Clean Energy in Rural Areas

The environmental and economic benefits of clean energy have been well documented. However, not everyone experiences these benefits equally. As discussed in our July blog post, racial discrepancies have an impact on who is more likely to receive the benefits of clean energy, but geographic location also plays a role in determining who benefits. The five most populated counties in North Carolina account for approximately 35 percent of installed renewable energy systems in the state. In addition, the public electric vehicle charging stations in North Carolina are more prevalent in urban areas such as the Triangle, Charlotte and its surrounding communities, and around Asheville.

However, this is not to say that rural areas cannot benefit from clean energy to the same extent as urban areas.

The rural Midwest has experienced a surge of installments and investments in clean energy and serves as an example to rural America the benefits clean energy can offer. A 2018 National Resources Defense Council (NRDC) report found that rural clean energy jobs outpaced rural fossil fuel jobs in nearly every Midwestern state. Additionally, Wisconsin and Michigan each have over 20,000 rural clean energy jobs; in Michigan, this equates to more than 3.5 percent of all rural jobs being in the clean energy industry. The NRDC blog highlights the benefits of wind and solar energy in rural areas of the Midwest. Wind developers oftentimes pay landowners to host wind turbines, which provides $245 million every year in lease payments to farmers and ranchers in the Midwest.

These clean energy benefits are not exclusive to the Midwest. In fact, North Carolina has also experienced a surge of clean energy investments in recent years. In 2018, investments in clean energy within North Carolina totaled $1.9 billion, which is 97 times the amount of clean energy investments in 2007. Duplin, Robeson, Cumberland, Bladen, and Catawba Counties all experienced more than $400 million in clean energy investments between 2007 and 2018. In total, there are 42 counties in North Carolina with over $100 million invested in clean energy.

Going beyond investments, the local clean energy industry provides other economic benefits to the state. Clean energy development within North Carolina has supported 169,127 annual full-time equivalents, equivalent to one person working full time for a year, between 2007 and 2018. Within the same time frame, state incentives for clean energy totaled $1.2 billion; in turn, this has led to an additional $1.4 billion in tax revenue for state and local governments. The Amazon Wind Farm, North Carolina’s major wind farm located in Pasquotank and Perquimmons Counties, pays farmers and landowners $6,000 per turbine and provides $640,000 in tax revenue for the local communities. The benefits of clean energy investments are distributed across the state, and in economically challenged areas, the investments and incentives have the opportunity to provide the economic stability and vitality needed to support the well-being of these communities.

Rural communities across North Carolina are already benefiting from clean energy, but North Carolina’s unique landscape makes it well suited for more renewable investments. Along the North Carolina coast and in certain pockets of the North Carolina Appalachian Mountains, the average wind speed at 8 meters high can be as fast as 8 meters per second; wind speeds averaging 6.6 meters per second at a height of 8 meters are well suited for wind energy. North Carolina currently has wind manufacturing plants across the state, with the majority of these jobs expanding west of the Triangle to the foothills of the Appalachian Mountains. As wind energy grows in demand, these manufacturing plants will increase their production capacity, and it opens the possibility of developing more manufacturing facilities across the state, benefiting rural communities who depend on the manufacturing industry.

North Carolina is also beginning to take steps towards developing offshore wind energy. Offshore wind speeds at a height of 90 meters off the North Carolina Coast typically average between 7.5 and 9 meters per second; average wind speeds above 7 meters per second at a height of 90 meters are considered suitable for offshore wind development. The development of offshore wind energy has the potential to add between 10,000 and 20,000 jobs to aid in the manufacturing process. The creation of these jobs would provide a great economic impact to eastern North Carolinians. The unemployment rate for counties along the North Carolina coast have unemployment rates higher than the statewide average of 7.9 percent; Carteret, Pamlico, Hyde, and Dare counties have unemployment rates of 10.3 percent, 8.7 percent, 14 percent, and 19.6 percent, respectfully. Developing offshore wind energy would provide the jobs needed to address the unemployment rate within these coastal communities, provide individuals with financial security, and jumpstart the rural economies.

Implementing community solar programs can also benefit the solar energy landscape within North Carolina. Solar energy is already widely used across North Carolina, especially in the piedmont and western regions of the state. Out of all the total installed renewable energy systems in the state, over 98% of the systems are solar and over two-thirds of the total renewable capacity is from solar sources. North Carolina currently ranks second in the nation for most installed solar systems. Implementing community solar programs would help expand these solar systems to rural communities. These programs allow residents to buy a share of a solar project and benefit from the energy generated. This benefits those who are unable to install their own rooftop solar panels, whether that be due to high upfront costs, renters who can’t modify rooftops, and those whose rooftops are inconveniently oriented for rooftop solar installation. When community solar is carried out correctly, it addresses challenges many people face when deciding to install solar and can reduce electricity bills.

Luckily, there are programs in place that further support the growth of clean energy in North Carolina. As of 2019, clean energy sources accounted for 12.9 percent of North Carolina’s electricity generation. This is a great start, but we still have progress to make in order to reach our ultimate goal of all electricity generation coming from clean energy sources. The North Carolina Clean Energy Plan describes the current clean energy landscape in North Carolina as well as provides recommendations to accelerate the development and installation of clean energy technologies to achieve carbon neutrality by 2050. Furthermore, initiatives such as the Rural Energy for America program provide incentives to rural residents wishing to add clean energy sources or improve energy efficiency.

Cumulatively across the nation, the clean energy industry experienced a 3.6 percent growth of clean energy jobs in 2018, and it is expected that the in the years forthcoming there will be continued job growth and investments within the industry. In North Carolina alone, clean energy activities have accounted for $28.2 billion in economic impact and provide more than 112,710 jobs to North Carolinians. Clean energy investments will continue to provide job growth, income, and tax revenue to some of the most economically challenged counties in North Carolina.

This post was written by NCSEA Intern Ashley Pegram

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