US Economy

For Our Clean Energy Economy Future, It’s Time to Tap Rural Innovation

March 25, 2021  • Chitra Kumar & Nils Christoffersen

Rural communities are integral to our nation’s economy, culture, history, and the environmental services that we all depend on. Yet our public policies often treat rural America as an afterthought or make sweeping assumptions about rural people’s values—particularly when it comes to environmental sustainability. Recent extreme conditions in Texas and other parts of the South are just one example of how climate shifts are exacerbating the disproportionate burdens on rural places—from the effects on agriculture, forestry, and other important rural economic sectors to overstressed water, sanitation, and other systems. Indeed, hotter, drier summers, changing weather patterns, and natural disasters are destabilizing rural communities’ infrastructure, livelihoods, and quality of life just as predicted in the federal government’s 2014 National Climate Assessment.

The renewables versus fossil fuels energy debate showing up in Texas is emblematic of attitudes playing out across the U.S. Yet rural leaders, faced with the high cost of their communities’ energy, water, and internet infrastructure, alongside shrinking tax bases, are open to alternatives. Agriculture trade associations and rural development coalitions alike supported action on climate change even as the Trump Administration pulled out of the Paris Climate Accords in 2017.

Since taking office, President Biden has set the wheels in motion to partner with rural communities and social justice advocates on the dual problems of climate change and structural inequity by signing an executive order on Tackling the Climate Crisis at Home and Abroad. The order highlights the potential rural places have to capture and store carbon through land use and agricultural practices, known as sequestration, and the importance of working closely with farmers, ranchers, and forest landowners for that purpose. It focuses on bringing jobs back to places that have suffered from global economic shifts and extractive, polluting practices and use of natural resources. The order lays out the steps the federal government can take immediately to undo economic and social inequities in low-income rural and urban communities, communities of color, and Native nations.

Building a broader base of support for climate mitigation and adaption won’t come easy, based on the Texas reaction. The essential solution to climate change is people, including younger generations that are increasingly more diverse. Investing in creative, practical, appropriately scaled solutions developed by people living in rural places should be paired with the technological solutions we are trying to get off the ground.

The Biden climate order is a good start at acknowledging the need for a shift as it relates to racial equity. Rural development leaders remind us, however, that rural America offers an extraordinary opportunity to fulfill the Administration’s campaign promise to address structural disadvantages. Consider that 86 percent of persistent poverty communities across the nation are in rural areas and many are majority people of color. What’s more, the Yale Program on Climate Change Communication highlights that people of color are more supportive of climate change action than white Americans.

Elevating innovative rural doers who are tackling structural challenges should be at the heart of the administration’s goals around climate justice.

Rural stakeholders, like communities of color, are dubious from their past experiences with public policies over many decades that have resulted in increased instability, disempowerment, and extraction—including policies on trade, corporate consolidation, and technology development, to name a few. This time around, those of us who debate national policy need to elevate and empower frontline rural leaders who are often the most aware and capable with respect to natural resources and adaptation to environmental change.

For example, while small-scale renewables and microgrids are known for climate mitigation and resiliency potential, particularly in economically distressed communities, efforts to implement them broadly have stumbled. Yet innovators like Nils Christoffersen and Matt King at Wallowa Resources have helped deploy innovative small-scale renewable energy technology that allows farmers, ranchers, small businesses, school districts, and municipalities in northeastern Oregon to control their own energy supply, reduce operating costs, and create new sources of revenue in places hard hit by the decline of the forest products industry. Local capacity to do the R&D and extension work, build partnerships, access public and private financing, and frame the opportunity in relevant social and economic terms has been key to that success. In Wallowa County, this small isolated rural county of 7,000 people is saving nearly $2 million per year in energy dollars – and these savings are realized directly by public school districts, municipal water systems, small businesses, farms, and homes.

