The Rural Advantage in Energy Independence

The Secretaries of Agriculture and Energy believe that rural America could have the most to gain from a strategy aimed at giving the U.S. energy independence.

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Last month, President Obama outlined a broad energy security plan designed to end America’s dangerous dependence on foreign oil.  As the President noted, this is about strengthening national security, but it’s also about strengthening America’s economic security.

Rural communities – which have been hardest hit by job losses for decades – will perhaps have the most to gain from the transition to a clean energy economy.  For example, the economic stimulus bill signed by the President last year has already doubled the pace of investment in wind turbines, creating thousands of construction jobs in rural America as wind farms come online across the country.  

There is also an enormous opportunity for rural America as we dramatically increase the use of biofuels, ranging from corn ethanol to promising new technologies like cellulosic ethanol and other even more advanced forms of biofuel. 

Our goal is to more than triple America’s biofuel production in the next twelve years, cutting oil imports by $41 billion.  Instead of sending that $41 billion overseas, we can invest it right here in America.  Instead of depending on oil fields in other countries, we’ll depend on farm fields in America’s heartland.  

This is an ambitious target – 36 billion gallons by 2022 – and it will mean a growing market for agricultural producers.  We will build on the tremendous growth over the past few years in the production of corn based ethanol and soy based biodiesel, fuels that already play a valuable role in reducing oil imports.  

Kate Gabrielle
Steven Chu, Nobel Laureate and Secretary of Energy.

Moving forward, these corn and soy based fuels will continue to provide a source of wealth creation for rural communities.  In addition, we are developing new forms of biofuel that will create an even brighter future and a bigger role for rural America.  

President Obama has committed more than $800 million to help grow biofuel production and speed the transition to this next generation of biofuels through his economic stimulus plan, the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act.  These investments are flowing to rural communities across the nation.

The next logical step may be to produce ethanol using corn cobs and some of the corn stover. Emerging technologies will also derive celulosic ethanol from lumber and agricultural residues like wheat straw and rice straw.  

We are also supporting the development of biofuels from perennial grasses like switchgrass or miscanthus, which can become major cash crops for farmers while providing the clean energy we need to wean ourselves away from foreign oil.  Cultivating these grasses consumes much less fertilizer, tilling and other energy inputs, making them highly profitable to produce and then convert into fuel.

USDA/ERS
The increase in biofuel production is expected to come from wood, grasses and other ag residue like corn stover.

We recently announced awards that will support the construction and operation of 19 biorefineries in 15 states that will produce these next generation biofuels.  In addition, we are backing groundbreaking research into new refining technologies that will use agricultural residues and grasses along with algae and sunlight to produce gasoline, diesel fuel, or jet fuel.  

And these are not far-off, science fiction fantasies.  These are technologies that have already been proven in laboratories or in pilot plants and will be moved to commercial scale deployment over the next few years.  That’s very good news for rural America.   

Pete Souza/White House
President Barack Obama tours MogoOrganic farm with Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack and Morgan Hoenig in Mount Pleasant, Iowa, in late April

These new technologies will supplement our existing capacity of corn and soy based biofuels.  And with every step the technology advances, the opportunities for rural wealth creation grow.  In fact, one study reports that upwards of 800,000 jobs can result from renewable fuels.  It represents a win-win for America’s farmers as well as the planet.  

We are in a global competition for the clean energy jobs of the future.  From China to Germany to Brazil, other countries understand that whoever leads in clean energy economy will lead in the global economy.  The race is on.

But when it comes to biofuels, we have two clear competitive advantages.  First, the American innovation machine is unrivalled.  And second, our agricultural industry is the strongest, most productive on the planet.  We can feed the world — with enough capacity left over to provide much of the energy our economy needs.  

In the process, we’ll not only cut our reliance on foreign oil, we’ll help reinvigorate rural economies across the country.

Tom Vilsack is the U.S. Secretary of Agriculture and Steven Chu is the Secretary of Energy.

 

 

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