It’s an unfortunate fact of life in the 21st century that support for renewable energy falls along political lines in the US Congress, but that’s nothing new. Energy policy has always been political. Besides, signs are beginning to grow that political leanings among the voting public will play second fiddle when money-saving opportunities arise, as demonstrated by some recent solar activity in rural areas.
Rural Electric Cooperatives Heart Solar Power
New solar activity in rural areas is of interest to the extent that the political divide generally falls along urban-rural lines. Clean power projects can stir opposition in rural areas regardless of political affiliation, but that’s a whole ‘nother can of worms. The fact is that renewable energy is sprouting up all over the countryside, and rural electric cooperatives are a strong and growing part of that movement.
Earlier this week, Minnesota Public Radio reporter Kirsti Marohn took a deep dive into some recent projects undertaken by rural electric cooperatives in her home state, beginning with a solar-plus-storage project in Ramsey, which is located in Anoka County.
Joe Biden won Minnesota’s 10 electoral votes in the 2020 Presidential election, riding to victory on the majority vote in 13 urban, high population counties. The other 74 counties, including Anoka County, voted for the losing Republican incumbent, who was known for supporting fossil energy stakeholders during his time in office.
Politics aside, Anoka County is home to the first solar-plus-storage system in Minnesota of any significant size. The developer is Connexus Energy, described by Marohn as the biggest electric cooperative in the state. Connexus also built a similar solar-plus-storage project in the state several years ago.
Marohn cites the CEO of Connexus Energy, Greg Ridderbusch, who explains that solar played a role in the cooperative’s ability to keep its electricity rates flat for 5 years in a row, along with smart meters and water heater controllers.
Connexus is not the only cooperative in Minnesota to hold the line on rates, in contrast to investor-owned electricity providers. Marohn reports “while Minnesota’s largest investor-owned utilities, including Xcel Energy and Minnesota Power, are increasing electric rates this year, some rural electric co-ops are holding rates steady,” thanks in part to the falling cost of solar and wind power, too.
For the record, Xcel recently introduced incentives for purchasing electric vehicles, which could help soften the blow of rate increases for their participating customers in Minnesota. Still, that’s no help to customers who can’t afford a new EV.
Wind Power Also Factors Into Low Electricity Rates
Solar energy is just part of the picture in Minnesota, where wind resources are relatively strong, and so is local opposition to new wind farms.
Still, large scale wind activity has been picking up in the Gopher State. In 2019 Minnesota also hosted a first-of-its-kind hybrid energy storage system for both wind turbines and solar panels,.
If large-scale wind development slows down in Minnesota, individual farmers may still be able to take advantages of new technology that could make the bottom line case for small scale wind projects on their property. One trend to keep an eye on is distributed wind plus green ammonia production on farms, which the US Department of Energy is promoting.
Meanwhile, our friends over at Energy News Network report that the electric cooperative wholesale supplier Great River Energy has 28 cooperatives under its umbrella, and 20 of them will see their wholesale rates go down in 2022.
Great River’s wholesale price doesn’t necessarily ripple down to co-op members, but in many cases it does. That includes Connexus, which has a long term contract with Great River.
If Great River rings a bell, you may be thinking of the electric co-op that is hosting a somewhat mysterious new energy storage system backed by Bill Gates. Opposition to new wind farms or not, Great River Energy also plans to add 900 more megawatts to its existing wind portfolio of 600 megawatts, within the next two years.
More Solar Panels For Everybody
For the record, all is not sweetness and light among electric co-ops, and long term contracts can inhibit their ability to pivot into new clean power sources.
Electricity users have other options, though. One of them is rooftop PV panels, a small but growing area of activity in Minnesota.
The agrivoltaics movement, aka solar-plus-farming, is also sending more solar panels out to the countryside. Minnesota has become a hotspot of activity in that area, and farmers are not the only ones to benefit. Semi-rural and rural corporate campuses can also host solar panels that support pollinator habitats, grazing lands, and other agri-friendly usage.
One especially cool example is the Aveda campus in Blaine, Minnesota, which doubles as a certified 58-acre habitat, but we digress.
US Department Of Agriculture Hearts PV On Farms
The US Department of Agriculture is another factor driving PV adoption in rural areas. The agency’s REAP energy loan program for farmers included loans for solar panels, among other clean power goodies, for farmers in Minnesota and elsewhere during the Obama administration, and it survived into the 2018 Farm Bill during the Trump administration.
Earlier this week, the USDA announced that it is turning its attention to rural towns as well as farms. The new Rural Energy Pilot Program has a pot of $10 million available “to help people living in rural towns develop community renewable energy projects that will help them cut their energy costs and contribute to the nationwide effort to reduce pollution that contributes to climate change. ”
“These funds will be targeted to help people who live in communities that have been historically underinvested and disinvested,” USDA adds.
Solar panels made the cut, along with wind, geothermal, micro-hydroelectric, and biomass or other forms of bioenergy.
If you want in, there is still time. Check out the Rural Energy Pilot Program web page and get your Letter of Intent in there by 11:59 p.m. EST on April 19, 2022.
All (Renewable Energy) Politics Is Local
All this activity could lead to increased support for renewable energy in rural areas, even if it doesn’t reflect in political affiliation.
Last June the Pew Research Center took the nation’s temperature on renewable energy and found that “most U.S. adults continue to support expanding solar panel farms (84%) and wind turbine farms (77%), but Republicans and Democrats are increasingly divided in views on these two energy sources.”
So what else is new?
“Among Republicans and Republican-leaning independents, support for increasing reliance on solar power is down from 84% last year to 73% today, while support for more wind power dropped from 75% in 2020 to 62% today,” Pew explains, while “Around nine-in-ten Democrats and Democratic-leaning independents continue to support expanding solar (93%) and wind power (91%).”
From a glass half full perspective, a strong majority of Republicans still support wind and solar power. Assuming the year-to-year decline is a blip and not a long term trend, the poll suggests that rural voters are still inclined to support renewable energy, if not for the environmental benefits, then at least on account of the bottom line.
The falling cost of wind and solar power could soon send public opinion swinging upward again. After all, when saving money on household utility bills is involved, who could hate it?
Follow me on Twitter @TinaMCasey.
Photo: The US Department of Energy’s National Renewable Energy Laboratory supports research on solar panels in agriculture (photo by Dennis Schroeder, NREL).
Sign up for daily news updates from CleanTechnica on email. Or follow us on Google News!
Have a tip for CleanTechnica, want to advertise, or want to suggest a guest for our CleanTech Talk podcast? Contact us here.
Autonomous Drones for Better Farming
I don't like paywalls. You don't like paywalls. Who likes paywalls? Here at CleanTechnica, we implemented a limited paywall for a while, but it always felt wrong — and it was always tough to decide what we should put behind there. In theory, your most exclusive and best content goes behind a paywall. But then fewer people read it! We just don't like paywalls, and so we've decided to ditch ours. Unfortunately, the media business is still a tough, cut-throat business with tiny margins. It's a never-ending Olympic challenge to stay above water or even perhaps — gasp — grow. So ...