The Private Sector: Rural areas could be a vast source of energy
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America's farms could soon become a vital source of fuel and electricity.
The 2007 Pennsylvania Farm Show, which this year is focusing on agricultural energy, will be a primer for policymakers seeking ways to lessen our reliance on foreign oil, improve the environment and boost America's rural economy.
More than 40 exhibitors are discussing the problem-solving potential that is all around us in the vast rural acreage of America, including the 58,200 farms in Pennsylvania.
Allen Rider, of New Holland, Pa., is the retired president of New Holland North America, and former vice president of the New Holland North America Agricultural Business Unit. He serves on the "25 x'25" steering committee. For more information about 25x'25, see www.25x25.org.
A recent study from the University of Tennessee projects that America's farms, ranches and forests can provide 25 percent of the nation's need for fuel and electricity by 2025. This use of renewable energy sources would make a serious dent in our reliance on foreign oil, would reduce the output of greenhouse gases and would provide thousands of rural jobs and add billions to the rural economy. The study shows that Pennsylvania would realize $6.1 billion in economic value by 2025 and directly or indirectly support 44,193 jobs.
The "25 x '25'" objective involves more than ethanol and biodiesel. Unquestionably, these renewable fuels will be essential to reducing reliance on petroleum-based fuels, but the plan also includes other energy sources, such as methane generation from animal waste, food waste and household garbage; wind-generated power; and energy from solar farms and geothermal energy.
Gov. Ed Rendell is one of 22 U.S. governors who have endorsed the "25 x '25" goal. His administration realizes that Pennsylvania, the nation's fourth largest agricultural state, can combine renewable fuels with clean coal technologies to reduce emissions in older plants across the state. Already, he has set a personal objective to have 18 percent of the state's energy generated from clean technologies by 2020.
Skeptics may question whether the goal of 25 percent by 2025 is attainable, but an update on developing technologies, shifts in land use and the productivity of U.S. farmers confirms that it can.
A key will be new technologies capable of producing ethanol from essentially any source of cellulose. Today, corn is the main source of biomass for ethanol -- important for Pennsylvanians who plant 1.3 million acres of corn. In the near future, new enzymes in development will make grasses, wood chips, animal waste, even garbage available as sources for ethanol. When that technology becomes available, which is predicted to be in less than 10 years, we will see a shift in land uses. States with a strong forestry industry, such as Pennsylvania with 17 million acres, will see a new use for wood byproducts.
Elsewhere, new crops will be developed solely for energy. The University of Tennessee study projects that more than 100 million acres of land will be dedicated to producing energy crops, such as switchgrass. Many of these acres currently are marginal for crop production . The ability to produce an energy crop will make those lands productive again and add economic value to the region.
In addition to crops, solar technologies will be an important part of achieving the campaign's goal. By bringing power to areas where grid access would be cost prohibitive or impossible, localized solar power can reduce the energy bills of many homes and businesses .
By 2020, wind energy alone could create 80,000 new jobs and $1.2 billion in new income in the United States. Because wind farm jobs often are located in rural areas, they add economic diversity to a region, cushioning local economies from changes in other sectors.
According to the U.S. Department of Energy, good areas for wind generation, about 6 percent of the contiguous U.S. land area, have the potential to supply more than 150 percent of the electricity currently consumed in the United States. Typically, within those areas only 1 to 2 percent of the land would be used by the turbine and access roads, leaving the rest as productive farmland while giving new revenue to farmers.
Currently, installed geothermal electricity facilities produce enough electricity to power approximately 1.6 million U.S. households. The DOE expects there will be enough capacity within 10 years to meet the needs of nearly 10 million households.
Opinion polls show that the American public is overwhelmingly in support of developing alternative energy sources. Research and technological development show that we do not have to remain addicted to petroleum. There must, however, be a clearly defined national strategy for utilizing the resources available to us.
America's farmers, who have remarkable ability to increase their productivity to meet any challenge, stand ready to implement a new policy and put their lands to work for a more secure energy future.
First Published January 9, 2007 12:00 am