Editor’s Note: This interview first appeared in Path Finders, an email newsletter from the Daily Yonder. Each week, Path Finders features a Q&A with a rural thinker, creator, or doer. Like what you see here? You can join the mailing list at the bottom of this article and receive more conversations like this in your inbox each week.

Michelle Moore is the CEO of Groundswell, a clean energy nonprofit working to increase access to solar power and reduce the energy bills of American families. She is also the author of “Rural Renaissance: Revitalizing America’s Hometowns Through Clean Power.” Moore’s book argues that “clean energy shouldn’t be reserved for the wealthy or for sleek and modern city centers,” and presents a practical guide for realizing that vision.

Enjoy our conversation about the moral quandary of “selling” sustainability, the challenge of becoming great ancestors, and the future of rural electric co-ops, below.

Olivia Weeks, The Daily Yonder: I want to hear about the journey that took you away from home and brought you back again. You write that the motivation for your move back to LaGrange, Georgia was the realization that your “entire career up to that point had saved a whole lot of big companies a whole lot of energy and had helped a few wealthy homeowners live a little greener” but hadn’t contributed much to the community that raised you. Tell me about the trajectory you were on, and how you turned it around.

Michelle Moore: The first 20 years of my career were in corporate sustainability. I was truly blessed to go to work for Interface Inc. and its founder Ray C. Anderson soon after grad school, and it showed me how we can all “do well by doing good” (as Ray would say). That was in the mid-1990s in the very early days of the corporate sustainability movement and learning from one of its originators was an extraordinary lesson in hard work, patience, and faithfulness to a mission.

Michelle Moore, CEO of Groundswell and author of Rural Renaissance. (Photo provided.)

As the sustainability and clean energy field evolved into the 21st century, from my perspective, one of its strengths became a blind spot (as is so often the case, right?). All of us at work in the field at that time had to develop the technical prowess to “sell” sustainability to the C-Suite and in boardrooms that were acculturated to make decisions based solely on a financial bottom line. You manage what you measure, and our field measured greenhouse gas emissions reductions and economic returns on investment. So where did that lead us to focus? Large corporations with big carbon footprints; major cities whose activities (like build energy usage, garbage and wastewater, and vehicle traffic) were responsible for the majority of global climate pollution; and big investor-owned utilities. And what did we miss? Rural communities and working families who have a far smaller impact on climate pollution, but much more to gain from a local clean energy future in terms of energy equity, prosperity, and quality of life.

When that realization hit me – that I was serving corporations and not people – I wanted to make a change, so I set out to find a place where my work would help build economic equity, American democracy, and sustainability by serving people. And then along came Groundswell, and here I am.

DY: While the benefits of a locally controlled, renewable power-grid seem obvious, all development comes along with drawbacks. In a vision of America where the countryside leads the charge on providing green energy, how should we think about the disturbances to rural livelihoods that are likely to result from this expansion? How can we account for phenomena like changes in land use patterns and declining property values adjacent to green industry sites, and ensure that rural places reap their fair share of the rewards of sustainability?

MM: First, “we” must include rural communities and rural leaders. Rural representation and inclusion in decision-making that impacts rural places and people builds a right foundation for a clean energy future that serves everyone equitably. Second, we need to make decisions at the right scale. As I share in “Rural Renaissance,” energy policy in America is an example of federalism at work. Decisions that primarily impact local-communities can be undertaken at the local level – which is beautiful. Third, we must continue to develop approaches to the work of building local clean energy futures that accomplish multiple goals at once and that are designed with the long-term future in mind. As my friend Ari Wallach would frame it, we have to challenge ourselves to be great ancestors. For example, solar can work alongside agriculture. Agrovoltaic projects use solar panels to produce energy and shield crops from sun and drought, which also increases crop yields and helps to secure agricultural lands against a changing climate.

DY: We know from debates about, for instance, affordable housing policy that local decision-making is hardly a guarantee of equity or sustainability in development. How does your vision of a “rural renaissance” in local energy production account for the tendency in American life of local institutions to be dominated by the wealthiest residents of a place?

MM: It’s not just a tendency in American life. Making wealth and money into a god is a global affliction.

Securing a rural renaissance against putting profits over people isn’t just a vision. It’s the way that America’s 900+ rural cooperative utilities were designed nearly 100 years ago. Their formation as local institutions – from the “Seven Cooperative Principles” that defined how they should be governed, to how principles like member-ownership and democratic governance are enshrined in U.S. tax laws and regulations – was itself a reaction against the many ways in which industrialization was robbing working families of health and wealth.

Rediscovering the democratic roots of our rural utilities, and reforming them according to that original vision, is the first step towards future-proofing our local clean energy futures against the tendency of even nonprofit institutions like cooperatives to devolve from their mission and purpose.

Graphic of the “Seven Cooperative Principles.” (Photo provided.)

DY: What do the relationships between rural electric co-ops and sustainable energy look like right now? How can members mobilize toward green, democratically developed energy sources in their communities? Can you think of exemplary models of this in specific places?

MM: There are nearly 1,000 rural electric cooperatives across the U.S. representing a tremendous variety of relationships with clean energy. While rural cooperatives, for example, have been leaders in deploying community solar, on the whole they still have more coal power in their generation mix than other utilities. So while there is tremendous promise, there is a long way to go towards the green, democratically developed clean energy future you note.

The recent Inflation Reduction Act gave all rural cooperatives and the communities they represent a number of very important tools to mobilize towards including nearly $10 billion to increase clean power in their portfolios as well as the ability, as nonprofits, to receive the value of the solar tax credit (the ITC) as a refund. Together, these two provisions mean that rural cooperatives have the funding they need to pay off their debts to coal and to own their own local clean energy future.

Roanoke Electric Cooperative in North Carolina is a wonderful example of what that clean energy future can look like. Led by CEO Marshall Cherry and envisioned by former CEO Curtis Wynn, Roanoke Electric Cooperative offers energy efficiency programs that improve the quality of rural housing, EV charging rates that help families save on transportation costs, community solar and energy storage that improve energy resilience and help sustain historically Black-owned farms, and affordable broadband. The team at Roanoke has built the utility of the future in rural eastern North Carolina, and they offer models that we can all learn from and follow.

How do we get started? Get to know your rural electric cooperative board, leadership, and bylaws. If you’re a member, you’re an owner, and you have a role in decision-making about the utility – and your community’s – future. Following the Seven Cooperative Principles are non-negotiable foundations of cooperative governance, so make sure you begin your work equipped with a thorough knowledge of how those principles are operationalized.

DY: What steps can folks who want to start mobilizing toward local, sustainable change take right now?

MM: I wrote “Rural Renaissance” as an inspirational (I hope) guide for building local clean energy futures, predicated on the fact that every one of us as individuals have agency and decision-making authority over where we go together and how we get there. So the first step, no matter who you are or where you live, is to recognize your own power.

Once we do that, there are so many ways to get started! No matter where your local rural utility stands in terms of its governance, its adoption of clean energy and sustainability, or its priorities and needs – there is a next step for you. “Rural Renaissance” includes roadmaps, inspiration, and examples for addressing local governance, energy efficiency, solar power, resilience and energy storage, electric vehicles and economic development, and broadband as essential infrastructure for a clean energy future. Part of the beauty of a rural renaissance is that the next steps towards our future, and the futures of our generations to come, are our choice.

This interview first appeared in Path Finders, a weekly email newsletter from the Daily Yonder. Each Monday, Path Finders features a Q&A with a rural thinker, creator, or doer. Join the mailing list today, to have these illuminating conversations delivered straight to your inbox.

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