U.S. Farmers Should Get with the Renewable Energy Program

Wind Farm in Neuenkirchen, Germany

What do German farmers know that American farmers don’t? Increasingly, farmers in Germany are embracing the renewable energy industry, capitalizing on the economic opportunities that it offers to the nation’s agricultural sector.

Farmers and local cooperatives own a sizable share of Germany’s wind energy capacity –currently the third largest in the world. Many farmers also lease property to wind investors, install solar photovoltaic (PV) systems on barn roofs and in fields, grow energy crops that can be used to generate power and heat or to make biofuels, and even convert biomass and livestock waste to biogas, an organic form of natural gas. The number of biogas digesters in Germany dwarfs the number in  the U.S. by 30 times. The Deutscher Bauernverband (Federation of German Farmers) even lobbies actively for strong renewable energy policies such as feed-in tariffs for PV.

Contrast that to the U.S. agricultural sector, where the largest lobbying group, the American Farm Bureau Federation, has opposed climate legislation that would put a mandatory price on carbon. While American farmers have enthusiastically embraced policies that subsidize and otherwise support biofuels, especially corn ethanol, they lag far behind their German counterparts in generating renewable electricity from wind and PV, and in producing biogas. Although a 2001 Department of Energy study estimated that shifting the national power mix to 5 percent wind by 2020 could produce $1.2 billion in new income for rural landowners and farmers, these populations currently own only 1.8 percent of total U.S. wind capacity.

A new report from the Heinrich Böll Stiftung compares the experiences that farmers in Germany and the United States have had with adding clean energy to their crop rotations. The authors conclude that stronger renewable energy policies, including renewable energy standards and feed-in tariffs, are needed to create incentives for greater investment in renewables by the agricultural sector.

The U.S. agricultural sector’s renewable energy potential – and the additional revenue it could represent – is immense. According to the most recent data from the Census of Agriculture, the sector occupied 922 million acres of the United States, or about 41 percent of the nation’s land area. In 2009, it employed more than 2.1 million people, and generated some 1 percent of gross domestic product. According to the report, “Vast areas of farmland can be used for wind installations without impacting agricultural yields, and the crops themselves can be used as a source of power or heat generation.  Even farm byproducts like animal waste can be converted to biogas and used for heat and electricity generation.”

The German experience offers valuable lessons to American farmers in how to realize their renewable energy potential.  The fragmented U.S. farm community should come together and demand state and national clean energy policies aimed at developing renewable energy in rural America. American farmers should also recognize the perils their livelihoods face from an increasingly destabilized climate as a compelling reason to support a comprehensive climate strategy.  In order to promote a sustainable biofuels industry, the United States and its farmers would benefit from a far more diversified portfolio of biofuel feedstocks and transportation fuels as a whole. And finally, rural communities have much to gain when their farmers become energy farmers as well.

Food for thought: encourage American farmers to also become modern-day “energy farmers.”

Amanda Chiu is an Energy Analyst at Energetics and a former MAP Fellow at the Worldwatch Institute.

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