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Building Blocks for Clean Energy in Rural Communities

As climate disasters from deadly wildfires to devastating floods dominate headlines and wreak havoc across the country, the need to electrify our energy grid and shift to renewable energy sources is urgent. But what does this shift look like for rural communities? 


On the Frontlines of the Climate Crisis:

Rural regions are at the frontlines of the climate crisis. Farmers, ranchers, sportsmen, and others who rely on the natural environment have long been aware of the changes in weather patterns, and they are directly affected by small changes and by large-scale catastrophes like drought, fire, and floods. At the same time, many rural residents struggle with accessing basic services in the first place, and reliable energy can be one of the challenges.

Many rural electric grids are antiquated, fragile, and entirely reliant on fossil fuels like coal or natural gas. But many potential solutions, like electric cars, are simply not feasible in rural areas where drivers often travel long distances for basic errands and electric vehicle charging stations are nonexistent. Other so-called renewable energy solutions such as biogas are touted as a great way to deal with industrial animal waste in rural communities, when instead these false solutions cause even greater harm to the communities where they are sited. 

Rural residents are concerned about the impacts of climate change, but if they perceive a clean energy transition could negatively affect an already unreliable energy grid, it is no wonder that they may be nervous about the transition.

As policymakers, you are tasked with making sure that the green energy transition doesn’t leave anyone behind. Fortunately, while change is always uncertain, there are many opportunities for rural communities in the transition as well. 


A Roadmap for Clean Energy for All:

Renewable Portfolio Standards: An initial step for many states is to develop clean energy production targets and greenhouse gas emission limits. Many states have enacted renewable portfolio standards to set targets for renewable energy production and/or net zero greenhouse gas emissions.

Microgrids: To address shortcomings in the rural electric grid and to support rural electric cooperatives, some states have begun to develop microgrids, which can store and distribute energy during a grid outage.

  • For example, Hawaii (2018 HI HB 2110) established service tariffs to compensate microgrid owners for use of their stored energy, 
  • and Connecticut (CT Statutes § 16-243y) created a microgrid and resilience grant and loan pilot program.
  • Recently enacted legislation in Maine (2021 ME LD 1053) creates a section in the public utilities statute for the regulation of microgrids, 
  • and Minnesota (2021 MN HF 6) recently allocated funds to a university microgrid research center for research and development of near-commercial microgrid products.

Green Banks: Rural areas often face challenges in attracting clean energy investments, but state green banks can help address financing needs.

  • Connecticut (2011 CT SB 1243) was the first state to create a green bank. A 2021 law there (2021 CT HB 6441) expanded the types of projects that the Connecticut Green Bank can invest in, to include infrastructure projects related to water, waste, and recycling, climate adaptation and resilient agriculture, land conservation, and parks and recreation.
  • In Illinois, legislation (2021 IL SB 2408) directs the Illinois Climate Bank to accelerate investment in clean energy projects that reflect the diversity of the state, including emphasis on racial, gender, and income diversity.

Hold Corporate Polluters Accountable: The impacts of climate change are not the only fossil fuel industry harms disproportionally felt by rural communities (and particularly by rural communities of color). The industry is a heavy generator of air, land, and water pollution. State lawmakers can establish rules to hold fossil fuel companies accountable and ensure that corporate polluters – not taxpayers or local communities – pay for hazardous cleanups or the safe closure of facilities.

  • California recently passed a bill (2021 CA SB 158) to increase accountability for environmental waste cleanups by establishing an ombudsperson to receive and respond to public complaints, increasing financial assurance requirements for entities that handle hazardous waste, and establishing an Impacted Community Grant program to fund community efforts to respond to and independently examine contaminated sites.
  • An Illinois (2019 IL SB 9) law created new protections against coal ash polluters, including financial assurance requirements for closure and cleanups and creating new standards for meaningful community participation in decision making processes.

As some of those most severely impacted by climate change and outdated energy infrastructure, rural communities also have the potential to benefit most from green energy upgrades – as long as we ensure that they are not left behind. 


For more on clean energy in rural communities, see the Blueprint for Rural Policy Action in the States. 

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