(Source: Pixabay, Creative Commons)

The deployment of clean energy is a major economic engine for the rural Midwest, eclipsing fossil fuel jobs in most states, according to a new report released by an environmental advocacy nonprofit. 

The document, produced by the Natural Resources Defense Council, finds consistent rural employment growth in the wind, solar and energy efficiency sectors.  

Clean energy jobs outnumber the combined jobs in oil, gas and coal jobs in rural communities within the twelve-state region the study included, according to the study, Clean Energy Sweeps Across Rural America. Only two states, North Dakota and Kansas, have more fossil fuel workers than clean energy workers. 

(Source: National Resources Defense Council)

The study also documents the higher rates of growth in rural employment for clean energy compared with both rural employment more broadly and urban regions. Rural clean energy job growth far outpaces the rate of economy-wide growth for rural employment trends in all 12 states. Growth rates in rural clean energy are also slightly greater than clean energy jobs in cities.   

(Source: National Resources Defense Council)

Wind energy is the current leader in rural energy production. The report authors say that 99% of all existing wind capacity is in rural communities, generating enough electricity to power more than 25 million homes.  

“Wind energy development has considerably increased the tax base in many rural places in Midwestern states. Furthermore, wind energy developers pay landowners to host turbines, providing an additional, reliable source of income. Wind projects also often directly invest in infrastructure improvements, and they also attract investments from corporations seeking renewable power for new facilities,” the report states.  

Rural counties with wind power production also see significant increase in county-level tax receipts to fund roads, schools and public services. Farmers and landowners earn significant income from leasing land for wind farms, approximately $245 million nationally, the report says. Within the study’s 12-state region, Iowa, Illinois, and Kansas receive more than $10 million annually from wind leases. Landowners in North Dakota, Minnesota, and Indiana receive between $5 million and $10 million. 

Solar installation, sales and servicing make up more than 45 percent of total renewable energy jobs in the Midwest, the study reports. Rural electric cooperatives are investing in solar. Co-op solar production currently maintains 868 Megawatts of electricity production capacity, with 1 Gigawatt of electricity expected in installed solar capacity by the end of 2019.  

Federal programs, the authors point out, have played an important role in the growth of the clean energy sector. Federal tax credits to offset income tax liabilities for wind and solar projects continue to incentivize industry build out. The U. S. Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) Rural Energy Assistance Program, recently re-authorized in the 2018 Farm Bill, provides grants and loans for clean energy projects installed by farmers and rural business owners. USDA Rural Utility Service funding has assisted with power line and distribution improvements, rural and solar installations and development of smart grids.  

The authors express concern whether rural clean energy will continue to grow as in the past in current political conditions.  

“Unfortunately, many programs that have helped the clean energy boom are now threatened by the current administration’s proposed budget cuts and rollbacks of environmental safeguards. Increased investment in these programs would further boost the clean energy economies of rural America,” the report said.  

Some groups, such as the Heritage Foundation, oppose federal tax credits and incentives for clean energy. They support the Trump administration’s attempts to scale back federal investment in clean energy, favoring a “market based system built on private sector research, development, and investment,” as “the only way to establish strong, diverse, and economically rational alternative energy solutions.” 

The report was authored by researchers with the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) with support from the Union of Concerned Scientists, 5 Lakes Energy and the National Rural Electric Cooperative Association. The jobs data was taken from numbers available from BW Research Partnership, a research firm that previously collected the data for the Department of Energy’s U.S. Energy and Employment Report. 

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