25’s Energy for Economic Growth (EEG) initiative, and in Germany, he and his colleagues saw firsthand the transformation in electricity generation underway. The renewable share of the power market in that country had already reached 25 percent that year, having grown from just 6 percent in 2000. Greg and the others returned enlightened and motivated, flush with ideas for distributed generation projects that could deliver win-win outcomes for rural electric co-ops and their members.

Almost six years later, Wabash Valley is part of a growing trend among cooperatives – and all utilities in general – turning more and more toward renewables. The National Rural Electric Cooperative Association (NRECA), which represents nearly 900 cooperatives, public power districts and public utility districts located in 47 states and provides electric service to almost three-quarters of the nation’s landmass, recently released an analysis showing power from renewable energy is increasing, while that from coal is falling rapidly.

NRECA numbers show 95 percent of its distribution members offer renewable options to 40 million Americans. Including federal hydropower, co-ops own or purchase roughly 10 percent of all U.S. renewable capacity. They own more than 1.3 gigawatts (GW) of renewable capacity and have long-term power purchase agreements for nearly 7.4 GW – in addition to roughly 10 GW of preference power contracts with federal hydroelectric facilities.

The 25x’25 Alliance commends Wabash Valley Power and other rural electric co-ops that are actively pursuing greater development of renewable energy in this country. Wabash joins co-ops that are currently set to add more than 1 GW of additional renewable capacity over the next few years. It’s just more evidence of the inevitable transition toward cleaner resources to meet the nation’s future energy needs.


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Even Amidst Drama, RFS, Utility Survey Shows Strength of Renewables

The continuing drama taking place in Washington this week over the Renewable Fuel Standard (RFS) underscores a basic truth in the energy world: Certainty of policy generates growth and benefits consumers.

After more than four months, the nomination of former Iowa Agriculture Secretary Bill Northey to a key USDA undersecretary position was finally released Tuesday and then was immediately sent to the Senate floor where it was rapidly approved by a voice vote.

Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX) was using the procedural hold on Northey’s nomination in an effort to force revisions that would weaken the RFS, a policy program adopted by a widely bipartisan vote of Congress in 2007.

Iowa Sens. Chuck Grassley and Joni Ernst, along with lawmakers from other ethanol states, have been successful in fending off the assaults on the RFS from Cruz and other senators with strong oil refinery interests. Cruz released Northey’s nomination just as he, Grassley, Ernst and other parties in the dispute met with President Trump, a strong ethanol supporter, and key cabinet members at the White House to discuss the conflict. Nothing definitive came out of the meeting, though ethanol and oil industry representatives are reportedly being called to the White House today to form a task forces in an effort to find some resolution.

But paramount among the sentiments that are emerging after months of debate is the certainty of a biofuel policy that has served as a strong driver for the rural economy, created new markets for farmers, generated new jobs in rural America, given consumers more fuel choices, and improved national security and our nation’s air quality.

Of course, not all policies that have pushed this country towards a clean energy future are free from potential disruption. Still, a wide range of renewable energy resources continue to be put in play by interests that recognize the long-term, economic advantages they hold over their fossil-fuel counterparts.

A good example of that growing faith in clean energy is a new survey of North American utility executives undertaken by the trade publication, Utility Drive. It shows that while utilities are wary of the administration’s energy policy reform agendas, they remain unmoved in their commitment to a cleaner energy future and overwhelmingly dedicated to moving to a lower-carbon, more distributed electricity system.

The survey was conducted in December of more than 600 U.S. and Canadian electric utility professionals. It showed utilities across the continent expect to install more solar, wind and distributed energy resources over the next decade, and modernize their grids to accommodate them.

The survey also shows that electric utilities are largely opposed to key administration energy priorities, including rolling back carbon regulations and altering wholesale power markets to benefit coal and nuclear plants.

This year is the fifth in which Utility Dive has canvassed the sector, and while in each of the previous four surveys executives said they expected to add more solar, wind and other clean energy sources, utilities appear more bullish than ever this year about that growth.

