Farmers in the United States need more tools and support to be part of the climate solution, say advocates, urging lawmakers gearing up to draft the new 2023 Farm Bill to increase funding for a rural renewables and energy efficiency.
The Renewable Energy for America Program (REAP) “offers a significant path forward for reducing emissions,” especially if it allows farm producers to use its energy efficiency grants, Cathy Day, climate policy coordinator for the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition (NSAC), told The Energy Mix. “Farmers are interested in energy policies that enable them to reduce their inputs, including fuel and electricity, and so lead them to better profitability.”
“They want to contribute to ecological solutions without sacrificing quality farmland,” she added.
REAP is funded through the massive Farm Bill legislative package that sets government spending for national food assistance and agriculture programs. Lawmakers reauthorize the bill every five years, and the current edition, passed in 2018 with a budget of US$428 billion, is due to be replaced in 2023.
NSAC released its Farm Bill Platform to pitch recommendations Congress members as they prepare to draft the new bill. Congress can build on REAP to “give farmers and rural communities more tools to address the climate crisis through energy efficiency and renewable energy investments,” NSAC says.
More Farm Supports, Better Access
Eligible farmers and small rural businesses can apply to REAP for guaranteed loan financing (but no direct loans) and grant funding. The money can be used to install renewable energy projects like wind and solar power generation, or to make energy efficiency improvements like replacing inefficient equipment or upgrading insulation. Up to 75% of a project’s costs can be covered by guaranteed loans and 25% by grants, or combined grant and loan guarantees can cover up to 75% of the upgrade’s costs, with applicants responsible for remaining costs.
REAP’s benefits are “multi-dimensional and transformative” and can extend to surrounding communities and the environment, said Sarah Waring, the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) rural development state director in Vermont and New Hampshire. Fewer harmful emissions improve environmental and public health, and farms and businesses that save money on energy are also better able to employ residents and reinvest in the area.
REAP has been hugely popular and has supported more than 20,000 renewable energy and efficiency programs across the country since it was initiated in 2003, but it is also oversubscribed and has historically received four times as many applicants as it can fund, reports The Hill.
Sarah Costa, co-founder of Manning Hill Farm in New Hampshire, received a REAP grant in 2020 to install a roof-mounted solar array that can generate 35,080 kilowatt-hours annually. Costa told The Mix the farm has “benefitted greatly” from the grant and hasn’t “had an energy bill since April.”
Costa and her partner applied for a barn rooftop solar array project because it was the only grant available for a small farm like Manning Hill. She added that the application process was very competitive, and they only received the grant on their second try. It was also “hard to come up with the funds or show proof of funds for the project before even applying.”
Still, Costa says she would recommend REAP to other farmers if they “have the time and patience for all the paperwork.”
NSAC is recommending several changes for the 2023 Farm Bill that would make the program more supportive and accessible to farmers. They include boosting the program’s funding from $50 million to $400 million annually, investing in program staff and outreach to tell farmers about program opportunities, and prioritizing funding for socially disadvantaged farmers.
Waring added that USDA Rural Development is “always looking to improve and streamline the application process for all USDA programs,” and there is opportunity for beneficiaries of USDA programs and services to share suggested changes with Congressional delegations.
REAP as a Climate Solution
This past year’s Inflation Reduction Act (IRA) gave REAP a funding boost of just over $2 billion, with $303 million set aside for underutilized technologies and technical assistance. It also created new grants that double the current cost-share rate by covering up to 50% of a project’s expenses. The one-time infusion of funds is a positive step, said Day, but enduring climate solutions still need support from long-term funding in the Farm Bill cycle. For the next bill, NSAC recommends maintaining the increased cost-share reimbursement and grant rates and making them permanent.
But for REAP to fully deliver as a climate solution, it should also be modified to have greenhouse gas reductions as its primary purpose, and “its use must be centred on greenhouse gas-reducing technologies and energy conservation,” Day added. NSAC recommends prioritizing projects that would result in the largest net decreases of emissions. Making non-profits and producer co-ops eligible to conduct energy audits for applicants would also help make the program more accessible to different farm scales and types.
Day acknowledge that the clean energy transition must extend across all sectors, so “depending on agriculture to reduce emissions for other sectors is not a recipe for success.” But even so, “emissions must be reduced throughout the food system, and REAP is one of the most important tools for addressing on-farm energy transitions.”