Shutdown, Farm Bill Inaction Undermines Rural Clean Energy Initiatives

Last week’s expiration of the 2008 Farm Bill and the shutdown of the government due to partisan conflict in Congress have hobbled clean energy initiatives that have helped boost the economy of rural America and facilitated this country’s path forward to a clean and secure energy future.

Both the Senate and House passed versions of the farm bill, and while the House measure would provide some $1.25 billion in discretionary funding for programs like the Rural Energy for America Program (REAP) and the Biorefinery Assistance Program, the Senate version of the five-year farm legislation would provide nearly $900 million in mandatory funding for the same programs.

USDA still has the authorization to run the energy programs, but there is little, if any, funding available for them and, given the shutdown, no assurances that funding will come in the future. This Congress must make those assurances.

Created in 2003, REAP, which was first known as the “Section 9006” program, has offered grants and loan guarantees for more than 3,000 projects in rural communities with fewer than 50,000 people across the country. These awards allow thousands of farmers, ranchers and rural small businesses who don’t otherwise have the capital to invest to tap into the clean energy resources on their lands and cut energy waste in their operations.

For example, Illinois’ Rural Electric Convenience Cooperative (RECC) was able to construct a 900 kilowatt (kW) wind turbine atop an abandoned coal mine that began generating power for 300 of RECC’s members beginning in March 2009.

The Dove & Boar Farm in Hampton, CN, was able to install a 15.6 kW solar array on the rooftop of their main barn, supplying about 85 percent of the farm’s energy needs.

And in the town of Elkton, SD, which had been without a grocery store for several years, local entrepreneurs used a REAP grant to install a geothermal heat pump system that would save them enough money to make a full-service grocery story possible.

Last week was the second time Congress let the farm legislation adopted in 2008 to expire, allowing farm bill authorizations to lay dormant for three months before agreeing to a nine-month extension – that began in January and ran out Sept. 30 – that was part of a large legislative deal made to avoid the so-called “fiscal cliff.”

Prospects for a new farm bill being adopted soon are, at best, muddled. There is growing speculation that congressional leaders must come to a decision on raising the national debt ceiling by Oct. 17, the date Treasury Secretary Jack Lew says the United States will begin heading toward default. As a result, expect to see over the next week leaders on both sides of the aisle jockey for position and use the necessary debt ceiling vote to leverage support for their respective issues.

Some on Capitol Hill have suggested that the farm bill could be included in any legislative package adopted to raise the debt ceiling. The Senate version would cut $24 billion from farm programs, crop insurance subsidies and other costs. The House would cut twice that amount in the two bills it has passed that make up the traditional five-year farm and food legislation.

Including the farm bill in the debt ceiling negotiations would circumvent the normal conference committee process usually held on the farm bill, a possibility that remains despite Speaker John Boehner, R-OH, announcing that House farm bill conferees would be named soon.

Regardless of how it is done, adopting new farm policy that invests in – and builds on – rural energy programs already paying economic, security and environmental dividends must be a priority. The 25x’25 Alliance urges lawmakers to take action now and sustain programs that are helping transform the way this nation is meeting its growing energy needs.

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