Member Highlight - Center for Rural Affairs

Thursday, May 1, 2014
Brian Depew

Climate change is presenting some challenges in rural America, but there are also opportunities for innovation. What does the Center for Rural Affairs see as some of the primary challenges and opportunities in the Great Plains?

There is a major opportunity to invest in our future here. Renewable energy can play a huge role in diversifying the rural economy, creating opportunity for communities, workers and farmers. For instance, the jobs in wind farm construction and operation, they are good jobs with an average wage of $46,000 a year. A typical 80 MW wind project provides $30 million in local income from direct jobs, $6 million in property tax for local government and $5 million in land lease payments. 

What initiatives is the Center for Rural Affairs undertaking to address some of these challenges and opportunities?

We take a multifaceted approach to our work, but it is all about engaging rural people in building the energy future of tomorrow and demanding action from our elected officials. That work happens at all levels. 

We work in local electric co-ops, at the state and regional level and at the federal level. We're tackling the whole picture - advocating to take coal offline and replace it with clean energy, advocating for incentives for community owned projects, and engaging rural people in the planning process for utility scale projects. 

We are working across a six state region with grassroots groups and community stakeholders to figure out how to design a new transmission system that moves renewables to market, unlocking development opportunity and potential, while treating landowners fairly in the process. 

The Center for Rural Affairs works extensively with wind energy. What makes wind energy a better fit for the Great Plains states than other types of renewable energy?

Wind energy is one piece of the puzzle. In the Midwest and Great Plains it will be an important part of the future generation mix. If you look across the region, you see states that are already national leaders in wind energy - Iowa, Minnesota, South Dakota, Kansas, Oklahoma - are all in top ten for wind energy. 

The great irony isn’t how much wind we’ve already tapped, but how much opportunity we are letting sit on the table. Take our home state of Nebraska. We have the 4th best wind resources in the country, yet we rank way back at 25th in installed capacity. 

But, again, wind is just a piece of the puzzle. We also need solar, both utility scale and distributed, along with other forms of renewable energy to reduce carbon emissions far enough and quickly enough to advert the worst impacts of climate change. 

You’ve written about how rural people are ready to address climate change, but refer to those people as the silent majority. What do you see as key to creating climate action in a place where opinions on climate change are often silenced?

One of the key challenges is that rural people who care about climate often feel isolated. Major farm groups and rural electric coops are a loud voice in the media and in their communities and are often outspoken against action on climate issues. By getting out into communities to organize, network and lift up rural voices who care about action on climate, we can create a cohesive rural constituency that can challenge their narrative and overcome that sense of isolation.