The survey shows more than 90 percent or more of executives across the country expressed a high level of confidence in the growth of utility scale solar and distributed generation combined with storage. Some 85 percent of those responding were firm in their expectations of grid-scale energy storage, which can optimize the use of renewables. More than three out of four said they expected more utility-scale wind generation.

Meanwhile, the optimistic outlook for renewables and distributed energy resources contrasts with what Utility Drive calls “an increasingly tepid view of natural gas generation,” noting that just two years ago, nearly three out of four said they expected “moderate or significant growth in gas” – a share that dropped to a little more than one out of two this year. The survey also shows utilities all across the nation expect to continue retiring coal-fired generation, and virtually no one expects to add more coal capacity to their systems in the next decade.

While utility executives may be uncomfortable with the federal policy turmoil evolving alongside renewable energy development, they join states, cities and corporations in pursuing energy solutions that not only save them money, but create jobs for their communities, boost the economy and make our world a better place to live. This is an important point that policy makers at all levels of government should take notice of and respect.


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Reports Underscore Role of Biofuels in Future High-Performance, Low-Carbon Engines

Ethanol advocates and industry leaders received good news last week when DOE officials unveiled two studies, one identifying high-octane blendstocks that could be blended into gasoline for better performance, and the other outlining a new mathematical equation that quantifies the fuel efficiency potential associated with different fuel properties.

Released by the department’s Co-Optimization of Engines and Fuels initiative (Co-Optima), the reports represent a major milestone in the first-of-its-kind research that aims to simultaneously transform both transportation fuels and vehicles to maximize performance and efficiency. The department and its scientists are also looking to minimize the environmental impact and accelerate the widespread adoption of innovative combustion strategies.

In addition to identifying blendstocks across five chemical groups, the study, Fuel Blendstocks with the Potential to Optimize Future Gasoline Engine Performance, determines that once co-optimized with advanced gasoline engines, the blendstocks have the potential to improve passenger vehicle fuel economy by 10 percent.

The companion study, Efficiency Merit Function for Spark Ignition Engines, aims to provide American industry with the scientific foundation needed to maximize vehicle and fuel performance and efficiency, thereby enabling increased fuel economy and more affordable transportation.

The reports build on Co-Optima’s research data first released last June that showed ethanol is the leading candidate fuel additive to achieve 2025 efficiency and clean air goals for the American transportation system.

The Co-Optima initiative aims to simultaneously develop advanced, more efficient engine technologies and enhanced transportation fuels that together can significantly increase fuel economy over today’s vehicles and reduce emissions. While advanced engine designs are being introduced commercially, they are limited by current fuels. However, the reports make clear that the advanced fuel components that can be derived from domestic biomass resources – that means ethanol – can increase U.S. energy security and create jobs in rural America.

The research builds on a large body of work that has already been done on various fuel additives, including ethanol, which is an inherently high-octane fuel additive that contains many of the benefits researchers are looking for, including commercial and economic viability.

The magnitude of the latest reports’ findings can be evidenced by the fact they are the products of a department- and sector-wide, research and development (R&D) collaboration between DOE’s Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy (EERE) – the department’s nine national laboratories, including the National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL).

It’s also important to note that the Co-Optima initiative involves and is supported by a variety of industry stakeholders, including automakers, biofuel feedstock and producer groups, agribusiness partners, infrastructure providers and technical experts.

The 25x’25 Alliance has been working with many of these stakeholders to develop strategies to accelerate the transition of transportation fuels to higher octane/lower carbon blends for use in the U.S. light duty vehicle fleet. Increasing the development and use of biofuels, including conventional feedstocks like corn and second-generation feedstocks such as corn stover, will encourage additional growth in the production of cleaner-burning cars and light trucks on U.S. roads and highways.

Advancements in biofuel production have helped to establish ethanol, both conventional and advanced forms, as an increasingly cost-effective, commercially viable pathway for increasing the octane of liquid transportation fuels in the near future and by the year 2025.

