Durbin Questions USDA Secretary About New Revenues From Clean Energy Generation On Farms

 WASHINGTON – U.S. Senate Majority Whip Dick Durbin (D-IL) today participated in a Senate Agriculture, Nutrition, and Forestry Committee hearing entitled “Oversight of the U.S. Department of Agriculture.” During the hearing, Durbin questioned U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) Secretary Tom Vilsack about how the federal government can support farmers in creating new revenue streams from clean energy generation on the farm to help combat climate change.

“Farm organizations are arguing that it [solar panels] takes prime farmland out of production…We all know that, on its face, that is a true statement in most cases, but we also know that many other factors relate to the removal of prime farmland for production.  Do you see a way that we can deal with marginal or unproductive land in rural areas for solar farms?” Durbin asked.

Secretary Vilsack agreed that unproductive land could be used for solar farms.  He cited theInflation Reduction Act’s historic investment in the USDA Rural Energy for America Program (REAP), which helps farmers pay for installing solar panels on their land.  Secretary Vilsack emphasized that farmers should take advantage of highly erodible or unproductive land to create a new revenue stream for farm families by producing solar energy, and that the Conservation Reserve Program could be looked at in a similar way. 

Durbin continued his questioning, asking Secretary Vilsack about how farmers can work with co-ops to install the proper distribution infrastructure, which is jointly owned by the members of an electric co-op, to set up net metering.  These co-ops are often wary of upgrading transmission infrastructure because of the high cost of all members despite the benefits often supporting only one person at the end of the power line. 

“Last year, my wife and I became electric power generators in Illinois by installing solar panels on our home… The net impact is that our electric bill has gone down from $115 a month to $15 a month… I think it shows the investment is worthwhile.  I started asking the question of farmers who visited, if they were looking into the concept of net metering,” Durbin said.  

“One farmer said to me that he wanted to install a major solar panel array on his 3,000 head hog operation and benefit from that metering because he ran fans 24-7 for the livestock.  He ran into a problem.  It turned out the co-op didn't have [distribution] lines sufficient to deal with net metering… We have to deal with each farmer connecting up to the proper [distribution] arrangement, it becomes prohibitive.  You mentioned the REAP program. The REAP program is very good, but it deals with the farmer on the farm and it doesn't deal with transmission lines, as I understand it.  Is that your understanding too?” Durbin asked.

Secretary Vilsack affirmed that the REAP program does help individual farmers, but does not address the cost of transmission lines.

The Inflation Reduction Act included $2 billion for USDA REAP grants, which will assist farmers in affording solar panels. The legislation also allocated $9.7 billion to help rural electric co-ops build new power generation and transmission, with the greatest potential of reducing greenhouse gases, and $1 billion in forgivable loans for renewable energy infrastructure.

Video of Durbin’s remarks is available here.

Audio of Durbin’s remarks is available here.

Footage of Durbin’s remarks is available here for TV Stations.