Gung Ho for Green: Renewable Energy Can Be a Boon for Rural Economic Development, but There Are Obstacles to Overcome

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Jim Magagna is a Wyoming sheep farmer--one used to the rigors of living off the land. In this topsy-turvy world of high-energy prices, however, he thinks it may be time to "go green" and get his power on the ranch from an alternative source, say wind for instance.

"Never did we think we could use the wind this way. We've been putting up with it for so long," Magagna, who is also executive director of the Wyoming Stockgrowers Association, joked. But what Magagna realizes is the serious effort farmers, ranchers and others in rural communities are making to find innovative ways to cut energy costs.

"I think high energy costs have really hit home. People have a general understanding that the reason we have these high energy costs is that we are at the whim of unstable regimes, hurricanes and other factors, some out of our control. It makes people believe very strongly in the idea of energy independence," says Minnesota Senator Ellen Anderson.

It doesn't stop there. Renewable energy, struggling to find its way in the marketplace for three decades as proponents argue its benefits to the environment, may have another asset--job creation in rural areas.

"Economic development was the real driver," says Washington Senator Erik Poulsen about a bipartisan effort in 2005 that is touted as the most progressive renewable energy legislation in the country. "This is not just about clean energy," says Poulsen, chair of the Water, Energy and Environment Committee. "It is about bringing new jobs and new industries to Washington state."

Washington's new laws established incentives for homeowners and small businesses who generate power with solar, wind or anaerobic digesters. Manufactures of renewable energy systems get tax breaks--bigger ones if they locate in economically depressed areas of the state.

Anderson says that if just 20 percent of the energy consumed in Minnesota were to come from renewable sources by 2020, an estimated 14,000 jobs could be created--especially in rural areas.

Renewable energy from biomass, wind, geothermal sources, solar and even ocean power, while representing a tiny share of energy capacity today, is expected to make a greater contribution to the mix in the future.

According to the federal government, renewable energy demand is expected to grow as a result of state programs such as renewable portfolio standards, technological advances and higher petroleum prices. By 2025, marketed renewable fuels are expected to grow to 9.6 quadrillion Btu's, up from 6 billion in 2004 The United States currently consumes about 100 quadrililion Btu's.

A BIG CHANGE

To make incremental changes in how America produces the energy to keep the lights on in homes, power factories and operate colossal transportation system, lawmakers, businesses, utilities and voters are going to have to stand back and look at the big picture.

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It is such a major undertaking that no one should be surprised if the transition takes time.

"The system that we have works really well right now. It's not like when we changed from the horse to the auto and it was possible to see the benefits," says George Douglas, spokesman for the National Renewable Energy Laboratory. Such an undertaking requires a big change in the way the energy business is conducted and that's where state lawmakers come in.

Renewable Portfolio Standards that require a certain percentage of power to come from renewable sources may be the force needed to get the job done. Today 21 states plus the District of Columbia have some type of standard in place ranging from 1.1 percent in Arizona by 2012 to 25 percent in New York by 2013.

The biggest stumbling blocks to renewables such as wind or solar are often the electric utilities. Their highest priority is to make sure that electricity keeps flowing to residences and homes at a reasonable price. …