As the USDA Rural Development State Director for Oregon, I’m aware of the significant economic benefits our programs have produced in partnership with rural communities, residents and businesses in every corner of my state. As I drove across the country during my recent vacation, I was curious to also see how visible the Agency’s support for place-appropriate, locally led efforts would be on my route from Oregon to Virginia. Knowing what to look for, I could easily identify the signs of rural economic and community development—even from my limited dashboard viewpoint—as I drove a transect path across the USDA Rural Development nationwide service area. Rural America accounts for 75 percent of the Nation’s land area, and that is where we work. Across the rural landscape, it is difficult, if not impossible, to find a community that hasn’t benefitted in some way from our support for affordable housing, business development, essential infrastructure, community facilities and clean, efficient energy.
Among the signs of progress I saw driving West Coast to East Coast, perhaps the most striking to me was the significant boost to renewable energy the Agency has delivered through the Rural Energy for America Program (REAP). Consistent with President Obama’s “all-of-the-above” plan for greater energy independence, USDA Rural Development has aided the development of more than 9,300 renewable energy installations across the Nation through REAP and our other programs since 2009. With output like that, the evidence of how rural America has embraced this important work is apparent from the road, no matter which route you take.
While I will not attempt to record every single REAP project along my route, I’d like to share a few highlights, and I’ll begin with my own fair state. Kennington Farms is a dairy operation just outside of Ontario, Oregon. In Fiscal Year 2011, the owners were awarded a competitive REAP grant covering 25 percent of the cost to put in a 10 kW solar installation. Together, the two small solar arrays save this small operation approximately $1,000 per month, and they’re able to sell the excess power through a net metering arrangement with the local utility.
Just across the border in Fruitland, Idaho, I took a quick peek at another REAP solar installation at Dirt Buster Car Wash. Their eight-panel solar thermal system captures the sun’s radiation to heat the water used to wash cars. The project has reduced the business’ natural gas use by 44 percent.
The next day started with a drive through Jerome, Idaho, where AgPower Jerome, LLC installed a 4.5MW anaerobic digester, currently the nation’s largest manure-based anaerobic digester. Methane from the digester is used to generate enough electricity to power 3,400 homes every day.
Later that same day, I visited Washakie Renewable Energy in Plymouth, Utah. This plant is the largest biodiesel producer in the state, creating clean-burning fuel from renewable resources like canola, safflower and soybean oil, and utilizing used cooking oil, animal fats and wastewater pond scum, all while employing 65 people in this small hamlet of just 330 residents. USDA Rural Development REAP assistance helped with the construction and finalization of the biodiesel plant, as well as installation of two blender pumps.
While crossing Nebraska’s flat, open landscape, I stopped in Paxton to fuel up. REAP helped the Paxton Pit Stop install two flex fuel pumps allowing customers to purchase higher-graded ethanol 24 hours a day. This small business provides a locally sourced, locally owned outlet for ethanol produced at the region’s two ethanol facilities.
Crossing into central Illinois, I visited Deer Creek, where Bell Enterprises operates a grain elevator. At this facility, the family owned business participated in REAP to install energy efficient grain dryers, as well as a geothermal well to heat and cool their office building.
In Zanesville, Ohio, I passed by one of twelve waste-to-energy anaerobic digester projects funded with USDA Rural Development assistance in the state in the past ten years. The construction of these digesters has added renewable energy to the electric grid and have been key in the development of a compressed natural gas for vehicle use. The Zanesville digester processes 150 tons of fats, oils, greases, sewer sludge and food waste to produce natural gas equivalent to 1,800 gallons of gasoline on a daily basis. In addition, the facility also generates 1MW of electricity per hour.
On day five, as I began to close in on my destination of Alexandria, Virginia, I had the chance to visit Linganore Winery in Mount Airy, Maryland. With assistance through REAP, this family owned operation installed a 5 kW solar array to support two electric vehicle charging stations and conduct a feasibility study of other alternative energy sources. Like many wineries back home in Oregon, Linganore is concerned about their carbon footprint and doing business sustainably.
During my journey, I developed a new-found appreciation for the ways public-private collaboration is changing our energy future. During the State of the Union Address, President Obama said, “Today, no area holds more promise than our investments in American energy.” He urged greater energy independence and meaningful progress on climate change while driving strong economic growth. Although there is still much to do, I believe that we have made significant strides toward those objectives, and rural America deserves much of the credit.
To find out more about USDA’s energy programs click here.