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The rural renewable power renaissance

Solar and wind have made great strides across the country. Will Trump’s budget halt progress toward a greener heartland?

rural solar power
Solar and wind power have grown substantially in rural America
National Rural Electric Cooperative Association

Abita Springs, Louisiana, a bedroom community of 2,365 about an hour north of New Orleans, is the picture of a small Southern town. The fifth-largest city in St. Tammany Parish, it’s best known for the local microbrewery Abita Brewing Company. Late last month, it also made news as the latest municipality in the country to commit to using 100 percent renewable energy by 2030.

“I hope we’re setting an example for other small communities across the country,” says Mayor Greg Lemons, who made it a point to lead by example and add solar panels to his boat on Lake Pontchartrain. “I want people to say, ‘Look at Abita Springs, a small town with a $3 million budget. They’re doing something.’”

So far, the Abita Springs effort is in its preliminary stage. The town is already replacing regular bulbs with LED lights, but is also examining how to add solar panels to all municipal buildings and, eventually, include electric vehicle charging stations. It’s just a plan and a promise, but the gesture is also a symbol of the growth of renewable energy in the U.S., especially in rural areas of the country.

”I’m a Republican, but I’m not a Republican that says ‘business at any cost,’” says Lemons. “We need to be concerned about our environment and invest in our environment.”

Abita Springs Mayor Greg Lemons and the Abita Committee for Energy Sustainability at the announcement of the proclamation to pursue 100 percent renewable energy.

Increasingly, Lemons isn’t a outlier. As the new administration begins to enact its energy policy, including support for the coal industry, the conventional wisdom says that support for fossil fuels is a play by Trump to appeal to his base of rural voters. But like any cross-section of the country, rural America isn’t easily stereotyped. Renewable power has made significant strides across this part of the country as wind and solar take root in farm country, as well as more sparsely populated parts of the United States.

It’s not just that renewable power is providing more jobs than the coal industry—roughly 300,000 U.S. workers are employed by wind and solar, compared to the 65,971 who work in coal mining—it’s also having an outsized impact on rural communities. The Sierra Club’s Ready for 100 Campaign, which features municipalities that have, like Abita Springs, committed to a renewable energy future, includes rural towns such as Greensburg, Kansas.

According to Andy Olsen, senior policy advocate of the Madison, Wisconsin-based Environmental Law and Policy Center, significant advances have been made in rural wind and solar power in the last decade, and the growth of these energy sources is helping rural America.

“There is a lot of talk about the gulf between urban and rural Americans,” he says. “There’s a lot less of a gulf than we think. There are a lot of rural people interested in seeing these renewable energy programs work, who are very passionate about natural resource conservation.”

According to Olsen, businesses across rural America—farmers, poultry growers, pork producers, cattle ranchers—are helping fuel the growth in rural renewables as part of a drive to cut costs and be more efficient. The agricultural sector likes renewables because of the cost certainty; it’s a big benefit to know power and energy costs, once the infrastructure is installed.

Solar, wind, and biomass, at both the small-scale and utility level, are putting large sums back into rural economies, which are really struggling, he says, due in part to lower commodity prices. Wind farms pay more than $222 million a year to rural landowners. In some cases, farmers are finding it more lucrative to lease out farmland to solar producers; in parts of North Carolina, solar power companies are paying $300 to $700 an acre for solar leases, at a time when farming that same ground pulls in significantly less.

Midwest and Plains states are ground zero for wind power generation in the United States.
National Renewable Energy Laboratory

Wind energy is benefiting “red state” America, according to American Wind Energy Association CEO Tom Kiernan. The top 10 congressional districts for wind energy are all in Republican-dominated states such as Iowa and Texas, and the growth of these industries, plus the the manufacturing that supports them, is helping Rust Belt economies, he told Bloomberg Business. Iowa has become a renewable energy leader due to its growing wind energy sector, and the bipartisan Governors’ Wind & Solar Energy Coalition has lobbied President Trump to encourage investment in renewable power at the state level.

According to Tracy K. Warren, senior communications manager of the National Rural Electric Cooperative Association, a coalition of consumer-owned power utilities serving small communities, energy co-ops around the country have found their members want renewable power, and plan to add 480 megawatts of solar installations over the next year, nearly double what was installed a year ago. According to a recent survey, two-thirds of members surveyed want more solar and wind power, a sharp rebuke to the stereotype that wealthy homeowners are the only ones who want more solar power.

“Fewer are asking just because the price [for renewables] is lower,” she says. “That may be a factor, but it’s not necessarily the primary factor.”

Co-ops are bullish on solar; in a recent survey 43 percent cited lower costs for solar installations as a prime driver for adding more renewable power.
National Rural Electric Cooperative Association

How can the Trump administration encourage the growth of rural renewable energy? The federal government funds energy efficiency programs through Department of Agriculture, as part of the Rural Energy for America Program (REAP), a program created in 2003 that invested $237 million in renewable and energy efficiency programs last year, including $5 million for 337 solar projects. Over the last decade, REAP has funded 7,750 clean energy projects across the country; in addition to offering overall support of renewables, increasing funding for these specific programs would help rural Americans save money by developing the existing energy-producing assets in their backyards.

The proposed Trump budget hasn’t provided extensive details on what the administration plans do with rural renewables, according to Olsen. But he feels any attempt to cut these programs may damage some of the voters he claims to support.

“This is a guy who was elected on the basis of helping rural America,” he says. “Is he going to come back and cut programs that help rural areas?”