Ag Census Demonstrates Real Growth in Renewables from Farms and Ranches

The mission of the 25x’25 Alliance has been consistent since its inception 10 years ago: promote to policy makers and regulators the role of farms, ranches and forestlands in developing clean, sustainable sources of energy to help meet a growing demand for the fuel to run our cars and trucks and the electricity to power our homes and businesses.

So, it is with some pride that the Alliance points to figures released this week from the most recent U.S. Agriculture Census that shows the number of U.S. farms producing renewable energy has more than doubled since the last census was done five years earlier. Nearly 57,300 farms are producing some form of renewable energy, according to the Ag Census, compared to 23,450 farms reported in the previous census.

What’s even more encouraging is that those numbers are likely very conservative ‑ the latest census was conducted two years ago – in 2012. The likelihood is that number is tens of thousands more, given the steep drop in costs for material and installation of solar and wind energy, not to mention the uptick in biofuel and biomass development.

It turns out that solar panels were the most prominent form of renewable energy on farms surveyed two years ago, showing up on more than 60 percent of the operations producing renewables. That’s four times the number of geothermal systems and wind turbines – both reported by some 9,000 farming and ranching operations each ‑ which were the next highest technologies implemented by farmers.

In a new and somewhat separate statistical category, another 10,000 farms were leasing wind rights on their properties in 2012. That, wind industry officials say, is also an extremely conservative number, given the growth driven by the relatively low expense of implementing wind facilities over the past two years.

On other fronts, the census found biodiesel was produced on nearly 4,100 farms and ethanol on just fewer than 2,400 operations. Small hydro systems were in use on about 1300 farms. The number of methane digesters aimed at converting waste into biogas and electricity appears to have boomed in recent years, with 537 counted in the 2012 survey. USDA’s AgStar program says nearly 240 of them are at work on livestock operations.

Given the recent surge of renewables as a tool in meeting U.S. energy needs, the numbers are all relatively new in the ag census. And while they may ultimately fall short of current reality, they reflect significant growth that can not only be sustained, but ratcheted up even more in the years ahead.

That potential is attributable in part to favorable federal and state policies that encourage the development of renewables, including, but not limited to, funding available in the recently adopted Agriculture Act of 2014, the new five-year farm bill; federal production and investment tax credits (PTCs and ITCs) that have boosted the construction of wind, solar and biomass facilities; the federal Renewable Fuel Standard (RFS) ; and state Renewable Electricity Standards (RES).

The new farm bill renewed the Rural Energy for America Program (REAP) in its Energy Title to support a wide range of energy efficiency and renewable energy technologies, including wind, solar, biogas, biomass, small hydroelectric and geothermal. The application process for REAP grants and loan guarantees opened this week, with deadlines for grant applications due July 7 and for loan guarantees a few weeks later, July 31.

However, while REAP and other programs in the farm bill energy title were given some mandatory funding, an even greater amount of money is only available if Congress authorizes it. Congress must also approve soon a long-time extension of the various PTCs and ITCs that expired at the end of last year. EPA is considering a wrong-headed proposal that would cut back the biofuel blending requirements under the RFS this year, a reversal of progress made on the biofuel front and a plan the agency needs to ditch. Electricity standards in many of the twenty-nine states that require utilities to get a certain percentage of the power they sell from renewable resources are under attack by fossil fuel interests desperate to hang on to their “business as usual” approach, regardless of the environmental consequences.

Congratulations are in order for the thousands of leaders and organizations who have been carrying the 25x’25 flag. We’ve made great progress, but there is still have a long way to go. The growth of renewable energy produced from farms, ranches and forestlands ‑ as demonstrated by the recent ag census ‑ faces significant policy challenges at all levels. Stakeholders must stay the course, hold firm and continue to work to ensure that the full potential of agriculture and forestry energy solutions can be realized.

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