A plan of action against climate change can bridge the rural-urban divide by bringing opportunities to places eager for jobs and economic growth while helping the nation meet decarbonization targets.

Energy Blog: Clean Energy Infrastructure Can Be a Win for Rural Areas

Jan 6, 2021

by Michael E. Webber

The November election results exposed a large rift between the politics of the cities and suburbs and those of rural areas. While voters in suburban Dallas, Atlanta, Indianapolis, and elsewhere moved to the left, many rural counties in across the country voted for President Trump in higher percentages than in 2016.
 
This growing separation in party politics affects views on issues such as climate change. According to a 2020 survey by the Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions, rural voters are far more likely to oppose government action to reduce climate change than those in cities and suburbs. Such opposition could throw up roadblocks to the kind of measures that are urgently needed to address this challenge.
 
But it is possible to craft a plan of action against climate change that can bridge the rural-urban divide by bringing opportunities to places eager for jobs and economic growth while helping the nation meet decarbonization targets. We can do this by building large wind, solar, and geothermal power plants everywhere we can—starting in rural areas.

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The good news is that the best locations to build wind and solar farms and tap subsurface geothermal energy are predominantly in rural areas, away from the metropolitan cores. A concerted program to build out a decarbonized power infrastructure would naturally start there. The first jobs would be in construction, but once these plants were established, they would need trained technicians and engineers to operate them. Opportunities for skilled positions and knowledge workers like these would help staunch the brain drain that so often affects rural areas.
 
The distance between these rural clean power plants and the metro areas that need the energy will require even more infrastructure: A new interstate electricity transmission system. But instead of installing ugly overhead power lines that can spark wildfires or fall during storms, we could—and should—bury high voltage direct current lines underground. Doing so is not only safer, but also more efficient, moves more power, and less visually intrusive on the natural beauty of these areas. What’s more, underground lines can take advantage of the existing rights-of-way of Interstate highways and cross-country railroads to expedite permitting and avoid the need to traverse private land. Analyses by national labs and industry show that such a national network of power lines and renewable sources would reduce costs and emissions while improving reliability.
 
This combination of rural clean-energy power plants and long-distance electricity transmission would support the rural economy. When electricity flows from rural areas to cities, money flows from the cities back to the countryside to pay for the electricity. Wind, solar, and geothermal power can become supplemental cash crops alongside traditional agriculture.  
 
Clean energy can provide jobs even for those who today work in fossil fuel industries. Petroleum workers have the expertise in geology and drilling needed to tap subsurface geothermal heat that can be a valuable supplement to wind and solar power. And coal miners have the skill set for reclaiming old surface mines, restoring them to wooded landscapes capable of scrubbing CO2 out of the atmosphere as trees and other foliage grow back.

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The impact of a more toward decarbonized energy can support rural economies in other ways. Policies such as renewable portfolio standards, R&D at national labs and research universities, tax credits, workforce development, rural renewable economic opportunity zones, infrastructure money, and other incentives can speed up the process of cleaning up the air, establishing a technological lead, supporting domestic technologies and fuels, and making our grid more resilient all while injecting economic vigor in depressed areas. It's the kind of suite of policies that rural Republicans (who want economic growth, rural revitalization, and a place for fossil fuel industries) and urban Democrats (who want the low-carbon, renewable technologies installed) can agree on.
 
Rapidly expanding a national grid and connecting rural renewables at one end and urban customers at the other just might interconnect us in economically vibrant ways that help temper the political divide while staving off the worst effects of climate change.

Michael E. Webber is the Josey Centennial Professor of Energy Resources at the University of Texas in Austin and Chief Science and Technology Officer at ENGIE, a global energy company headquartered in Paris. His latest book, Power Trip: The Story of Energy, was published by Basic Books.

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