Keep It Rural

By Bryce Oates – Tuesday, August 24, 2021

Rural Electric Co-ops and the Clean Energy Transition

Rural electric cooperatives (RECs) are a big part of the action in rural America, as most Keep It Rural readers already know. Today I’m gonna riff a little bit about why that matters for things like reducing pollution, addressing climate change and creating jobs in rural places.

Legend has it that rural electrification was made possible by the Franklin Delano Roosevelt New Deal Democrats. The federal government put up the cash and loan guarantees to build out the power lines and production capacity necessary to connect rural people to the energy grid almost a century ago. From coal plants to massive hydro-electric dams to poles and cables across the country, RECs are essential infrastructure that keeps the lights on and powers the internet from Atlantic to Pacific, and North Woods to Sugar Cane Country.

Now, again through federal investments, it’s possible that RECs could be one of the critical linkages in cleaning up fossil fuel energy production while also creating jobs in rural communities. That’s gonna be a big lift, but it might happen. Really. It might.

I spend a lot of electrons in this here newsletter explaining why congressional and presidential action on federal budgets matters. The REC transition situation is a perfect example of why you should care. And whether you prioritize reducing fossil fuel emissions or reducing rural peoples’ electric bills, this is the sweet spot.

Enter the Rural Power Coalition. The Rural Power Coalition (RPC) is a “group of place-based organizations representing rural electric cooperative member-owners from the five dirtiest electric cooperatives in the United States.” Members include the Partnership for Southern Equity, Appalachian Voices, Renew Missouri, Kentuckians for the Commonwealth, Mountain Association, CURE and the Western Organization of Resource Councils.

These groups are working to replace expensive, polluting coal-fired energy generation with wind and solar production, as well as improve energy efficiency and push for other electricity emission reductions. They’ve really built some momentum to achieve their goals, even as some RECs cling to climate denialism and the politics of Big Coal/Oil/Natural Gas.

In the Democrats’ $3.5 trillion reconciliation package, there’s a $10 billion starter fund for retiring the REC debt that is keeping many old school, dirty, out-of-date coal plants up and running. By switching to clean energy production with a debt retirement plan backed by the federal government, RECs could actually be more profitable because renewable installation has become cheaper than the operating costs of mining and burning coal. And in the case of a cooperative economic structure, (which we all could use a little more of) that means rural people could retain or reduce their monthly electric bills.

There’s much more to say about this issue, of course, and I recommend this piece by the Rocky Mountain Institute for a deeper dive. But just know that there is a small, underfunded and politically-less-wired group of REC reform advocates out there trying to do right by the economy and environment in rural places. Even if your monthly REC newsletter or magazine ignores them, these are people to know and watch. You might even want to cheer them on or join up with their organizing efforts.

Rural Reading List

Now that we’ve got that energy stuff all sorted out, here’s a few articles you should consider opening and reading. It’s a reading list rich in migrant labor, farmers as Covid-19 vaccine proponents, dried up wells in California and hard-hitting floods in Middle Tennessee. Check it out:

From Farm to Table, Immigrants Feed America

From Cronkite News and the Daily Yonder, this article is a solid look at the poor conditions and pay given to the millions of workers in the U.S. who were not born in America.

‘Do It for the People You Love,’ Says Pennsylvania Farmer in Video about Vaccination

I’m not generally one to share Farm Bureau oriented stories unless I’m critiquing them, but this one is quite good. And, yes, I agree. Vax up. Mask up. Keep the people you love safe and healthy as the pandemic continues.

California Enacted a Groundwater Law 7 Years Ago. But Wells Are Still Drying Up — and the Threat Is Spreading.

I’ve been a broke rural person for a lot of my life. No way on planet Earth I could come up with thousands of dollars to drill a well deeper. My heart goes out to these people every time I hear about the water table going down, down, down. Drought + climate change + increased water pumping from industrial agriculture is a hot mess.

Flooding in Tennessee Destroys Rural Towns, Leaving at Least 21 Dead, more than 20 Missing

Floods hit us in Western North Carolina last week, too, but not this quick and deadly. I hope the good people of Tennessee get the support they need for rescue and recovery in the aftermath.

One More Thing: Peace and Love and RIP to Tom T.

“Well, listen ain’t that pretty when the bugler plays the military taps
I think that when you’s in the war they always had to play a song like that
Well here I am and there they go and I guess you’d just call it my bad luck
I hope he rests in peace, the trouble is the fellow owes me forty bucks.”

—Tom T. Hall, “The Ballad of Forty Dollars.”

That might seem like a very pedestrian set of lyrics to throw in at the end of this email, but it’s just a sample of what’s available from the great and wonderful catalog of singer-songwriter, Tom T. Hall who joined the Ancestors Club this week.

Tom T., you see, is on the soundtrack of my youth. Sneaky Snake. I Love. Faster Horses. One of country music’s finest. My brain is always a muddle when it comes to finding words to pay tribute to my heroes, so I’ll just offer up this video of Tom T. telling a story and singing one of his best loved songs, and if you don’t know about him, well, just push play.

Do all of the best country songwriters come from Kentucky? I don’t know, but sometimes it sure seems like it.

Rest in Peace and Solidarity, Tom T. You really lived it up and helped us smile. Thank you for that.

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