Sunday, February 28, 2016

Rural Electric Co-Ops, Traditionally Bastions of Coal, Are Getting into Solar

Fuel Mix of Power Sold by Co-Ops (Credit: NRECA) Click to Enlarge.
In the US, rural areas and constituencies have typically weighed against progress on clean energy.  But that may be changing.

A new story out of Wisconsin illustrates that a slow, tentative shift is underway, as rural electricity consumers and the utilities that serve them take a new look at the benefits of solar power.

In fact, if you squint just right, you can even glimpse a future in which rural America is at the vanguard of decarbonization.  The self-reliance and local jobs enabled by renewable energy are of unique value in rural areas, and rural leaders are beginning to recognize that solar isn't just for elitist coastal hippies any more.
Rural co-ops are coal-dependent and regulation-averse
Rural co-ops have been around for a long time, and they've always done things basically the same way. In a nutshell, they strike long-term power purchase agreements (sometimes up to 50 years) with big coal plants.Consequently, rural co-ops have traditionally opposed air quality regulations. Among other things, they fought against the 2009 cap-and-trade bill and lobbied against Barack Obama's Clean Power Plan.
Glimmers of clean energy in rural America
Rural co-ops' opposition to air regulations is a combination of stubborn habit and justifiable protectiveness of their members, who are often poorer than average.  For most co-op members, the monthly electric bill is a larger proportion of consumer spending than for most urbanites.

What's more, many co-ops are locked into long-term PPAs with coal plants.  And smaller co-ops often do not have the capital to own or purchase from a diverse array of power sources.  Rural co-ops rightly fear anything that will raise costs for their members.
Rural communities are especially attuned to the values of independence and self-reliance.  There is a powerful attraction to the idea of local power that creates local jobs.

Now that the handcuffs of coal are starting to loosen and financing challenges are being overcome, I wouldn't be surprised to see renewable energy embraced by rural co-ops, perhaps even with more enthusiasm than their investor-owned counterparts.

Read more at Rural Electric Co-Ops, Traditionally Bastions of Coal, Are Getting into Solar

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