Thursday, September 30, 2004

GAO Report on Wind Energy and its Impact on Farming and Rural Communities

Earlier this September, the Government Accountability Office (GAO) published a report entitled Wind Power’s Contribution to Electric Power Generation and Impact on Farms and Rural Communities. The report was commissioned by Senator Tom Harkin (D. IA), the ranking Democratic member of the Senate Committee on Agriculture, Nutrition, and Forestry.

The first part of the report offers some excellent background information on the wind power industry in general, providing detailed data on the present state of the industry, the future prospects for expanding the industry, and a thorough analysis of the incentives and disincentives that are currently affecting the industry's growth.

The remainder of the report is focused on options for increasing farm income through wind-power development, highlighting the potential for both increasing the nation's supply of sustainable, clean energy while at the same time bringing a much needed boost to our rural and agricultural communities. The heart of the report details a wide range of United States Agriculture Department (USDA) programs that are authorized and funded, but which are currently under-utilized or un-implemented. As the summary of the Report notes:
USDA has not fully utilized all of the farm bill’s renewable energy provisions to promote wind power development on farms and in rural communities. For the Renewable Energy Systems and Energy Efficiency Improvements Program (Renewable Energy Program)—the key program for supporting wind power and other renewable energy initiatives—USDA offered grants totaling $7.4 million for 35 wind power projects in eight states in fiscal year 2003, the program’s first year, but it has not implemented the loan and loan-guarantee components of the program. Without the latter, USDA has not fully fulfilled farm bill provisions and limits the ability of the program to promote renewable energy sources. For example, USDA budget documents indicate that the addition of loans and loan guarantees would increase the program level to about $200 millionannually.
While wind power does not currently contribute much income to rural farming, the report emphasizes the huge potential benefits, providing not just direct income to farmers, but also increased employment opportunities, increased tax revenues, and new investment opportunities. The possible synergy that comes from coupling renewable energy development with the needs of our nation's farmers offers some exciting possibilities - it's unfortunate they've been largly overlooked until now.