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25 percent renewable by 2025

A grassroots movement with a strong focus on agriculture and forestry--but also representing wind and solar--is leading the United States on a path toward having 25 percent of its energy needs met by renewable resources by 2025.

By Diane Mettler

Sometimes the ripple effects of a tragedy can turn out to be positive--such was the case after the horrific events of 9/11. After September 11, 2001, the Energy Future Coalition, a broad-based non-partisan alliance, knew they still didn't agree on a lot, but they did agree on one thing--the country desperately needed a new energy paradigm. They held exploratory meetings in 2001 looking at a number of areas that would reduce the country's dependency on foreign oil and create a new vision of sustainability. They soon identified, among others, the agriculture and forestry sectors as potential contributors to the ultimate energy solution.

"But they really didn't know the sector at all," says Read Smith, co-chair of what has developed to be the 25x'25 Work Group, which advocates the bold vision that 25 percent of   America's energy needs to come from renewable resources by the year 2025. "At that time I was the president of the National Association of Conservation Districts and Ernie Shea was the CEO and we were invited to sit in on one of their meetings. We watched these folks struggle with this ag component and made suggestions."

Afterwards, the coalition asked Shea if he might be interested in helping with this particular piece of the energy solution puzzle. "Ernie came to me and to co-chair Bill Richards (former Chief of Soil Conservation) and we decided, 'We can do this,'" recalls Smith. The three men sat down with a list of well-respected leaders and experts from around the country--primarily in ag and forestry. They then asked them if they would help look at agriculture and forestry as potential contributors to renewable energy. Every single one replied "Yes."

This took place in 2004. Shea, Richards and Smith thought they would have a couple of meetings, report back in and be on their way. But three years later, the idea has grown into a powerful initiative with wide national support. The 2004 meetings opened eyes and got people excited. Experts, including those from the National Renewable Energy Laboratory and other facilities, said that not only could agriculture and forestry contribute, but that the technology surrounding renewable energy was on the brink of tremendous change and anything was possible. In fact, technology was moving so fast, it was difficult to predict where the country would be in the next few years.

"After conversations like these, over the next six months we developed our initiative 25x'25--25 percent of our energy needs would come from renewable resources by the year 2025," says Smith. "Those renewable resources included wind, solar, bio-fuels, ethanol--everything."

Some scoffed at the idea, but that was to change quickly. The group took the vision to the ag and forestry communities and asked for their input, and endorsement. By 2005, 25x'25 was getting substantial support--80 major ag and forestry groups had endorsed the vision.

"We knew we were on the right track," says Smith. "We had a vision, not a mandate. We weren't locked into numbers. What we were agreeing to was that we needed to move forward together as a group, rather than separately as we had traditionally done."

In 2006, the group set five aggressive goals. The first was to expand the alliance outside the ag and forestry communities. That included anyone who had a stake, which in practical terms is just about everyone: the environmental community, conservation, labor, religion, you name it.   They proved successful. By the end of 2006 they had the endorsement of 350 organizations, including a number of heavy hitters.

"Most of our endorsers share common concerns about the need to reduce our reliance on foreign oil, the need to develop new income streams for rural America and the need to enhance the environment," says Sara Wyant, president, Agri-Pulse Communications, Inc. and a member of the 25x'25 steering committee.

The second goal was to introduce two resolutions in Congress, in the House and Senate. "We currently have some 120 members of Congress who have agreed to co-sponsor those resolutions," says Smith. "With the election in the fall and everything, we didn't get them through this session. But we are very confident that we'll get that job done."

The next goal was to create state alliances. To date they have endorsements from 16 states and 22 governors. They are currently working in 20 states, encouraging help from the ag and forestry communities. "It's important that ag and forestry communities become proactive. Across the country, the production of renewable energy comes from America's private lands--farms and ranches and forests. We're big players in this and impacted the most. We should be and need to be at the table."

