In Red States, Solar Flares and Wind Rises

September 8, 2017

E&E News:

Washington County, Iowa, is populated by Mennonite and Amish farmers who raise hogs and cows, the kind of place where Donald Trump took more than 56 percent of the vote in last year’s election.

It is also a hotbed of something Trump voters aren’t usually enthused about: solar power. The local utility, Farmers Electric Cooperative, keeps selling out of it. Every time that Warren McKenna, the general manger, makes a new offering of shares in what he calls a “socialized garden,” they get snapped up.

Washington County isn’t the only deep-red community with a strong demand for solar. The community solar array is almost fully booked at Bandera Electric Cooperative, in the heart of Texas Hill Country, an area dominated by ranchers who voted for Trump by a margin of nearly 80 percent. The same goes for the San Miguel Power Association, which serves a swath of southwest Colorado made up mostly of Trump-aligned ranchers, miners and drillers.

What’s going on here?windmidwest

In a strange turn of events, some of the most rural and conservative parts of the country are where solar adoption is growing the fastest, brought about by a liberal-sounding sales structure called community solar. Rural electric cooperatives love it, which is ironic. These small utilities fought for years against being lumped into state renewable energy portfolios, but now realize that solar could aid in their stability — and even their survival.

The idea behind community solar is simple: Build a large solar array and sell or lease shares of it to members of the community. Count the electricity it creates against the subscribers’ monthly power bills.

“It wasn’t an issue of whether it was green or not,” said a hog farmer outside Kalona, Iowa, who signed up for two shares of community solar but didn’t want to weigh in on the political question or let a big-city reporter use his name. “It just made economic sense.”

The solar cognoscenti usually talk about community solar as a tool for the city the suburbs. It could help the poor trim their power bills, or allow apartment dwellers to participate in clean energy. But city-based utilities and their regulators have been slow off the mark. Only 13 community-solar programs exist at investor-owned utilities and 22 at municipal utilities, according to data from the Smart Electric Power Alliance.

Meanwhile, rural electric co-ops are running with it. Three years ago, co-ops hosted 33 community-solar programs; last year, the number rose to 141. The number of projects may reach 230 by the end of this year, according to the National Rural Electric Cooperative Association.

Even more striking, from a political perspective, is where these solar sprouts are taking root.

Of the 10 states with the most rural community solar projects, Trump won an outright majority in seven, including Georgia (No. 1, with 42 projects), North Carolina, Tennessee, Indiana, Iowa, Oklahoma and South Carolina. Only two — Colorado and Minnesota — were carried by Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton.

Co-ops are usually small and free from the oversight of state electricity regulators. That has made them nimble in embracing community solar. But it doesn’t explain why a customer base made up mostly of farmers, ranchers and other country folk would be interested.

The short answer is that those people aren’t, at least at first. Since co-ops are owned by their members, they are highly responsive when a customer asks for something. In most of these co-ops, it is a pocket of liberal, environmentally minded customers who have done the asking. The co-ops have responded by embarking on a solar learning curve and have begun to take their conservative-leaning customers along for the ride.

Midwest Energy News:

New poll results show that a majority of Ohio voters continue to support state policies to encourage more use of clean energy, including a renewable portfolio standard and revised wind turbine setbacks — even in the state’s coal country region.

Eighty-seven percent of voters statewide said they would tell elected officials to support policies that encourage energy efficiency and more renewable energy use, The Nature Conservancy of Ohio reported in a poll this week. The results come amid continued efforts by some Republican lawmakers to scale back clean energy policy.

“The survey clearly demonstrates that Ohio voters see energy efficiency and renewable energy sources as something the state should place greater emphasis on,” said pollster Lori Weigel at Public Opinion Strategies, which conducted the survey of 600 voters and analyzed the results. Public Opinion Strategies bills itself as the “nation’s largest Republican polling firm.”

Statewide, the breakdown by party affiliation for that general support of clean energy policies was 77 percent Republicans, 97 percent Democrats and 87 percent of Independents or other parties.

“Ohio is not atypical,” Weigel said. “We tend to see this nationally as well.”

A closer look

Supplemental interviews zeroed in on public opinion in a 12-county region making up southeastern Ohio. That region has most of the state’s coal mining areas, as well as a large number of fracked wells for natural gas. Voters in the area tend to be “more Republican,” Weigel observed — about 42 percent for southeastern Ohio versus roughly 30 percent statewide.

Even in Southeast Ohio, however, 79 percent said they would tell elected officials to support policies to encourage energy efficiency and greater use of renewable energy. Only 19 percent of respondents in that area said they would urge officials to oppose such policies. (This link gives more detailed polling data and samples of questions asked.)

Moreover, respondents in Southeast Ohio said they would like an average of 55 percent of Ohio’s electricity to come from renewable resources. Statewide, respondents said they’d like an average of 61 percent. “It’s a distinction, but really it’s a distinction without a difference,” Weigel said.

“When it gets to specific policies … there’s not a lot of partisan distinction,” Weigel continued.

Statewide, for example, 93 percent of both Democrats and Republicans said they support continued net metering for utility customers that generate some of their own power through wind, solar or other renewable sources.

For wind energy, 80 percent of Republicans and 93 percent of Democrats said they would support more reasonable setback limits for wind turbines. A 2014 budget bill amendment tripled the previous property line setbacks.


3 Responses to “In Red States, Solar Flares and Wind Rises”

  1. […] via In Red States, Solar Flares and Wind Rises | Climate Denial Crock of the Week […]

  2. webej Says:

    Most voters only support a candidate or their platform on specific points, and that is true across the board. How could it be otherwise with only two choices? Even apart from the tendency of politicians to reneg on the very promises that got them elected. The Amish are nothing like Trump, just saying. Nothing like most Americans for that matter.

  3. Solar PV is good when it’s on existing man-made structures and doesn’t take over new land. A quaint concept called Tread Lightly used to be a tenet of mainstream environmentalism until wind power started growing and we learned that many people never gave much of a s–t about landscapes. They must have been lurking all along and wind power finally revealed their apathy. “Omigod, they’re like, so beautiful! Only rubes, NIMBYs and climate deniers care about all that dirty open space these days.” (arrogant wind nerds talking about how they’re saving the planet)

    Industrial wind turbines can NOT be “carefully sited” to avoid industrializing landscapes and ruining natural aesthetics. They’re almost never installed in urban areas, save for a few lone machines. That’s a physical reality, so a lot of spin is needed to aesthetically justify wind projects. Keep in mind that people bicker over views blighted by mere 80-foot cellular towers.

    To be a proper environmentalist these days, you’re expected to ignore all of the above and claim that this new form of desecration is justified even though it has a slim chance of doing much about AGW. Denial is now covered in a green wrapper and nature will keep being obliterated by construction industry boosters working a green angle. It’s like the expectation of continual housing-starts, which pro-wind people have no trouble calling urban sprawl. They just pick their narrative$ carefully.

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