Vilsack, USDA Offer Catalysts that Can Help Spark a Clean Energy Future

A major spotlight is shining on USDA and Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack this week as they demonstrate some much needed leadership within the administration to help forward the role of farmers, ranchers, forestland owners – in fact, all of rural America – in the nation’s transition to a clean energy economy.

This morning, Vilsack said USDA is partnering with 21 states through the Biofuel Infrastructure Partnership (BIP) to nearly double the number of fueling pumps nationwide that supply renewable fuels to American motorists. In May, the department announced the availability of $100 million in grants through the BIP, requiring that states and private partners match the federal funding by a 1:1 ratio. Today, Vilsack said that with the matching commitments, some $210 million is being invested to strengthen the rural economy.

Vilsack on Monday announced that USDA is awarding $102 million in loan guarantees and $71 million in grants under the Rural Energy for America Program (REAP) that will help more than 1,100 rural small businesses and agricultural producers reduce energy usage and costs in their operations. The funding is for energy efficiency improvements and/or renewable energy systems in every state, as well as in the Virgin Islands, the Western Pacific and the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico.

Today’s announcement means the installation of more blender pumps and other infrastructure designed to increase the amount of biofuel that will be made available for sale and give consumers greater choices at the gas pump. The program also will make biofuel blender pumps more available outside of the ethanol friendly Midwest.

A typical gas pump delivers fuel with 10 percent ethanol, limiting the amount of renewable fuel most consumers can purchase at their local gas station. Through ongoing investments like those announced today, USDA will substantially increase the number of stations offering intermediate blends of ethanol, mainly E15 fuel levels, nationwide.

Monday’s announcement awarded the loan guarantees and grants in REAP funding to 1,114 projects, including nearly $6 million for 17 anaerobic digesters in California, Maine, Massachusetts, Michigan, New York, North Carolina, Ohio and Washington.

In total, the REAP projects are expected to generate and/or save 906 million kilowatt hours (KWh) of energy – enough, USDA officials say, to power more than 83,675 homes for a year and cut carbon pollution by an estimated 455,000 metric tons. That is the equivalent of taking more than 131,500 cars off the road for a year.

By enabling more ag producers and rural business owners to incorporate energy-saving measures into their business plans, the funding will help improve an operation’s bottom line. It will create jobs in the rural sector. And just as importantly, it will help agricultural and rural business operations reduce their carbon footprint – an important element in the development of climate-smart, sustainable agriculture.

The USDA funding was part of some welcome recognition the Obama administration offered earlier this week at a White House event honoring 12 “Champions of Change for Sustainable and Climate-Smart Agriculture.” In a statement issued by the White House, the Obama administration recognized “the crucial role that farmers and ranchers play in mitigating the impacts of climate change” and underscored “the track record of leadership and stewardship the agricultural sector has already demonstrated through innovations that reduce greenhouse gas emissions, increase carbon storage and generate clean renewable energy.”

Vilsack said this morning’s announcement is part of a broader USDA effort to help Americans save money on their energy bills, support America’s clean energy economy, cut carbon pollution, and reduce dependence on foreign oil and costly fossil fuels. The agriculture secretary should be commended for his consistent, progressive leadership on rural energy issues, particularly in his promotion of biofuels – a bright spot in an administration that has been less than wholehearted in its support of ethanol and other clean transportation fuels.

But the grants and loan guarantees announced this week hardly represent a silver bullet in the effort to transition the nation toward a clean energy future. The 25x’25 Alliance hopes they at least serve as a catalyst that will lead to serious consideration and retention of policies – including a full-strength Renewable Fuel Standard and renewable energy tax credits, among others – that promote rural America and a 25x’25 future.

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