Anne Blair of the Alliance of Clean EnergyAt a time when high prices for gas, diesel, and propane are straining household budgets and hindering the nation’s economic recovery, breaking free from our dependence on foreign oil by investing in renewable energy should be a clear priority. Sadly, progress towards the goal of energy independence has been threatened by the careless use of the budget axe in Congress.

In June, the U.S. House of Representatives zeroed-out the budget for the Rural Energy for America Program (REAP), which helps farmers and small rural businesses save energy and generate home-grown renewable energy. REAP funding is currently $75 million for fiscal year 2011, but last week Senate appropriators chopped the REAP budget in half for 2012. While most areas of government are now facing budget cuts, REAP is too vital a program for Georgia to allow such a dramatic reduction in funding next year.

REAP encourages rural businesses to invest in equipment to produce new income streams with renewable energy. By helping operations control their rising energy costs, REAP increases our energy security and protects jobs. Here in Georgia, REAP has helped lower propane bills for hard-pressed poultry growers, slashed diesel bills for row crops under irrigation, boosted foresters that harvest energy from leftover logging waste, and increased energy efficiency for a wide range of rural businesses. From Albany to Waycross, more than 175 farms or rural small businesses have benefited directly from REAP.

 

In fact, Georgia has won more REAP grants than any other state in the Southeast. And the economic benefits are noteworthy: Since 2003, $6.6 million in REAP grants have leveraged nearly $20 million in additional private investments in Georgia.Given the uncertainty of the economy, and banks’ reluctance to lend money, these are investments that might not otherwise have been made.

According to USDA officials, two common types of REAP funding in the Peach State are awards to farmers. One allows them to upgrade their barns with energy efficiency retrofits in order to cut energy costs, and a second is for row crop farmers to replace diesel irrigation motors with new electric motors. Both types of projects deliver significant energy savings.

Here are a few examples:

  • A poultry grower in Carnesville received a $7,000 grant for poultry-house upgrades that resulted in 49 percent savings in propane usage.
  • In Cumming, a $9,000 cost-share grant to a poultry grower delivered an 18 percent reduction in propane usage.
  • In Donalsonville, a row crop farmer replaced six diesel irrigation pumps with new electric pumps using a $47,000 grant for a fraction of the project costs, and achieving energy savings of 88 percent.

During lean times it is important to note that all REAP grants are “cost-share,” meaning the awardee must provide 75 percent or more of the investment. So every one of these projects leverages private funds on a 3-to-1 ratio. And every one of these projects either saves money or generates new income – thus preserving jobs and creating new employment while working towards energy independence. That’s the kind of energy security we need more of.

In a recession, we should be increasing investment in rural America, not cutting it.We need sustained long-term commitments to tackle our energy problems. Only then will we succeed in reducing our addiction to imported energy, strengthening rural development, and cleaning our air.

U.S. House members should know that these cuts are unacceptable and Senator Saxby Chambliss should support full funding for REAP during the Senate Appropriations’ process. Senator Chambliss has been a champion for farmers in Georgia and a supporter of efforts to move towards energy independence. REAP serves both of those goals and to let these draconian cuts stand will set us back in our quest towards energy security, economic recovery, and a cleaner future.

Anne Blair is the Clean Fuels and Bioenergy Program Manager for the Southern Alliance for Clean Energy. She lives in Avondale Estates.