President Obama made a group of announcements related to biofuel policy on his bus tour through the Midwest this summer, with the aim of boosting the nation’s biofuel production while helping rural communities create new jobs and build a sustainable economy. Now another piece of the rural sustainability puzzle is falling into place, with the announcement of a new round of renewable energy and energy efficiency grants for more than 900 farms and small businesses.
The funding, from the U.S. Department of Agriculture, is under the umbrella of the Rural Energy for America Program (REAP). It’s just one of the interlocking elements needed for a successful and truly sustainable biofuels program, in which biofuel crop production and processing can be increased significantly while minimizing emissions from agricultural operations and other adverse impacts.
Efficiency and Renewable Energy for U.S. Agriculture
The new grants total about $11.6 million, which in raw numbers seems pretty insignificant. However, in this case a little goes a long way. Among the examples cited by the USDA are an $18,000 energy efficiency grant for a greenhouse that will save more than $12,000 annually, a similar sized grant for a photovoltaic system at a dairy and organic farm that will offset almost half of the awardee’s electricity use, and a $13,000 grant for a geothermal system at a fertilizer warehouse that will cut BTU consumption down to nine percent of the current system’s use. The grants are not designed to cover full costs; instead, they are meant to leverage funding from additional sources.
Biofuels and Energy Conservation
It is difficult to overstate the importance of linking a strong energy conservation program to biofuel policy. More energy-efficient biofuel refining processes are in development, but the bottom line is that the feedstock has to be grown, harvested, and transported, all of which takes energy and involves the potential for increasing greenhouse gas emissions. By drawing in diverse operations such as greenhouses, dairies and warehouses, the new REAP funding is part of a holistic approach to managing energy use and greenhouse gas emissions in agriculture. Another good example is the U.S. EPA’s AgStar program promoting the use of digesters to convert farm animal waste to methane gas.
A Complicated Picture for Biofuels
Aside from energy efficiency and emissions, other major aspects of a sustainable biofuel policy are competition with food crops, the loss of previously undeveloped lands to agriculture, and in the case of weedy biofuel crops, the danger of enabling an invasive species to overwhelm native habitats. Some of these issues have been addressed in the Obama Administration’s “Billion Ton Update,” a study of biofuel crop potential in the U.S. Emerging sources such as bacteria biofuel and algae biofuel may also play a key role in the long term sustainability of biofuels.
Image Credit: Farm by Eric, Eh? on flickr.com.