As printed in the Des Moines Register on June 13, 2015:
As political candidates begin traveling across Iowa, they will no doubt be asked what action they will take on climate change. It’s important to help them remember that low-income, rural Americans are extremely vulnerable to the economic and health effects of a changing climate, and stand to benefit the most from investments in energy efficiency and renewable energy.
Rural communities feel the direct impacts of a changing climate. Farmers and ranchers adapt to extreme weather by necessity, rural grocery stores have higher electricity bills during heat waves, and small town infrastructure is stressed. Assistance and clean up from extreme weather events is especially difficult in rural areas because emergency services are already stretched thin.
Fortunately, a shift toward abundant, renewable energy like wind and solar power can help low-income people better handle fuel price fluctuations, and prevent sudden increases in their bills from coal or gas price spikes. Investments in renewables also create good-paying, skilled labor jobs in small towns. For example, a typical 80 megawatt wind farm can create 400 new jobs and generate up to $50.14 million for the local economy. In addition, these economic benefits from renewables don’t come at the expense of clean air and water.
More efficient use of electricity is a clear cut way of keeping electricity bills affordable for low-income rural Americans, while reducing the burden of rising electricity demand for rural electric cooperatives that serve rural communities. Rural electric cooperatives want to help their customers save money, and one of the best ways to do that is with energy efficiency — using less energy simply saves money for customers and the cooperative.
Low-income households have less flexibility to adapt quickly to the impacts of climate change. Those with low and fixed incomes lack sufficient resources to clean up from extreme weather events and they must absorb dramatic increases in electricity costs. They are also generally the most susceptible to the increased health risks — from asthma to heat stroke — associated with carbon pollution and climate change.
Poverty is experienced at a higher rate in rural communities than in other communities. According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, 17.7 percent of rural families fall below the federal poverty line, compared with 14.5 percent in the rest of the country. These households stand to benefit from lower energy bills fueled by more efficient energy use, and homegrown, renewable energy.
In fact, a new report from the Natural Resources Defense Council notes that while the average U.S. household spends 2.9 percent of its income on electricity bills, low-income households spend 8.3 percent. And the discrepancy is even greater in rural areas, where energy costs end up comprising a larger portion of rural households’ expenses.
To decrease the amount of carbon pollution we dump into the atmosphere, the U.S. EPA developed a national plan — the Clean Power Plan — to limit carbon emissions from power plants by 30 percent. According to the EPA, the Clean Power Plan can deliver unprecedented health benefits by preventing up to 150,000 asthma attacks in children, 3,300 heart attacks, 2,800 hospital admissions, 490,000 missed days of school and work and 6,600 premature deaths a year.
Furthermore, the Clean Power Plan is predicted to reduce electricity bills by an average of 8 percent by 2030, and that’s especially good news for those struggling and living paycheck to paycheck. An important part of achieving these reductions is making energy efficiency and renewable energy an integral component of Iowa’s state implementation plan.
In fact, Iowa wind has already blown away critics by demonstrating its potential to be a leader in economic growth. The state leads the nation in generation from wind energy, and is one of two states that have the entire supply chain for wind turbines. There are 14 factories in Iowa that make components of wind turbines, employing thousands of skilled workers and generating local economic benefits for communities.
Unfortunately, some of our nation’s leaders are trying to obstruct the Clean Power Plan and actively discourage states like Iowa from developing their own plans for implementation. Not only do these tactics put future generations at greater risk, they threaten to prevent rural Iowans from receiving the myriad benefits that will come with climate action and investment in clean energy and energy efficiency.
LAUREN KOLOJEJCHICK-KOTCH is an energy and climate program associate with the Center for Rural Affairs in Lyons, Neb. Contact: 402.687.2103