Energy programs face headwind in farm bill

Source: Marc Heller, E&E News reporter • Posted: Friday, September 29, 2017

Biomass isn’t just for energy, an Iowa State University researcher told the Senate Agriculture Committee yesterday — it’s for coffee mugs.

The array of products that can be made with farm crops was one of the selling points the committee heard at a discussion on energy and rural development programs that are up for renewal in the 2018 farm bill.

Despite tight funding and greater attention to the farm safety net, lawmakers said they consider the programs an important part of the legislation they’ll be drafting in the months ahead.

Brent Shanks, director of the National Science Foundation’s Engineering Research Center for Biorenewable Chemicals at Iowa State, said some of the most promising short-term returns for biomass crops may not be in energy at all, but in chemicals that help create a wide variety of items.

“What we care most about is how do we create value from the biomass products, where energy isn’t the absolute endgame that we would be interested in,” Shanks said, responding to questions from Sen. John Hoeven (R-N.D.).

Would that include a biomass-derived coffee cup for committee Chairman Pat Roberts (R-Kan.), Hoeven asked, drawing a few laughs.

“Yes,” Shanks said.

To him, federal investment in biomass chemical manufacturing helps avoid the challenges of biomass for fuel. Its fortunes rise or fall based on the price of crude oil, over which the government has little influence, he said.

The future of renewable fuel programs at the Department of Agriculture depends on the farm bill, the five-year legislation that outlines farm, nutrition and rural development programs. Initiatives such as the Renewable Energy for America Program have strong support on the Agriculture Committee, but efforts such as the Biomass Crop Assistance Program have stumbled during the past few years.

REAP helps farmers and rural businesses install energy-efficient systems; the biomass program assists farmers who plant perennials and other non-food crops for energy production, for instance.

Roberts said it’s critical that Congress continue to support renewable energy and bio-based products, but he also noted the farm bill’s energy title includes some of the 39 programs across the legislation that don’t have a budget baseline — and thus are harder to boost in the bill.

Despite its support on the committee, REAP has faced threats from appropriators in the House, as well as the Trump administration. Ranking member Debbie Stabenow (D-Mich.) said REAP lowers utility bills. In Michigan, renewable energy programs support 92,000 jobs, she said.

One witness, Mark Olinyk, president of Harvest Energy Solutions in Jackson, Mich., told the panel he can credit as much as 35 percent of his sales of solar products to REAP. In many cases, he said, customers decide whether to install such equipment based strictly on the federal incentive.

With the savings they achieve through renewable energy, Olinyk said, businesses can invest more and add jobs.

Yesterday’s hearing was the last in a series of sessions tied to specific titles within the farm bill, Roberts said. He said the committee isn’t done with agriculture policy hearings this year, aiming for sessions on regulations that may impede rural prosperity, for instance.

The 2014 farm bill expires at the end of September 2018.