Are renewables making the US less energy independent?

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A combine harvesting corn.

When the Renewable Fuel Standard program was created in 2005, America was dependent on oil from the Middle East. It’s part of why the program that created the modern ethanol market came to exist.

Things have changed since then. In 2019, the U.S. was a net exporter of energy for the first time since 1952, according to U.S. Energy Information Administration data.  Crude oil is still the largest source of U.S. energy imports, although now most of it comes from Canada. Ethanol played a role in that newfound independence, but so too did the shale gas boom.

Now that the U.S. has weaned itself off of its reliance on liquid fuel from across the ocean, it’s battling a dependency of another kind as the transition from fossil fuels to renewables continues.

“China is running circles around us within the solar industry,” U.S. Rep. Tim Ryan, D-Niles, told Farm and Dairy. “They dominate the industry … If you want to go solar in the U.S., you’re almost completely reliant on China for products. That’s not good.”

That’s why Ohio’s Ryan and his Michigan colleague, U.S. Rep. Dan Kildee, D- Flint, introduced the Solar Energy Manufacturing for America Act, earlier this month. The bill would provide tax credits for American solar component manufacturers.

Biofuels and EVs

It’s not the only piece of legislation aimed at helping the U.S. remain energy independent and competitive as the Biden administration pushes towards a net zero carbon emissions future.

The Next Generations Fuels Act was recently reintroduced to give a boost to the biofuels industry that’s feeling left behind by the White House. In August, President Joe Biden signed an executive order announcing the goal for half the new vehicles on the road in 2030 to be electric as a way to combat the impacts of climate change and compete with China. According to the White House, the U.S. market share of electric vehicles is only one-third that of the Chinese electric vehicle market.

The plan called for installing a national network of electric vehicle, or EV, charging stations, financing the expansion of the domestic EV manufacturing supply chain and giving consumer incentives for buying EVs.

Corn and biofuels industry leaders responded to the EV announcement saying the solution to a lower emission transportation sector is right under the administrations’ noses.

“We believe any plan to decarbonize the transportation sector should recognize the massive opportunity for low-carbon liquid fuels like ethanol to reduce GHG emissions from internal combustion engines in the near term,” said Renewable Fuels Association President Geoff Cooper, in a statement.

Cooper said that even if half the new vehicles sold in 2030 are electric, four out of every five cars on the road would still have internal combustion engines that require liquid fuels. That’s where ethanol comes in to play a role in reducing greenhouse gas emissions.

“We have a renewable feedstock in corn that can provide to reach these goals quicker, and it’s here in the system now,” said John Linder, Ohio grain farmer and outgoing president of the National Corn Growers Association, in an interview with Farm and Dairy. “So why not use what we have or refine what we have and make it better?”

Most gasoline in the U.S. has 10% ethanol blended into it, the cap put in place by the RFS. The corn and biofuels industry think that number could and should be much higher, and the Next Generation Fuels Act make that a reality.

The legislation was reintroduced in Congress in August, by U.S. Rep. Cheri Bustos, D-Ill. It would require automakers to phase in higher levels of octane by model year 2031. Ethanol is used to boost gasoline’s octane rating. According to the National Corn Growers Association, higher octane levels and vehicles designed for these fuels would support ethanol blends of up to 30%. Some research has shown that corn ethanol reduces greenhouse gas emissions up to nearly 50%, when compared with gasoline.

The American corn industry already produces more than the domestic demand, Linder said. It wouldn’t be a stretch for farmers to fill a growing need for ethanol to help the transportation industry meet emissions reduction goals.

“It wouldn’t take more acres if you’re efficient about production,” Linder said.

Back to solar

Ryan’s legislation was not the only bill focused on boosting domestic solar manufacturing. Democratic U.S. Rep. Mike Doyle, whose district covers Pittsburgh, introduced the Reclaiming the Solar Supply Chain Act a day before Ryan’s legislation hit the House floor. Doyle’s bill would invest $700 million annually over the next four years to expand domestic solar component manufacturing.

Ryan said different types of legislation and incentives are needed to get the job done. He noted that it’s not a coincidence that Rust Belt lawmakers are the ones pushing for more domestic solar component manufacturing.

“We’d love for Ohio to be a leader,” he said. “Because of our legacy in energy, our legacy in manufacturing, our location to be able to distribute, we’re well positioned to take the lead on this.”

The U.S. Department of Energy released in September the Solar Futures Study, showing it was possible for the U.S. to get 40% of its electricity from solar by 2035 and 45% by 2040. Though this would require installing solar at four times the current deployment rate, it could also employ between 500,000 to 1.5 million people, according to the DOE.

Increasing manufacturing and deployment of solar could be a big boost to small towns across Ohio, and it could just be the start of competing with China in the industries of the future, Ryan said.

“There are a lot of manufacturing facilities in Ohio,” he said. “Maybe they don’t go from 20 to 500 [employees]. Maybe they go from 20 to 50, but that’s still 30 families in a small town. That goes a long way … We’ve got to have policies in place to unleash the power of our private sector,” he said.

(Reporter Rachel Wagoner can be contacted at 800-837-3419 or rachel@farmanddairy.com.)

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