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L. Michelle Moore is author of Rural Renaissance: Revitalizing America’s Hometowns through Clean Power and CEO of Groundswell. This column was produced by Progressive Perspectives, which is run by The Progressive magazine and distributed by Tribune News Service.
September is National Preparedness Month, but we hardly need the reminder to be prepared for natural disasters this year. Droughts, fires, floods, scorching heat and scouring rain — and along with them property damage, lost crops and rising energy insecurity — are just a few of this summer’s unrelenting reminders that we need to strengthen rural resilience.
Our energy system is an important place to start, and the passage of the Inflation Reduction Act gives us the tools we need to do just that. In fact, it marks the first major investment the federal government has made in rural electric power in nearly 100 years. As the national conversation shifts to how to implement its many provisions, how can hard-hit rural communities make sure the opportunities don’t pass them by?
Implementation is urgent. If you live and work close to the land, the impacts of climate change are particularly acute. A recent survey by the American Farm Bureau Federation noted that 37 percent of farmers have been forced to kill their own crops by tilling them back into the ground because it’s too dry for plants to mature. In Texas, where more than half of the state is in extreme drought, ranchers are selling off their cattle by the thousands as pasturelands dry up.
Droughts impact energy as well as agriculture. Less rain means less hydropower in western states like California, Washington and Idaho that depend on water as a resource for generating electricity. When the rain does come, it comes in flash floods, like those that recently afflicted Kentucky and parts of Utah and New Mexico.
Extreme weather also means longer, more frequent power failures. The United States already experiences more outages than any other developed country, and blackouts have increased by more than 60 percent since 2015. Rural households are not only more susceptible to long-duration power outages caused by weather and an aging grid, they have also been hit the hardest by rising fuel costs. Inflation, combined with long drives to work and school, add up to about $900 more per household for gas and diesel and about 33 percent less disposable income than last year.
What can we do to secure small town communities against enormous, converging threats like aging infrastructure, high fuel costs and a changing climate?
Investing in resilience can reduce vulnerabilities and mitigate the damage from extreme weather, making it easier to bounce back after the threat has passed. Resilience-focused technologies including microgrids, energy storage and solar panels also increase local self-reliance, making rural families and businesses less dependent on help that has to come from far away.
Let’s take a look at how resilience can work. Confronting heat and drought, agrovoltaic solar installations use solar panels to shield crops from intense sun and excessive evaporation, preserving crops even when the temperature climbs. Generating your own solar energy also cuts your utility bills. Complementing local solar with energy storage, connected through a microgrid, keeps the lights on even when the grid goes down. Finally, using local energy to charge EV cars and trucks reduces fuel costs. Add in energy efficiency to make homes and businesses easier to heat and cool, and you’re also putting money back in people’s pockets while making them more secure.
The Inflation Reduction Act includes rebates, tax incentives and grant programs that can help implement these climate resilient solutions and improve family finances, whether you’re in a red state or a blue state or somewhere in between. There are tens of thousands of dollars in rebates and tax credits available for home energy improvements like new air conditioners, electric heat pumps and insulation. Using these incentives to cut household utility bills is especially important for vulnerable rural communities that carry the highest energy burdens in America.
For farms, rural businesses and local economic development, there are expanded incentives for solar installations, USDA grant funding for energy storage and “Made in the USA” requirements attached to the legislation’s EV tax credits. As we all learned during the pandemic, keeping critical supply chains close to home is a part of resilience, too.
While Washington is delivering the investments we need, it will be up to local rural leaders to put those dollars to work building local resilience in a rapidly changing world. It’s time to roll up our sleeves and get some good stuff done for our hometowns.