Clean Energy Is Underrated in Rural — Especially Among Rural Politicos

A worker installs solar panels in Oregon (Photo Credit: Oregon Dept. of Transportation via Flickr).

Before I was a writer and reporter for the Deesmealz, I had a very serious case of misunderstanding when it comes to the economic diversity of rural America, particularly concerning the actual economic impact of certain industries.

Until my late 30s, I lived and worked primarily around people in the Midwest, Rust Belt, and South with a common understanding that agriculture (including forest plantations) and fossil fuel extraction were the present and likely future of rural communities. These are fairly understandable circumstances for many of us.

Over the past 25 years, I've participated in organizing efforts for fairer economies, better income for family farmers, less pollution by industry, local food, more local ownership instead of extraction by Wall Street, aggressively reducing corporate power over markets ... you get the idea. But at the end of the day, I was raised on a multigenerational farm where we all had to work together to pay the bills through the 1980s and 1990s. My family also had a meat locker (AKA butcher shop) which would employ any of us pretty much any time we didn’t have something else going.

My dad, who was the butcher until my older brother and I were in high school, eventually got a union job at a regional coal-fired power plant. From there, things got easier on the money front. These were the absolute best paying jobs — with incredible benefits — that the people I grew up around could land. My family went from being working class and poor to solidly middle class.

I followed my big brother to the big university in Columbia, Missouri, the first in our family to “get educated” in the formal, professional sense. There, we would both get very involved with conservation work, environmentalism, tree-hugging, green radicalism, whatever your preferred way to brand it. We learned, through somewhat different paths, about the history of boom-and-bust economies, alternative economic structures like cooperatives, and the actual potential of sustainable agriculture, local food economies, and clean energy systems. We both embraced the scientific imperatives behind solving the biodiversity and climate crises.

Overall, it instilled in me an understanding that how “we’ve done things in the past” doesn’t always have to mean we’ll do similar things in the future. In West Missouri, coal mining happened in fits and starts from the late 1800s through the 1970s. Now it’s gone, and many of those boom and bust towns are some of the poorest and most struggling of any. Some of the less efficient, higher polluting coal plants are shutting down. And what’s left?

Luckily, some good people like my buddy Jeff Droz at Roof Power Solar. Jeff and team are installing solar panels for farmers, small business owners, municipal utilities, churches, and schools all over the region. I worked with Jeff for about six months in 2015 and 2016, and he’s kept building his enterprise since then. He's even building low-to-zero-emission affordable housing now too.

Keep It Rural readers know I generally cover federal policy issues in this newsletter. Today, I tell this story as a way to connect the dots between the federal policy — like the Democrats’ “Build Back Better” agenda — and possible jobs on the ground, installing solar panels, windmills, local energy grids, and other improvements from the systems of the past. Heck, even climate skeptics were solar power’s biggest fans when I worked for Jeff because it made absolutely clear economic sense, even in 2015. I think that’s a good thing.

We’ll stay on this, and next time I’ll give you some numbers on job creation for rural America, as more and more folks like Jeff go to work installing solar panels, windmills, and more throughout a countryside needing job creation and less pollution. Lots more to come.

Rural Reading List

I’m gonna stick mostly with climate change-related news today for your rural news selections, with the exception of a story about federal nutrition benefits making a big difference for rural, and one on potential consequences of changes to Medicaid and Medicare. Whatever strikes your fancy, I hope this batch is helpful to you.

‘It Just Roared’: North Carolina Flooding Another Sign of Climate Change in Appalachia

I live in this region these days and can confirm flooding is serious and increasing. This is great reporting in the Yonder.

USDA: SNAP Benefits Boost Rural Economies, Save Jobs

Deesmealz rural health reporter Liz Carey on the basics of how SNAP — the federal nutrition payments program formerly called “food stamps” — is delivering for rural people.

As Manchin Blocks Climate Plan, His State Can’t Hold Back Floods

This New York Times story documents some big flood issues happening in West Virginia due to climate change, just like the Yonder story from North Carolina above.

Lawmakers warn Biden not to dilute the ‘biggest racial justice bill in generations’

This Politico story is not specifically rural, but it really matters to rural people and places. It's not my number one policy priority per se, but I figure expanding Medicaid in more states would help rural folks, as would paying for dentists and eyeglasses for older folks.

One More Thing: The Coming Stakes for Clean Energy in Congress

Part of the reason I wrote about clean energy's potential for rural places and rural economies this week is because Congress is coming back. And, according to several sources, some coal-state Senators — most prominently Democrat Joe Manchin of West Virgina — are saying they don’t love the proposed Clean Electricity Performance Program (CEPP). This pretty much amounts to a clean energy standard for the nation, and seems like about the smartest thing on Planet Earth to me right now.

Anyway, the clean energy people and “stop climate change” people I trust most are saying things like:

“The CEPP is the cornerstone of climate legislation in the budget bill, and if passed could potentially be one of the most influential pieces of climate legislation in US history. Combined with clean energy tax credits, the CEPP could account for 42% of Biden’s 2030 emissions reduction targets.

“This is absolutely the most important climate policy in the package,” said Leah Stokes, a climate policy expert and advisor to Congressional Democrats. ‘We fundamentally need it to meet our climate goals. That’s just the reality. And now we can’t.‘”

Like I said, I’ll spend more time in future Keep It Rural newsletters explaining how a clean energy economy could keep creating jobs in rural America, especially through programs like this. Thanks for paying attention for now, and stay tuned for more.

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