Economic development can be a challenge for leaders in rural communities. Often, it’s hard to attract businesses to rural areas because the local workforce may not have the skills or numbers required to meet companies’ needs. But opportunities that haven’t been widely available in the past exist today for rural communities due to the energy transition that’s sweeping the nation.
“The potential for rural communities is really enormous,” L. Michelle Moore, CEO of Groundswell (a nonprofit that builds community power by connecting solar and energy efficiency with economic development, affordability, and quality of life) and author of the book Rural Renaissance: Revitalizing America’s Hometowns through Clean Power, said as a guest on The POWER Podcast.
For example, Moore explained that nearly $10 billion is available to rural electric cooperative utilities through the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) to build clean energy projects. She also noted how rural communities can benefit from electric vehicle (EV) tax credits, and from credits designed to encourage installation of EV chargers in rural areas. There are also great incentives for energy efficiency improvements, such as for adding insulation to homes or installing more efficient heating and cooling systems.
“The opportunities for rural America are really, really myriad,” Moore said. “And, you know what, you can’t offshore construction jobs. So, implementing both energy efficiency [improvements]—whether it’s insulation in the attic or the air conditioning system—those are all activities that are going to keep local people at work.”
Moore is a strong supporter of rural electric cooperatives and believes they have a large role to play in economic development in rural communities. “So many people don’t know or have never experienced the tremendous power and potential of rural electric cooperatives,” she said.
“The people who buy their electricity from rural electric cooperative utilities actually own the utility, and they also participate directly in its governance. The boards of rural electric cooperative utilities are meant to be democratically elected by co-op members. So, it’s really energy democracy in practice when co-ops are working at their best,” explained Moore. “There are more than 900 of them around the country, and they serve more than half of America’s landmass. And they serve tens of millions of customers as well. So, they really could be the heroes of local clean energy futures.”
When asked where rural communities can get the biggest bang for their buck, Moore responded, “As unsexy as it can sound, energy efficiency is a really important place to start, and that is because rural energy burdens are so high. You know, a lot of rural housing just needs repairs, maintenance, and upgrades, much of which can be paid for with energy efficiency over time.”
But Moore said there are other ways rural communities can benefit from the energy transition. “The second thing that I would really encourage rural communities to look at is solar and energy storage, which is going to help to increase the resilience of your community,” she said. “Today, those technologies are much more available, and the Inflation Reduction Act has all kinds of grant funding and tax credits and rebates that help to pay for them and help to get them out into communities, including rural towns that may not have the dollars in their pocket today to be able to invest in the technology that they need without some additional support coming in from other places.”
Moore’s book offers a practical guide designed to help rural leaders implement beneficial projects that will help their communities thrive. It includes examples from co-ops that have actually done the work, creating a model for others to follow. “My greatest hope is that anyone who listens to us today or picks up a copy of Rural Renaissance will find an idea in there and will be inspired to get something good done for the place that they live,” said Moore.
To hear the full interview, which includes details on the history of rural electric cooperatives, a discussion around some of the leaders who inspired Moore, information on some of the work Groundswell has been involved in, and more, listen to The POWER Podcast. Click on the SoundCloud player below to listen in your browser now or use the following links to reach the show page on your favorite podcast platform:
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—Aaron Larson is POWER’s executive editor (@AaronL_Power, @POWERmagazine).