At the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, state energy and extension staff are teaching farmers to use modern sensors to improve irrigation management. In this picture, Darrel Siekman and Gary Zoubek install Watermark Sensors and a data logger. | Photo courtesy of the University of Nebraska.
Each year, urban households in the U.S. combined use more than three times the total energy that America’s rural households do. Yet, the Energy Information Administration estimates that rural families spend about $400 more per year in energy bills compared to the typical urban household. Unlocking new opportunities to save energy will help rural Americans save money, while improving our energy security, creating jobs and protecting our air and water.
We have seen this work first hand at USDA Rural Development. Through our Rural Energy for America Program (REAP), we have partnered with agriculture producers and rural small businesses to construct 6,605 renewable energy systems and energy efficiency improvement projects since 2009, providing $213 million in grants and $178 million in loan guarantees. When complete, these projects will be responsible for generating or saving 7.32 billion kWh annually, enough energy to power 680,000 households each year. At the Energy Department, the Weatherization Assistance Program is helping low-income rural households save on their utility bills through a broad range of home efficiency upgrades -- from installing insulation to replacing leaking windows to repairing heating and cooling systems. Since the program’s inception in 1976, we’ve helped low-income families permanently reduce their energy bills to the tune of hundreds of dollars per year. This is a good start, but there is much more work that can be done.
Today, the Departments of Agriculture and Energy announced a new collaboration -- the State Energy Extension Partnership -- to equip America’s farm families and rural small businesses with the efficiency tools, resources and training needed to reduce energy costs. Through this effort, we’re coupling the Energy Department’s energy efficiency expertise with USDA’s Cooperative Extension Service resources and leveraging USDA Rural Development programs. By working together, we can deliver expert financial and technical assistance across a vast network of state energy offices and land-grant universities that touches nearly every county.
As part of this partnership, USDA’s National Institute of Food and Agriculture, USDA Rural Development and the Energy Department’s Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy are harnessing their national resources and expertise to support community-driven projects throughout rural America, including:
- Incorporating educational materials and technical assistance on energy efficiency and renewable energy into Cooperative Extension programs for youth and adults, such as the 4-H program
- Providing easy access to information on tax credit incentives and other financing mechanisms for deploying renewable energy projects, conducting home energy audits and upgrades and installing energy efficient appliances
- Supporting rural communities’ energy efficiency and renewable energy goals to help create jobs, expand business opportunities and improve local economies.
In 2011, the Energy Department launched pilot projects for two years in Kentucky, Nebraska and Wisconsin to lay the foundation for this broader, national partnership. Since then, state extension agents, land-grant universities and state energy offices have incorporated strategies to increase the use of energy efficiency.
In Kentucky, the project has helped develop home energy assessment training materials for County Extension Agents and education materials for 4-H programs in the state. Meanwhile, extension agents in Wisconsin are working with the University of Wisconsin to develop an Energy Clearinghouse website that provides a platform to access resources from the University of Wisconsin website and the state energy office, including the opportunity to share information on projects and ask questions. They’ve also provided training sessions on purchasing and maintaining energy efficient grain dryers to help farmers and ranchers improve their bottom lines. At the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, state energy and extension staff are helping farmers use the university’s Crop Water App for quick, cheaper irrigation and teaching farmers to use modern sensors and other soil moisture and crop water use measuring devices to improve irrigation management. The Nebraska project is also creating an energy efficiency rating system for irrigation equipment, modeled after ENERGY STAR.
While both agencies are interested in funding similar grants in the future, this collaboration allows considerable flexibility in potential ways the agencies can work together in meeting their missions and serving mutual clients.
Over the past four years, the Obama Administration has taken historic steps to improve the lives of rural Americans, put people back to work and build thriving economies that deploy every available domestic energy resource. From outlining national goals in the Blueprint for a Secure Energy Future to establishing the first-ever White House Rural Council, we’re committed to smart, practical use of our federal resources -- breaking down barriers, finding areas for better collaboration and improving flexibility in government programs to match rural America’s unique needs.