New Report: Clean Energy Sweeps Across the Rural Midwest

NRDC released a report today to document the impact of clean energy on the rural Midwest. The findings are clear: the remarkable clean energy growth that we are seeing across the country is bringing benefits to rural places throughout the Midwest.

The rural Midwest saw 2.3 gigawatts (GW) of new wind and solar energy capacity in 2017—that’s the equivalent of the output of 10 million solar panels or 1,000 large wind turbines. Clean energy (including renewable energy, energy efficiency, sustainable transportation, alternative fuels, and advanced electric grid technologies) employed 158,000 people throughout rural areas in the region, and the number of clean energy jobs is growing much more quickly than jobs across other sectors of the economy.

Below are several figures that distill the data’s main message: the clean energy transition is in motion, and its benefits are extending to the region’s rural places.

Clean energy makes up a large share of the rural economy

On average, clean energy jobs make up 2.3 percent of total, economy-wide jobs in the Midwest. In rural areas, that number is about 2.7 percent—that means one out of every 36 employed people works in the clean energy sector. In 10 out of 12 states, clean energy contributed a greater share of rural jobs than urban ones. And Michigan led the pack, with 4.2 percent of total rural jobs coming from clean energy.

Clean energy is outpacing the rest of the economy

Clean energy is helping drive economic growth. Clean energy jobs grew at a much faster rate than economy-wide jobs from 2015 to 2016. The number of rural clean energy jobs increased by more than 5 percent for 10 midwestern states, with 5 states experiencing growth of 7 or 8 percent. Zooming in on rural regions, the story is the same—clean energy is outpacing growth in other sectors. Most of these states had seen no growth or even losses across their entire economies, so the gains from clean energy were especially welcome.

Clean energy employs more people than fossil fuels

As the clean energy transition continues full swing, it is crucial that the changes do not leave out the communities that have relied upon the fossil fuel industry to support their economies. The people who lose their jobs as plants shut down must have access to new economic opportunities to support themselves, remain in their communities, and avoid being uprooted by the changes that are unfolding. What’s promising is that clean energy is bringing these job opportunities in greater numbers than the fossil fuel sector.

In 2017, more people in the rural Midwest were employed by clean energy than by fossil fuel power plants, extraction, refinement, and transportation combined in 10 of 12 midwestern states. Kansas has a similar number of fossil fuel and clean energy jobs, and the only state with significantly more fossil fuel jobs, North Dakota, engages in heavy oil and gas extraction. However, the state still boasts a strong clean energy economy, with more than 4,500 rural clean energy jobs that make up about 2.6 percent of total employment.

How we got here, and the road ahead

The impressive clean energy story is the result of many drivers, including among others the declining costs of clean energy technologies and increasing demand from consumers. But to continue this growth—and the clean, affordable energy it brings—policymakers at all levels of government must protect programs that support rural clean energy development, push back against shortsighted policies that are meant to undermine clean energy progress, and develop new policy solutions to accelerate and guide the clean energy transition.

Federal leaders should increase funding for clean energy research, development, and demonstration projects that will continue to bring down the costs of clean energy and allow more people to gain access. Congress should also protect important programs that accelerate deployment in rural regions, like USDA’s Rural Energy Assistance Program, which provides grants and loans for rural businesses and farms to invest in renewable energy and energy efficiency, and DOE’s Weatherization Assistance Program, which provides important energy efficiency improvements for low-income households.

In the absence of federal leadership, decision makers at the state and county levels should promote policies that support clean energy programs. State lawmakers should set strong targets for clean energy deployment, and utility regulators should ensure that utilities are responding to the call for more clean, affordable energy and planning for a clean energy future with more wind energy, solar power, and energy efficiency. County and municipal governments can develop programs to ensure that all of their constituents are benefiting from clean energy; community solar programs are a great place to start. Policies that support clean energy at all levels of government will spur more economic growth, help mitigate the dangerous impacts of climate change, and demonstrate a commitment to a sustainable future for all communities and future generations.

About the Authors

Arjun Krishnaswami

Policy Analyst, Climate & Clean Energy Program

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