Op-Ed: Livestock producers need help to expand biofuel production

Source: By Bryan Sievers, Des Moines Register • Posted: Thursday, September 13, 2018

President Trump and Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue have professed to be champions of rural America, promoting economic development and revitalization, job growth, infrastructure, innovation and improving our quality of life. Recently, in Iowa, Perdue pledged on behalf of the president, to “Make the RFS Great Again,” reaffirming their promise to American agriculture. I’ve got an idea of how to do just that.

On Aug. 17, I joined nearly 60 small biofuel producers, many fellow farmers, and sent a letter to President Trump asking him to activate the Renewable Fuel Standard (RFS) Electric Pathway, and help support American animal agricultural producers’ bottom line.

The Renewable Fuel Standard helps create a market for ethanol and other renewable energy used for transportation. The RFS pathway for electricity produced from biogas, or renewable natural gas, and the anaerobic digestion process was established by the Environmental Protection Agency in 2014.  Renewable natural gas is eligible under the RFS if it is used directly as a transportation fuel, such as powering a city bus that runs on compressed natural gas.

However, when the renewable natural gas is used to generate electricity, which is what we do, and then used to power electric vehicles, it is not currently eligible.

Despite my own efforts, strong support from Congress and 111 stakeholder organizations, EPA has advised that activating the RFS Electric Pathway — and helping farmers and rural communities — is still not a priority. We’ve been waiting over four years for action. Now it’s time to just get it done; let me explain:

Our family has been producing feed, food, fiber, and energy since the mid-1800s. My wife, Lisa, and I are the owners and operators of the Sievers Family Farms in Scott County. We grow 2,300 acres of corn, soybeans, hay, and have a 2,400-head cattle feedlot.

On Sept. 11, 2013, we added a new technology: an anaerobic digester that enables us to generate electricity from cattle manure. Over the last couple of years, as commodity prices have declined and margins have been squeezed, the revenue generated from the digesters has helped mitigate much of the risk associated with livestock and crop production.

In 2012, our family was looking to expand our farm’s beef cattle production, but had concerns about maintaining our environmental footprint and compliance with state and federal regulations. Building an anaerobic digester improved our ability to efficiently and effectively produce food, while taking great care of our animals and natural resources. It also unlocked a new fuel and revenue source: base-load renewable electricity.

Our two 970,000 gallon digesters generate about 23 megawatts of electricity per day and we sell about 85 percent of that to the grid. Our system not only takes beef cattle manure, but agricultural and organic waste streams produced in the region, cover crops, and other biomass co-feeds. In short, there is no other source of energy — domestic or foreign, fossil or renewable — that can produce as many direct and indirect benefits for farmers and their rural communities. And it’s the only approved RFS biofuel easily produced on our family farm.

In December 2018, our five-year power purchase agreement with our local electrical service provider will expire and we will have an option to sell our power for two more years at a 25 percent lower rate. In October 2020, this two-year option will expire, and we will be left to negotiate with the power company.  We anticipate that we will not make enough revenue from electricity sales to cover our cost of production and will be forced to shut down our digesters. This would allow almost 370,000 standard cubic feet per day of methane and carbon dioxide to escape into the atmosphere. It also means the loss of three good-paying rural jobs.

Digester facilities and all the related benefits and jobs depend in largely on revenue from electricity sales, and in many cases across America that revenue has plummeted. That is why our participation and certainty in the RFS program is so important: the RFS Electric Pathway would provide access to a much-needed additional revenue stream for the almost 250 livestock farmers that generate electricity with a digester today. Furthermore, the U.S. Department of Agriculture estimates that another 9,000 digesters could be built at livestock farms across the country, given the right incentives.

Gov. Kim Reynolds sees the opportunity in digester technology at over 1,000 Iowa sites. She tasked the state’s Biomass Conversion Committee (which I chaired) with expanding Iowa’s biomass production and processing capacity — and attracting new construction and attainable STEM jobs — as part of the comprehensive Iowa Energy Plan.

It’s time for Trump administration to make family farms and livestock producers a priority in the RFS program and do what the Obama administration couldn’t: activate the Electric Pathway, and increase the competitiveness of small- and medium-sized rural American businesses like ours. That would give us the boost we need, and that would “Make the RFS Great Again.”

 Bryan Sievers operates Sievers Family Farms in Stockton, Iowa