Curtis Wynn’s Roanoke Electric Cooperative in North Carolina is helping communities of color make necessary upgrades to aging homes with energy efficiency retrofits. Their effort includes on-bill financing for renewable energy installations so that customers can pay for upgrades gradually as they save on their electricity bills. By design, these programs have low- and moderate-income individuals at heart. Roanoke Electric has engaged rural innovator Ajulo E. Othow, founder and CEO of EnerWealth Solutions, to help them bridge clean energy, rural development, and racial justice through distributed solar and energy storage projects. EnerWealth works with cooperatives in the rural Southeast and intentionally focuses on micro (1 MW) installations and shares profits with small and minority landowners – equaling on average about seven times the return on growing traditional crops. Othow has had a long relationship with rural development networks throughout the Southeast.

Projects like this are inspiring other electric cooperatives through their trade association, the National Rural Electric Cooperative Association. Utility cooperatives are gaining attention nationwide for their role as economic development hubs, most recently in discussions around expanding broadband access—a critical component to providing affordable energy to households, attracting and retaining teleworkers, reviving main streets and small-town businesses, and enabling climate-smart agriculture and forestry.

Imagine if, as a part of the Biden administration’s commitment to climate and rural development, national policies incentivized rural innovators to uncover the targeted and right-sized application of energy efficiency technology, renewables and microgrids in rural communities all over the US. Moreover, what if urban capital centers invested in opportunities for rural-owned and controlled solutions to drive real change, rather than assume that regulation and monolithic large-scale technology are the panacea? When a larger grid fails, as happened in Texas, lives could even be saved because communities would have the option to maintain their own backups. And the cost of electricity wouldn’t need to bankrupt households that are least able to pay. As it is, households with lower incomes pay as much as 30% of their income on energy costs. To get to carbon-neutral, the US needs to embrace rural places and Native nations as ideal proving grounds for newer technology – because they have access to ample land to mitigate their own carbon footprint with on-site renewable energyand because microgrids are often more suitable in remote areas and small towns than more populous cities.

Imagine if there were more organizations ready to catalyze locally driven, place-rooted development to accelerate and scale these kinds of efforts over a longer time horizon. Regional commissions could help. Several have been set up by Congress and cooperatively managed by states to provide long-term technical assistance and funding to marginalized places, the first of which was the Appalachian Regional Commission in 1965. Ava Gabrielle-Wise of the Southeast Crescent Regional Commission Coalition is working to drive the same kind of federal investment to areas of the coastal and Black Belt South – counties extremely vulnerable to climate-related natural disasters and still wrestling with the vestiges of the plantation economy – by advocating for a fully operational Southeast Crescent Regional Commission (SCRC). The 2008 Farm Bill established the SCRC along with a few other new regional commissions. The next step would have been to install a presidentially appointed, Senate-confirmed co-chair. Yet, an SCRC co-chair has yet to be appointed, even though one for the Northern Border Regional Commission, a sister commission was established at the same time in a region with a very different demographic and political makeup, was.

Elevating historically under-appreciated, innovating rural doers who are tackling structural challenges like limited access to capital, inadequate infrastructure, and extractive economic practices should be at the heart of the administration’s goals around climate justice.

Even better, these ideas are entirely compatible with the Justice40 Initiative, which calls for key White House leaders to jointly publish recommendations towards meeting a goal that 40 percent of the overall benefits of certain federal investments flow to disadvantaged communities. Biden’s Racial Equity Executive Order acknowledges people living in rural areas as being part of an “underserved” geographic community requiring special consideration

We have a lot to do quickly to turn around a pandemic-crippled economy, address structural racism, and curb environmental disaster. Decision-makers in Washington who are already shifting the policy landscape need to center their work around the voices of leaders from across the diverse cross-section of rural America. It’s time to reconsider dated stereotypes regarding which communities are leading the environmental movement and start imagining what could be accomplished if our policymakers tap into the ingenuity of rural Americans surviving on the front lines of climate catastrophe.

Chitra Kumar is Senior Fellow with Institute’s Community Strategies Group and its Thrive Rural initiative.

Nils Christoffersen is CEO of Wallowa Resources, on the Leadership Team of the Rural Voices for Conservation Coalition, and a member of Aspen CSG’s Rural Development Innovation Group.

This piece is part of In Focus: Rising to the Climate Challenge, a multimedia informational campaign that draws on the expertise of Institute programs. We look at four main facets of the climate change issue—labor and the economy, youth and education, public health and safety, and communities. To get campaign updates and other news from the Aspen Institute in your inbox, sign up for our newsletter. 

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