Dorr Sees Challenges and Opportunities Ahead for Rural America

Energy will play a key role in rural development in the future.

Published on: Dec 16, 2008

Former USDA Undersecretary of Rural Development Tom Dorr says that renewable energy presents tremendous rural development opportunities. However; Dorr cites the E-10 blend wall, greenhouse gas emissions and indirect land use as issues that will need to be dealt with. In particular the misconceptions about indirect land use must be addressed.

"Some people are assuming that if you take an acre of corn and put it into ethanol you're going to automatically take an acre of rainforest or marginal ground someplace else and bring it into production, which is going to be an environmental detriment," Dorr says. "As farmers and rural Americans, we know that is not the case. So we are going to have to be very attentive to these underlying policy issues so that we can capture the opportunities we can create to essentially revitalize a lot of rural America."

There are 60 million people who live in rural America, of which two million are identified as farmers although according to a Farm Bureau report there are about 150,000 family farmers that account for 75% of the food and fiber that we consume. Dorr says he thinks that reveals both some significant opportunities and some challenges.

"I as a farmer from Iowa believe it's important that we broaden our political support base relative to rural America and the interesting thing is that groups like the Farm Bureau have done that. They've incorporated rural development into their policy in a much broader sense," Dorr says. "The other side of it is that a lot of the new opportunities we're going to see, particularly in energy, are going to require a lot of very sophisticated, well educated and strong young people. It's going to give us a lot of opportunities for young people to return to rural areas."

Dorr says the important thing is to make sure that we build out this industry on a well designed, objective and scientific base so we can properly deal with those issues of greenhouse gas emissions and indirect land use.

In both 2006 and 2007 the U.S. imported five billion barrels of crude oil or crude oil equivalents. Depending on what price is put on it, that is somewhere between $400 billion and $700 billion a year of funds that we have exported out of this country for energy.

"If we can capture a fraction of that; a quarter or a third or even 50% of that; that could be $150 to $300 billion a year in the renewable energy area," Dorr says. "And renewable energy is generally all rural in origin, whether it's solar or wind or biobased, or waste energy recovery or geothermal whatever the case is. If we're smart and develop the kind of investment and the business and regulatory tools that we need to capture this value; a lot of that money can stay in rural areas."

Dorr says that capturing as much of the value in new energy technology is going to require as much state level innovation as it will Federal. He says that we tend to overlook that and the regulatory systems at the state level have a big challenge to integrate and distribute electricity to the older systems without disruption, but still be able to build out these new systems.