Plugging renewable energy

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COLUMBUS – Most Americans agree that a move toward “energy independence” is a good thing. But is it realistic?
Not if you mean 100 percent independence from foreign oil resources. But 25 percent? Now you’re talking.
25x’25. A growing initiative is driving the idea of producing 25 percent of the total energy consumed in the U.S. from renewable sources like ethanol or biodiesel by 2025.
And the movement is gaining speed. The Inaugural Ohio Renewable Energy Summit held Nov. 20 in Columbus drew more than 300 people from a diverse audience – agriculture, government, business and environmental proponents.
The conference was coordinated by the Buckeye Renewable Fuels Association, which is part of the national 25x’25 alliance.
The new energy vision has been embraced by more than 275 organizations, the House Committee on Agriculture, and nearly 20 governors, including Ohio’s Bob Taft and Pennsylvania’s Ed Rendell. And a national conference on renewable energy in October drew 1,600 people, including President Bush and three of his cabinet secretaries.
“This vision is not only doable, it’s essential,” Taft told the Columbus conference attendees.
Where we’re at. We’re not totally at the mercy of OPEC and Canada, but last year, U.S. net imports of foreign oil represented nearly 60 percent of U.S. petroleum consumption.
In contrast, renewable energy consumption accounted for only 6 percent of total U.S. energy consumption in 2004, according to the federal government’s Energy Information Administration.
Looking ahead, the U.S. Department of Energy forecasts that U.S. energy demand will grow by 34 percent by 2030.
Good for agriculture. The push for renewable energy sources is a plus for agriculture, with ethanol and biodiesel the big players right now.
“Renewable energy is in fact rural energy,” said Tom Dorr, USDA undersecretary for rural development and conference keynote speaker.
He sees the new uses and new markets for agriculture as wealth creation on a scale that is “very large.”
Dorr cited USDA estimates for the value of U.S. farm production at $273 billion. Then he reported that the U.S. will pay more than $300 billion for imported oil this year. That potential biofuel market is bigger than all of U.S. agriculture today, he stressed.
“If we can displace 1 billion barrels of oil imports with biofuels, that’s bigger than today’s net farm income.”
Ownership concerns. The markets, Dorr added, are starting to drive renewables.
But he voiced concern at a new trend, illustrated by the growth of Indiana’s ethanol plants. Of the 17 ethanol plants under construction or on the drawing board, only one is producer-owned, Dorr said.
From a rural development standpoint, “investment and ownership make a big difference,” he added.
Rural America can participate in this new wave of wealth generation “if farmers get off the sidelines,” Dorr said.
Producers have a choice to sit back and participate as a commodity producer and take the premium, “but I would prefer to see us participate as owners and investors.”
1970s redux? The energy crunch of the 1970s propelled the U.S. into a more ecological mindset, but the momentum dwindled in the 1980s as oil prices declined. So will this latest energy push repeat history?
Ohio 25x’25 Initiative co-chairman Bill Richards doesn’t think so. The Circleville farmer says the ag industry, along with the general population, wasn’t as environmentally aware 30 years ago as it is today. The push is coming from a much broader base this time around.
And the world’s oil demand has also jumped since the 1970s, Richards added. Today, China and India are waiting in the wings to buy additional oil from the Middle East.
“I don’t think we have any choice but to pursue all the renewable energy we can pursue,” said Richards, who served as chief of USDA’s Soil Conservation Service from 1990 to 1993.
Next farm bill. The 25x’25 proponents believe the new farm bill will fuel the effort. And they’re probably right.
Earlier this fall, Rep. Collin Peterson called the use and development of renewable energy sources “an important priority.” The Minnesota Democrat is now chairman of the House ag committee and in a key position to push the agenda.
There are measures in both the energy and conservation titles within the current farm bill that could be expanded or revamped to benefit renewable energy efforts, according to Adam Sharp, Ohio Farm Bureau Federation’s director of national and regulatory affairs.
Efficiency lacking. Several speakers emphasized that technology advances and user attitudes must focus on efficiency for any measurable growth in energy independence.
“A barrel we don’t use is a barrel we don’t have to purchase anywhere,” said Ohio State University ag economist Fred Hitzhusen.
(Farm and Dairy Editor Susan Crowell can be reached at 800-837-3419 or at editor@farmanddairy.com.)
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Renewable energy is not a quick fix (9/28/2006)

About the Author

Farm and Dairy Editor Susan Crowell has been with the paper since 1985, serving as its editor since 1989. Raised on a farm in Holmes County, she is a graduate of Kent State University.You can follow her on Twitter at http://twitter.com/scrowell and follow Farm and Dairy at http://twitter.com/farmanddairy. You can also find her on Google+ and Facebook. More Stories by Susan Crowell

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