The power grid in the United States must undergo a lot of changes if we are to meet our goals of zero-carbon power in time to avert a climate crisis. An important part of the transition discussion needs to be about how that transition is going to impact people.
The Appalachian region, known for coal production, has suffered economically from the reduction in demand for coal and the resulting 65% fall in coal production. However, a study by RMI shows that this hard-hit coal region could be the area to reap the biggest economic gains in the transition to renewable energy, specifically solar and wind power.
Onshore wind and utility-scale solar projects are typically developed in rural areas with renewable resource potential and the availability of land. Appalachia has both of these, and going all-in on renewables is cost-competitive with the current dependence on the coal industry.
The RMI report researched specific economic benefits that could be gained in rural communities from the growth in renewable energy. Some of the benefits are additional local tax revenue, land lease payments, and wages to local workers for construction projects. The benefits described are based on a build-out of renewable energy in the next decade from a report by GridLab and UC-Berkeley which assumes a tripling of 2020 wind and solar capacity by 2030 and a 90% carbon-free grid by 2035.
The actual benefits in any area will be determined by how much of the assumed scenario can be realized in the coming decade. If renewables growth is blocked or disincentivized at any level of government, the benefits will be less. On the other hand, if growth exceeds the report assumptions due to falling costs and/or additional policy support, the benefits could outpace the projected numbers.
Appalachia is poised to reap the greatest benefits, but it is not the only region that is projected to realize economic growth from transition to renewables. California and Texas will see economic progress in their rural areas over the lifetime of solar and wind projects built over the next decade. Wyoming, Montana, and South Dakota all stand to benefit from increasing their wind capacity over the next decade, and Florida could add jobs and revenue from their solar capacity if they hit the models of solar project production in the report.
Government leaders can facilitate the transition and progress in rural areas. Federal funding can give local workers the opportunity and incentive to retrain for jobs in renewable energy. States and local governments must collaborate on policies that streamline local renewables projects. State and federal policy can support local ownership of renewables projects that will enable community wealth building. Government at all levels should send clear signals that renewable energy is the future so that investments can be made in training and infrastructure.