They also worked to organize corporate America. They received tremendous support from John Deere, who was instrumental in helping 25x'25 bring corporate America together as a group and to decide how best they could participate. Lastly, and the piece they will continue to work on throughout 2007, was an implementation plan. "It contains things like public policy, infrastructure, venture capital needs, and obstacles that we need to overcome in bio-fuels, electricity and communications," says Smith. Just creating a draft was no small task. The 350 endorsers, primarily national and regional organizations representing millions of individuals, were asked to sit down and help develop the plan--the roadmap to 25x25's future. The implementation plan that was started in July 2006 was scheduled to be released in early 2007, in time for Congress. The next step will be putting their plan into action.

It may all sound like a fabulous vision--25 percent of America's energy needs obtained from renewable resources in 18 years. But can it be done? Studies indicate that it can definitely be done. Two major research projects came out in 2007. One was conducted by the University of Tennessee (U.T.), looking at the impact 25x'25 would have on the ag, forestry and livestock sector. And a RAND study looked at the impact of 25x'25 on the entire country.

The results were exciting. The U.T. study reported, among other things:

that the 25x'25 goals could be met while allowing the agriculture sector to reliably produce food, feed and fiber at reasonable prices;

that reaching the goal would have an extremely favorable impact on rural Americans and the national economy--$700+ billion in economic activity and 5.1 million jobs in 2025, mostly in rural areas;

that contributions from America's field, farm and forest could result in the production of 87 billion gallons of ethanol and 1.2 billion gallons of bio-diesel;

that the higher market prices could create an estimated cumulative savings in government payments of $15 billion.

In addition, 25x'25 used a major Washington, D.C. pollster to see if they had the support of the public. "There was unbelievable consensus with the public," says Smith. "The pollsters said they have been doing this for over 30 years and have never seen consensus around an issue like the public support for renewable energy." The group continues to communicate that this initiative is not a sprint--it's a marathon. "There is no one document. There is no one piece of legislation.

A study done by the University of Tennessee says that contributions from America's field, farm and forest could result in the production of 87 billion gallons of ethanol and 1.2 billion gallons of bio-diesel.

There is no one effort that's going to say, 'Okay, we're done,'" says Smith. The future relies on continued and open communication by all the alliances, whether it's transportation, the USDA or the EPA. And so far they have been able to move forward using a simple "yes . . . if" process. "If one of our members is concerned about a certain area, they'll say, 'Yes, I can agree with that, if . . .' rather than 'No, I can't agree, because . . .'" explains Smith. "If we hit a wall and it seems like we can't find the 'if', then I think we're just going to leave it to somebody else. We're going to have plenty to do without taking on controversial issues."

Despite all the positive energy and news, Smith is somewhat surprised by the lack of support from the existing energy infrastructure. "None of us are so naive that we believe we're going to eliminate our dependence on fossil fuel. We're going to need everything we can produce for a very long time. We're not out to put anyone out of business. What we hope to accomplish is to create a system that will slow the growth and dependency on imported foreign energy."

The animal and agriculture community has also been standing back watching. They have personal concerns such as increases in their feed costs and their net returns. Those concerns were part of the reason for 25x'25 commissioning the U.T. study. "What I share with those communities is that the headlines today are about corn ethanol," says Smith. "But we are about more than corn ethanol. Because if you take our vision out to 25 percent in 2025, then the projection is that corn ethanol will represent less than four percent of what we're talking about. So if you don't support us because you have concerns about corn ethanol, you're turning your back on the other 96 percent.

"Our alliance has all of the sectors represented, whether it's wind, solar, the bio-fuels," he adds. "We're not promoting any individual sector. We're promoting a vision that brings all of these sectors in to their maximum ability, maybe even some we don't know about yet." The 25x'25 future is exciting--small town communities alive and vibrant and tremendous environmental benefits. But it will take hard work, open minds and time.

"Change is hard," says Smith. "No one is suggesting that it's going to be smooth and easy. There will be plenty of challenges. We just need to take them one at a time. We will figure them out, we just ask that you give us a little time. Don't draw your conclusions until you've given folks some time to work through them." "Americans have always been able to overcome some of their biggest scientific challenges when they put their collective talents and resources together," Wyant adds. "If we can put a man on the moon, we can surely find ways to make renewable energy more widespread and efficient in this country."

March/April 2007