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Renewable Energy From the Farm to the City

Renewable Energy: From the Farm to the City

Growing Green Conference Helps Texas Rural Communities and Agriculture

Story by Melissa Blair

Growing Green is no longer a fad, as rural communities, farmers and ranchers across Texas are looking to save and make money with energy resources. The USDA-Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) along with local, county, city and federal agencies, as well as private companies, partnered with the Texas Engineering Extension Service�s (TEEX) Knowledge Engineering Division, on the first Growing Green conference held in Aransas Pass on February 24-25. NRCS focused on �Renewable Energy: From the Farm to the City,� with a presentation on how the agency is working with farmers, ranchers and rural communities on renewable energy and in protecting the natural resources.

�The buzz these days from the farm to rural communities is renewable energy,� said NRCS Acting State Conservationist, Salvador Salinas. �Renewable energy has become a catchall phrase for a variety of energy sources that can refer to how natural and abundant sources of energy such as sunlight, wind, water, geothermal heat are utilized. It can also refer to renewable energy technologies such as solar, wind, hydroelectric, biomass, and biofuels. As our name implies, we help people conserve natural resources � which includes renewable energy.�

As part of NRCS Texas efforts to meet Chief Dave White�s challenge of remaining focused on steps to advance clean energy and reduce greenhouse gas emissions while growing our economy, NRCS will be presenting at two more �Growing Green� conferences in San Marcos on June 16-17, and Lubbock on October 5-6, to provide information and resources about sustainable opportunities to rural areas.

The audience at the Aransas Pass event ranged from local, city and county officials to economic development coordinators, South Texas Zone NRCS Agronomist Bruce Henderson shared with them who NRCS is and ways the agency is working with farmers and ranchers to improve energy efficiency and the use of on-farm renewable energy sources with their equipment and facilities. The audience also learned how NRCS is helping agriculture producers address these issues through conservation planning and installing best management practices on private lands.

�Just like in your household, wise energy use is becoming an increasingly important part of agriculture operations,� said Henderson. �At our national headquarters in Washington, our resource concerns were recently restructured to include the addition energy-related resource concerns that are being implemented in Fiscal Year 2011.�

Henderson gave examples of how NRCS provides technical assistance and incentives for landowners to adopt renewable energy recommendations and apply energy conservation practices on their operation.

  • Solar- NRCS works with farmers and ranchers to install photovoltaic panels for remote water pumping, solar panels for energy and heating, and electric fences for grazing management
     
  • Wind-Interest in wind farm development has increased across Texas and the Resource Conservation & Development (RC&D) offices have been providing information to landowners interested in leasing for wind farm development. The RC&Ds have hosted landowner information meetings aimed at educating landowners about wind farm development, leases and how a wind farm can affect Farm Bill Programs, including conservation programs. Some landowners are voluntarily installing wind turbines as energy sources for operations around their farm or ranch.
     
  • Biofuels-NRCS provides landowners interested in producing alternative forms of energy and fuel with information on the research and production of biofuel crops in Texas, as well as helping them produce those crops under a conservation plan
     
  • Electric- NRCS can help landowners identify inefficiencies in their existing operations help offer energy saving solutions, such as more efficient electric irrigation pumps.

Online tools available through NRCS designed to increase energy awareness in agriculture and to help farmers and ranchers identify where they can reduce their energy costs was discussed.

The Energy Estimator for Animal Housing tool enables operators to estimate potential energy savings associated with swine, poultry or dairy cows housing operations. This tool evaluates major energy costs in lighting, ventilation, heating and cooling costs.

The Energy Estimator for Irrigation tool enables farmers to estimate potential energy savings associated with pumping water for irrigation.

The Energy Estimator for Nitrogen tool enables operators to calculate the potential cost-savings related to nitrogen use on their farm or ranch.

The Energy Estimator for Tillage tool estimates diesel fuel use and costs in the production of key crops in the area and compares potential energy savings between conventional tillage and alternative tillage, or plowing systems.

These energy estimator tools are available online at http://energytools.sc.egov.usda.gov/.

The presentation also included information about opportunities for rural communities to work with the USDA-Resource Conservation and Development (RC&D) and their non-profit councils. The RC&D Councils help communities plan and carry out projects that increase natural resources conservation, support economic development, and enhance the local environment and standard of living. The RC&D program is administered by NRCS.

Texas has 23 RC&D Councils that work with local communities and landowners to reduce energy consumption and develop and expand economic opportunities provided by our Nation�s natural resources. The RC&Ds can provide assistance for renewable energy projects such as biofuel, wind energy, solar energy as well as aid in energy audit and energy savings projects.

Another sustainable area where NRCS is working is through their Plant Materials Program, where they evaluate and release plant material and technology for biofuel. The Plant Materials Program selects conservation plants and develops innovative planting technology to solve the nation�s most important resource concerns. The Program includes a network of 27 Plant Materials Centers (PMCs) and associated Plant Materials Specialist serving all 50 states and territories of the US.

Texas has three PMCs that collect, evaluate and release plant materials as well as research plant technology for use in Texas, Arkansas, Colorado, Kansas, Louisiana and Oklahoma.

�The PMC�s are discovering that time of harvest for various native grasses has an impact on biofuel quality and they are also evaluating plants that have potential feedstock applications in biomass energy applications,� said Henderson. �Information gained from technical studies such as these will greatly enhance the ability of the agricultural industry to adopt biofuel production.�

Henderson also mentioned the USDA-Farm Service Agency (FSA) Biomass Crop Assistance Program (BCAP) that supports the establishment and production of crops for conversion to bio-energy in project areas and to assist with collection, harvest, storage, and transportation of eligible material for use in a biomass conversion facility. This program also provides assistant for people to switch over to purpose-grown energy crops and helps with transportation and harvest.

�In facilitation of this program, NRCS assist the private landowner by developing the conservation plans which is followed to produce biomass while ensuring natural resource concerns are addressed,� said Henderson.

NRCS also coordinates with Rural Development on Rural Energy for America Program or �REAP,� which offers guaranteed loans and grants to promote energy efficiency and renewable energy development for agricultural producers and rural small businesses.

Rick Rhodes, Assistant Commissioner of Rural Economic Development for the Texas Department of Agriculture, keynote address summed up the conference when he said, �Sustainability and growing green are truly significant factors in national security and are vital to our future. The more we can do to protect and preserve our natural resources the more
we can lower our dependence on foreign oil. This will also have a positive impact on our national debt.�

The Growing Green conference series and website, http://growinggreencommunities.com, are produced by the TEEX Knowledge Engineering Division, under a grant from the U.S. Department of Commerce, Economic Development Administration. The grant, �Communicating, Collaborating and Innovating towards Sustainable Development,� is an effort to bring sustainable economic development opportunities to rural communities through conferences and information sharing.

A familiar scene in San Patricio County is an agricultural producer preparing fields under the towering wind turbines that provide electricity for more than 54,000 homes on the Papalote Creek Wind Farm. The Growing Green conference series is providing information about opportunities to diversify rural economies and create jobs with new sustainable industries that range from renewable energy and green products and services to nature and ecotourism.

A familiar scene in San Patricio County is an agricultural producer preparing fields under the towering wind turbines that provide electricity for more than 54,000 homes on the Papalote Creek Wind Farm.

The Growing Green conference series is providing information about opportunities to diversify rural economies and create jobs with new sustainable industries that range from renewable energy and green products and services to nature and ecotourism.