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I love living in a rural community. Incredible views of natural beauty, peppered with resilient communities who support each other like family, are a few aspects of rural life that remind me daily that I am abundant in the true sense of wealth.

But these benefits don’t come without challenges.

One challenge is the high cost of electricity. Rural Americans like me pay a higher percentage of our income to our energy bill, compared to the national median, according to a 2018 study from the American Council for an Energy Efficient Economy.

Energy is especially costly for the elderly, people in low-income households and people of color. These communities also bear the greatest effects when it comes to the ways in which our energy system affects our health, property and overall environment.

The reasons are myriad and complex, but the solution is a simple one: Increase access to renewable energy. Congress has the opportunity to make that happen right now. It can do this by expanding and improving the Rural Energy for America Program. Doing so will make clean energy less expensive and more accessible for our nation’s farmers and rural business owners.

REAP is a program run by the U.S. Department of Agriculture. The program provides financial assistance to agricultural producers and rural business owners to install renewable energy systems and adopt energy efficiency measures. But eligibility is limited. The application process can be challenging. And, the program needs more funding.

For years, the nonprofit organization Solar United Neighbors has helped farmers and rural business owners apply for REAP grants for the installation of solar panels. One of the people we’ve helped is Tommye Rafes. Tommye co-owns T.L. Fruits and Vegetables, in Caldwell.

Rafes’ interest in solar energy was twofold: It would help the environment and it would save her and her co-owner money.

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Solar United Neighbors helped Rafes apply for and receive a REAP grant to aid in installing solar panels on her Greenbrier County farm. The farm also benefited from the federal solar investment tax credit.

Now, T.L. Fruits and Vegetables is home to 83 solar panels. These panels produce the energy needed to power the farm’s daily operations. This includes running a geothermal system for a high tunnel and a pump and fountain for their pond.

With the REAP grant, plus the solar tax credit, Rafes was able to use the monthly savings to invest in her farm. Each year, she saves approximately $2,250.

For every farmer or rural business owner who has a success story like Rafes, there are others who need support and aren’t eligible — or who meet the criteria but can’t receive REAP funding because it’s limited.

Congress can do more to help farmers and business owners in West Virginia.

Introduced in June in the House of Representatives (HR 4162) and the Senate (S 2243), the REAP Improvement Act of 2021 would increase funding and expand eligibility for REAP grants. If the bill passes, REAP would open up to agricultural producer cooperatives and rural electric cooperatives. The program also would fund energy storage projects for the first time.

Additionally, the bill would streamline the application process and improve outreach and technical assistance for those who apply.

West Virginia’s congressional delegation should co-sponsor the REAP Improvement Act. The expansion and improvement of REAP will make living in a rural community even better.

Leah Barbor is a West Virginia program associate of Solar United Neighbors.

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