This week, the 2007 Farm Bill, having passed in the Senate Committee on Agriculture, Nutrition and Forestry with an overwhelming majority, is expected to move to the Senate floor. Besides the old subsidies for high-fructose corn syrup and new programs for farmers markets, the farm bill brings new funding for the biofuel industry. The estimated five-year cost of the bill is $288 billion, with roughly $1.4 billion of which is slated to go into renewable energy. At a time when the ethanol industry is struggling, the government payouts are welcome.
The Senate is hoping for a breakthrough in cellulosic ethanol production, with nearly $1 billion of the energy funds geared toward biomass production and refinement. The bill gives $227 million to farmers to grow biomass crops, $422 million for building or re-building biorefineries, and $345 million to help the newly built biorefineries buy the newly grown biomass crops.
Title IX: Energy of the 2007 Farm Bill is broken into three large chunks, with the aforementioned bioenergy production getting the biggest chunk of change. The bill also provides $145 million for rural energy research and development, half of which is for biomass research and development. Researchers have been working on creating a super-microbe to both break the cellulose down into sugars and then ferment those sugars into ethanol and this is in need of funding.
The last major section is perhaps the least clearly defined, but one of the most important, with the simple heading “rural energy systems.” The bill includes $270 million for investment in the Rural Energy for America Program (REAP), a program that has already helped implement hundreds of clean energy projects involving energy efficiency, wind, solar, geothermal, and biogas. The bill also stipulates that 15 percent of the $270 million for REAP be put towards “projects that convert animal waste to energy.”
The bill also provisions that 20 percent of the REAP money be doled out in grants, each valued at no more than $20,000. With a bill in which tens of billions of dollars in subsidies are slated for a select few agro-industrialists, it is heartening to have mandated funding for small-scale, rural clean energy projects.
Agriculture Committee Chairman Senator Tom Harkin (D-IA) is expected to bring the bill to the floor this week. The Farm Bill, which comes up every five years, has garnered an unprecedented level of interest from a variety of interest groups, including industrial agriculturists, meatpackers, vegetable growers, animal rights groups, conservationists, public health advocates, organic farmers and other energy players.
Assuming that the bill doesn’t get too altered on the Senate floor, $1.4 billion in government money could be approved for rural clean tech. Between now and 2012, a new pool of government grants and funding could fund an awful lot of bioenergy startups, as well as fuel ongoing research.