Rural America Tells Washington: Clean Energy Works for Us

Jeremy Gonzalez picks tomatoes on a farm in Steele, Ala., Monday, Oct. 3, 2011. Much of the crop is rotting as many of the mi
Jeremy Gonzalez picks tomatoes on a farm in Steele, Ala., Monday, Oct. 3, 2011. Much of the crop is rotting as many of the migrant workers who normally work these fields have moved to other states to find work after Alabama's immigration law took affect last week. Many farmers stand to lose much of their crops because they have no help to harvest it. (AP Photo/Dave Martin)

I've been helping business leaders voice their support for clean energy policies in Washington, D.C, for more than a decade. Leading advocacy trips to the nation's capital allows me to work closely with some of the brightest, most successful clean energy entrepreneurs in the United States, and to hear what's happening in the clean energy economy in their home districts.

One thing I've noticed over the years: The changing face of the clean energy industry. Increasingly, clean energy business leaders come from rural areas. They are farmers. They are community wind developers. They are retired military leaders. And last week in Washington, all of these constituencies and more were represented when the nonprofit, nonpartisan business group I founded, Environmental Entrepreneurs (E2), fanned out on Capitol Hill.

In addition to advocating for clean energy development, they voiced support for the EPA's authority to reduce greenhouse gas emissions from power plants. They defended tax policies like the Master Limited Partnerships Parity Act that can spur clean energy development. And they explained how the development of low-carbon advanced biofuel can grow the economy.

These entrepreneurs who came from states as different as South Dakota and North Carolina offered lawmakers a firsthand account of what clean energy development means all across rural America -- a new opportunity to produce value on their land. Farmers, of course, have been participating in energy generation ever since the first windmill popped up on the plains. But their voices have not been heard enough in the national debate around clean energy policy.

Fortunately, that's beginning to change.

For example, E2 member David Kolsrud met with members of Congress from his home state of South Dakota and from neighboring Minnesota. Kolsrud's background -- he's a fourth-generation farmer -- makes him an effective messenger to showcase to lawmakers the positive economic impact clean energy has on rural communities. Kolsrud has almost two decades of experience with renewable energy projects ranging from biodiesel production to a 10.5-megawatt wind farm. He also helped start DAK Renewable Energy, which develops, manages, and invests in various renewables.

While in Washington, Kolsrud spoke on a panel at a conference focused on clean energy jobs. Moderated by E2 Executive Director Judith Albert, the panel explored the economic and environmental benefits of the military's advanced biofuels programs.

Panelists explained that growth in demand for advanced biofuel adds value to corn stover and wheat straw -- crop waste that used to be discarded but now provides farmers with a new revenue stream. A healthy advanced biofuel industry also steers capital investments in bio-refineries that are sited close to the agricultural communities that provide the refineries with their feedstock.

All this economic activity adds up to good, long-term jobs for young people in rural areas, which helps to restore the social fabric of towns and counties that in previous generations saw their youth move to cities in search of work, panelists said.

Clean energy's rural job opportunities are a focus of another E2 member: Lt. Gen. John Castellaw, a retired Marine who lives in East Tennessee. After 36 years in the military, Lt. Gen. Castellaw founded the Crockett Policy Institute, or CPI, a nonprofit based in the Volunteer State. One of CPI's main initiatives is to encourage the development of an agriculture-based renewable energy industry in the rural mid-South.

Gen. Castellaw knows this regional, renewable industry will employ veterans transitioning back into civilian life in their rural hometowns after serving their country in Iraq and Afghanistan. Because the military is on the cutting-edge of the clean energy industry, these returning veterans can take skills learned overseas and deploy them to help grow our domestic clean energy economy. Since an increase in renewable biomass can lead to less oil consumption and more diversity for our nation's fuel supply, these veteran farmers would continue to improve our national security -- even after they've stepped down from a tank and up onto a tractor.

The agricultural community's contributions to clean energy -- whether through wind and solar installations or through fuel feedstock production -- are an increasingly important component of the nation's energy security. Farmers are stepping up, along with national security and business leaders, to voice their support for an American clean energy economy. Altogether, these advocates represent households in every congressional district in the country. Can our elected representatives afford not to listen?

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