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Tenfold increase proposed for rural energy program

Congress should guarantee at least $500 million a year for USDA grants and loan guarantees to install renewable energy systems or improve energy efficiency on farms and small businesses in rural areas — 10 times the current funding level, said an environmental group on Tuesday. House Agriculture chairman David Scott said mandatory funding levels for USDA energy programs would be considered as part of writing the 2023 Farm Bill.

The Environmental Law and Policy Center (ELPC), based in Chicago, called for higher funding and updated terms for the Rural Energy for America Program, to create what it called REAP 3.0. Established in 2002, REAP provides grants and loans for energy efficiency and renewable energy systems in rural areas. Mandatory funding for REAP was set at $50 million a year, with additional money available as Congress chooses.

“We encourage Congress to substantially increase REAP mandatory funding from $50 million to at least $500 million,” said Andy Olsen of ELPC. “REAP is a popular program with demand for grants and loan guarantees exceeding funding by an average 4.5 times over the past 10 years.” ELPC, which describes itself as the Midwest’s leading environmental legal advocacy and sustainability innovation organization, also said the application process should be simplified, and the USDA cost share for grants should be 50% rather than the current 25%.

In opening an Agriculture Committee hearing on rural energy, Scott pointed to “a troubling trend” in the 2008, 2014, and 2018 farm bills of providing less mandatory funding for USDA energy programs than in the 2002 Farm Bill.

“Only 20% of the funding for Energy Title programs was mandatory in our most recent Farm Bill,” said Scott, a Georgia Democrat. “I want to be clear: For the upcoming 2023 Farm Bill, we need to consider what the needs are for our ag and forestry sectors as well as our rural small businesses in terms of their potential role in producing renewable energy.”

The USDA homepage for REAP is available here.

To watch a video of the hearing, click here.

To read written testimony of witnesses at the hearing, click here.

Produced with FERN, non-profit reporting on food, agriculture, and environmental health.
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