If federal legislators are in all that much of a hurry to create new jobs, they could hopscotch over the controversial Keystone XL pipeline and lend some more support to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. The agency has just announced a new round of funding for 450 “shovel ready” energy projects that will put people to work on energy efficiency upgrades and alternative energy installations at farms and small rural businesses all across the country.
Enough With the Shovel Ready, Already
U.S. legislators, like this guy, have been touting the Keystone pipeline project (that’s the one intended to bring tar sands oil from Canada to Gulf Coast refineries) as if it’s the only way to create new jobs sooner rather than later. However, that point is only valid when a conventional “shovel ready” construction project is stacked up to next-generation energy technology, which could take years to put into commercial use.
Meanwhile, as the USDA announcement shows, there are already practically limitless opportunities to apply existing energy efficiency and renewable energy technologies to farms and businesses in the U.S. If shovel-ready is your main criterion, the USDA projects also have the added advantage of spreading job creation across many more states than the Keystone would.
On top of creating new jobs for individual workers, projects like these will benefit the bottom line for scores of farm and business owners, putting them in a better position to expand and hire additional workers for their core business.
450 Energy Projects for Rural America
The new round of projects is funded through the USDA’s Rural Energy for America Program (REAP), as authorized by the 2008 Farm Bill, to the tune of $7.5 million in grants.
As with an earlier round of rural energy funding, most of the money will go directly to equipment upgrades, with grain dryers being a particularly important item. One example cited by USDA is a grant for a Wisconsin farm to install new dryers, which will cut annual energy use by more than 40 percent.
New solar arrays are also big on the list of projects.
Out of the total, about $400,000 has been set aside for 20 projects that are admittedly not shovel ready. They will happen only if feasibility studies bear out their worthiness. Some of these projects are quite large (one involves a 4 megawatt biomass power plant), so the up-front investment is worthwhile.
The Energy Ripple Effect of USDA Funding
In contrast to projects like the Keystone pipeline, USDA funding can ripple out to provide direct, permanent benefits to other local businesses. A wood boiler heating system, for example, is enabling a North Carolina greenhouse to eliminate its use of natural gas while providing a market for local lumber mills looking to dispose of their wood chips.
The new round of USDA funding also supports President Obama’s National Bioeconomy Blueprint initiative, which is designed to transition the U.S. economy out of high-risk petroleum products and other hazardous substances. That applies not only to fuel but to a whole range of consumer and commercial products.
That effort is already well under way. According to the USDA, currently, more than 3,000 U.S. companies produce bio-based products, supporting about 100,000 jobs. With a little more of an assist from Congress, Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack foresees more growth in the future:
“The bio-based economy will be critical in the coming years to creating even more jobs – particularly in rural America – by bringing together agriculture and manufacturing, two sectors that are key economic drivers.”
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Tina Casey specializes in military and corporate sustainability, advanced technology, emerging materials, biofuels, and water and wastewater issues. Tina’s articles are reposted frequently on Reuters, Scientific American, and many other sites. You can also follow her on Twitter @TinaMCasey and Google+.