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Andrew Burger headshot

$280 Million More for Rural Renewables

By Andrew Burger

The Obama administration continues to forge ahead in its drive to promote energy efficiency improvements and renewable energy use in urban and rural areas alike. Passage of the 2014 U.S. Farm Bill has paved the way for the Department of Agriculture to expand funding for energy efficiency and renewable energy projects among farmers, ranchers and small businesses in rural communities nationwide.

In a press conference on Feb. 10 Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack announced $280 million for new REAP (Rural Energy for America Program) grants and loans is now available. In addition to more secure funding that came with passage of the 2014 U.S. Farm Bill, Secretary Vilsack also highlighted improvements that streamline REAP and make it easier for rural residents and businesses to apply for and obtain REAP funding.

Illustrating the beneficial real-world impact REAP is having in rural communities across the U.S., two rural small business owners reported on their experiences applying for, being awarded and putting REAP grant and loan funds to work.

More federal funding for rural energy efficiency and renewables

Kicking off the Feb. 10 press conference, Sec. Vilsack announced that $80 million in new REAP grant funding is now available. Another $200 million is available for REAP loans, while $2 million has been set aside for audits.

"Developing renewable energy presents an enormous economic opportunity for rural America. The funding we are making available will help farmers, ranchers, business owners, tribal organizations and other entities incorporate renewable energy and energy efficiency technology into their operations,” Vilsack said.

“Doing so can help a business reduce energy use and costs while improving its bottom line. While saving producers money and creating jobs, these investments reduce dependence on foreign oil and cut carbon pollution as well."

Farmers, ranchers and small business owners in rural communities can apply for REAP grants for energy efficiency upgrades up to $250,000 and renewable energy installations up to $500,000. REAP grant applications cannot exceed 25 percent of the total cost of such projects.

In addition, REAP loans of as much as $25 million are now available. A total REAP loan cap has been set at $200 million, while a combination of REAP grants and loans cannot exceed 75 percent of total project costs.

Congress passing the 2014 U.S. Farm Bill provided greater security and assurance that REAP will be able to finance smaller-scale rural energy efficiency and renewable projects in years to come, Secretary Vilsack pointed out. “In the past we had to be concerned about year-to-changes in budget allocations and available funding,” he said.

In addition, the Rural Utilities Service (RUS), which serves as the Agriculture Department's public point-man for REAP, has streamlined the grant and loan application and approval process, making it easier for rural farmers, ranchers and business owners to understand, apply and qualify for REAP funding. Significantly, RUS will now be accepting and evaluating REAP loan applications year-round on a rolling basis. Grant applications will continue to be accepted and evaluated during specific periods of the year, with the first crop of new REAP grant awards expected this June.

Renewable Energy for America

REAP is proving to be a success story as part and parcel of the Obama administration's efforts to promote energy efficiency and distributed renewable energy. Promoting renewables, Sec. Vilsack touted, is a means to lower electricity bills, reduce greenhouse gas emissions, create and support well-paying jobs, and enhance U.S. economic competitiveness.

Some $545 million in REAP grants and loans have been awarded to fund over 8,800 energy efficiency and renewable energy installation projects across rural America since 2009. These have resulted in some 600 billion kilowatt-hours of renewable energy production, enough to meet the needs of about 5.5 million homes on an annual basis, Vilsack noted.

Following Sec. Vilsack's brief speech, rural area small business owners Jennifer Womble, of Supersave Foods Arkansas, and Jeffrey Marstaller, owner of Maine's Cozy Acres Greenhouse, gave brief first-hand accounts. In their remarks, the two illustrated how REAP funding enabled them to rebuild and expand their small businesses by carrying out energy efficiency upgrades and making use of solar photovoltaic (PV) power.

Serving a community of just under 6,000 in rural Arkansas, Supersave Foods was robbed and set ablaze in 2011, forcing owner Jennifer Womble to let go of all employees. Searching for the means to rebuild, Womble initially submitted a REAP grant application in 2011 but was turned down.

After reapplying, Supersave Foods was awarded a REAP grant of over $137,000 in 2013. That enabled Womble to set about rebuilding the business and making it more energy efficient. Replacing equipment that was as much as 20 years old, higher insulation roofing was installed along with high energy-efficiency windows and LED lighting.

Conducting an energy audit, Womble figures she has reduced her combined electricity and gas bills by around 32 percent as a result. REAP, Womble said, “made funds available for things we might otherwise have not been able to do.”

A zero-emissions greenhouse in snowy Maine

Up in a “very snowy Maine,” Jeffrey Marsteller, the owner of Cozy Acres Greenhouses, has been cultivating annuals, herbs and vegetables for gardeners, landscapers and farmers the old-fashioned way since 2001. Across seven traditional greenhouses, Cozy Acres typically burns some 10,000 gallons of propane to keep plants warm during the long, cold Maine winters.

In 2011, Cozy Acres decided it needed to expand, but wanted to do so without increasing its carbon footprint, Marsteller explained. Like Supersave Foods' owner Jennifer Womble, Marsteller had never applied for federal funding before. “The folks at USDA were vitally helpful in walking us through the process,” he said.

Being awarded a REAP grant kicked off a “series of events” that included construction of a 25,000 square-foot, zero-emissions greenhouse. Marsteller used the REAP award to install a 30-kilowatt solar PV system and a 10-ton in-ground geothermal heating system. Combining solar PV and geothermal heating means that Cozy Acres' new greenhouse generates zero in the way of carbon emissions.

“The PV system generates 39,000 kilowatt-hours per year of electrical energy, less than the 37 kWh needed for the new greenhouse each year,” Marsteller pointed out. “We believe we have the only greenhouse in the northern two-thirds of the U.S. heated all winter with zero emissions. We get electricity from the sun, heat from the earth and emissions are zero."
*Image credits: 1) Center for Rural Affairs; 2) Farm Futures ; 3) Plants4Maine.com
Andrew Burger headshot

An experienced, independent journalist, editor and researcher, Andrew has crisscrossed the globe while reporting on sustainability, corporate social responsibility, social and environmental entrepreneurship, renewable energy, energy efficiency and clean technology. He studied geology at CU, Boulder, has an MBA in finance from Pace University, and completed a certificate program in international governance for biodiversity at UN University in Japan.

Read more stories by Andrew Burger