Given that the internal combustion engine will play a key role in our transportation mix for decades to come, the need to improve vehicle efficiency and reduce the greenhouse gases they emit is an ongoing objective. DOE says the next phases of Co-Optima will validate the potential fuel efficiency improvements developed so far through engine testing. 25x’25 calls on policy makers and industry partners to sustain work like the Co-Optima research initiative. Also, regulators should take a closer look at the rapidly growing scientific evidence around the GHG emission-reduction benefits of biofuels, and acknowledge that they are a smart choice for meeting clean energy targets, while also supporting the U.S. economy.


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Clean Energy Stakeholders Need to Keep Lawmakers Honest on Budget

There’s something unfortunately familiar about the fiscal 2019 budget proposal released by the White House this week: It bears the same draconian cuts to clean energy programs the Trump administration sought last year.

The proposal makes even clearer the Trump administration’s growing focus on fossil energy, like coal, gas and oil, and ever diminishing support for clean energy technologies. His proposal would slash or eliminate programs and services that benefit rural America, including those that promote the production of clean energy from our farms, ranches and forestlands.

Last year, Congress rejected nearly all of the reductions the White House sought in spending on renewable energy like wind, solar, bioenergy and hydropower. But that small victory came only after the Senate had to turn back House budget proposals nearly as harsh as those that came from the White House.

Congressional leaders offered either faint praise or outright condemnation of this week’s White House budget proposal. They remind any who ask that, ultimately, it is lawmakers who craft and adopt the annual spending plan, asserting that the suggested cuts will not survive.

But given the chaotic ebbs and flows that have dominated much of the legislative process in Washington over the last several years, stakeholders would do well to continually remind lawmakers that the short-sighted spending cuts sought by the Trump administration would close down critical research and development efforts, and would delay the nation’s inevitable transition to a clean energy future.

Under the White House proposal, overall DOE spending would get a slight bump up over the next fiscal year starting Oct 1, climbing to $30.6 billion from this year’s $30.1 billion. But the new money would go to spending on the nation’s nuclear arsenal, which makes up about half of the DOE budget, and to fossil energy research and development.

As the White House proposal did last year, the 2018 budget blueprint is targeting DOE’s Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy (EERE), calling for a cut of some two-thirds of the EERE’s current budget, from nearly $2 billion down to just under $700 million. Such a cut would debilitate the agency’s mission to help support the development of clean, renewable and efficient energy technologies for America, and supporting a global clean energy economy.

The White House wants to kill the Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy (ARPA-E) program because of what it says is an overlap of the agency’s ongoing research and development with that being undertaken in the private sector. The administration’s justification runs contrary to ARPA-E’s statutory obligation to focus on high-potential, high-impact energy technologies that are too early and too risky for private-sector investment. Last year, Congress not only rejected the administration’s call to kill ARPA-E, it added $15 million to its budget.

The White House would also eliminate DOE’s Loan Program Office (LPO), which was created by Congress in 2005 to help American innovative energy and advanced auto manufacturing projects gain access to financing to help bring new technologies to commercial deployment. The LPO manages a portfolio comprising more than $30 billion in loans, loan guarantees and conditional commitments covering more than 30 projects, and securing more than $50 billion in total project investment.

Under the heading of “Duplicative, Ineffective or Lower Priority Programs,” the 2018 White House budget for USDA would eliminate all funding for the Rural Energy for America Program (REAP), which has supported more than 15,000 energy-saving and clean energy-producing projects in rural areas across the country since 2012, and the Biomass Crop Assistance Program (BCAP), which supports U.S. cellulosic biofuel production.

The severity of these kinds of cuts makes it critical to repeat: Even though members of Congress have said the president’s proposal is just that – a suggested line of spending – 25x’25 calls on partners and renewable energy stakeholders to keep congressional budget writers honest and reject the Trump energy funding plan and any semblance of it. Instead, call on them to develop a fiscal 2018 budget that supports clean energy efforts that help shore up our small towns and farming communities. As always, we stand ready to work with lawmakers to develop a spending plan for the next fiscal year that enables the full potential of clean energy solutions from rural America to be realized.


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