On September 12, the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) announced that it is investing in $238 million worth of environmentally sustainable projects to improve water and waste infrastructure across the country and in the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico (1). This investment, which will further develop drinking water and waste disposal systems for communities with fewer than 10,000 residents, is the latest manifestation of the USDA’s commitment to energy and resource solutions in rural communities during Barack Obama’s presidency. Programs encompass far more than just agricultural issues; many now attempt to address the difficulties rural communities face in reducing emissions while sustaining economic development .
The Rural Energy for America Program (REAP) is one such USDA initiative that bolsters rural economies while also promoting sustainability. REAP offers small businesses and farms, which often cannot afford the latest technology, the opportunity to invest in renewable energy systems or energy-efficient equipment upgrades (2). The program delivers funding through grants, which can cover up to twenty-five percent of the project cost, and loan guarantees, which can cover up to seventy-five percent of the project cost (3); since 2009, REAP has provided over $775 million in aid (4). To date, over 15,000 small businesses and family farms across the country have invested in clean energy thanks to this program. Projects like REAP have reduced the greenhouse emissions of these rural industries by more than 5 million metric tons per year, which is comparable to removing a million cars from the road annually (5).
The endeavors supported by REAP appeal to farmers and small business owners because they are both financially and environmentally beneficial. REAP-sponsored renewable energy projects range from solar-powered wineries to geothermal greenhouses to energy-efficient irrigation systems. Wind turbines and biomass also continue to successfully generate large amounts of electricity. Without funding, these green technologies can be prohibitively expensive to purchase, but once implemented, they reduce energy costs significantly. These projects also provide an important boost to small-town economies, making them more attractive to the younger people who are otherwise fleeing to cities. Though REAP has received little attention in national press, it is incredibly popular: Demand for clean energy investment aid has outweighed supply for several years, and in 2015, REAP had to reject almost 1,000 applications for lack of funding (6). Last year’s transition to a more accessible online application also caused applicant numbers to skyrocket.
As of 2014, only nineteen percent of the American population resided in rural spaces; these spaces account for ninety-five percent of the total U.S. land area, yet rural populations continue to decrease (7). Rural areas are ideal sites for clean energy production because the renewable resources necessary to generate electricity are usually abundant and readily available. The Great Plains states, for example, have ample wind and biomass resources, while Southwestern and Western states are typically rich in solar and geothermal resources (8). However, rural areas are also simultaneously more vulnerable to the consequences of climate change. Many communities face threats to their livelihoods and lifestyles from global warming, extreme weather events, and environmental changes that are already accompanying climate shifts (9). REAP and other USDA initiatives help to revitalize rural economies, improve quality of life for community residents, and transition the U.S. towards clean energy consumption. When Obama took office in 2009, he pledged to harness renewable energy to help power the U.S. and significantly reduce greenhouse gas emissions; programs like REAP represent some of his greatest steps towards achieving these goals.
(1) "USDA Announces Rural Water and Waste Infrastructure Investments." USDA Announces Rural Water and Waste Infrastructure Investments. September 12, 2016. Accessed September 28, 2016. http://www.usda.gov/wps/portal/usda/usdahome?contentid=2016/09/0193.xml.
(2) Platt, John R. "Rural America's New Cash Crop: Renewable Energy." TakePart. September 12, 2016. Accessed September 28, 2016. http://www.takepart.com/article/2016/09/12/agriculture-helps-drive-rural-renewable-energy-use.
(3) "Rural Energy for America Program Renewable Energy Systems & Energy Efficiency Improvement Loans & Grants." USDA Rural Development. 2016. Accessed September 28, 2016. http://www.rd.usda.gov/programs-services/rural-energy-america-program-renewable-energy-systems-energy-efficiency.
(4) Platt, John R. "Rural America's New Cash Crop: Renewable Energy." TakePart. September 12, 2016. Accessed September 28, 2016. http://www.takepart.com/article/2016/09/12/agriculture-helps-drive-rural-renewable-energy-use.
(7) "National Climate Assessment." National Climate Assessment. 2014. Accessed September 28, 2016. http://nca2014.globalchange.gov/highlights/regions/rural-communities.
(8) USA. USDA. Office of Energy Policy and News Uses. Renewable Power Opportunities for Rural Communities. April 2011. Accessed September 28, 2016. http://www.usda.gov/oce/reports/energy/RenewablePowerOpportunities-Final.pdf.
(9) "National Climate Assessment." National Climate Assessment. 2014. Accessed September 28, 2016. http://nca2014.globalchange.gov/highlights/regions/rural-communities.
Image: © Juan Carlos Fariñas Peinado | Dreamstime.com - Puerto Rico Flag in a ship, in La Parguera