The clean energy transformation must include rural communities — Opinion

September 23, 2021 5:59 am

Electric vehicles are displayed before a news conference with White House Climate Adviser Gina McCarthy and U.S. Secretary of Transportation Pete Buttigieg about the American Jobs Plan and to highlight electric vehicles at Union Station near Capitol Hill on April 22, 2021 in Washington, DC. Photo by Drew Angerer/Getty Images.

America is at a tipping point. We need to move swiftly and boldly to a clean energy economy if we want to stave off the most catastrophic effects of climate change. This massive infrastructure change and clean economy transformation needs to include everyone — especially our rural communities. 

I grew up in rural Minnesota on a dairy farm homesteaded by my great-great grandfather in 1870, when electric power was just being introduced in America. By the 1920s, most U.S. cities and towns had undergone electrification, but my family’s farm wasn’t electrified until 1940. 

Like many American farms, we finally got power because of the Rural Electrification Act, one of the New Deal Programs that sought to get America back on its feet after the Great Depression. Lights in the chicken coop were revolutionary because the chickens would keep laying eggs in the dark of winter. Electric milking machines meant that the cows were no longer milked by hand, reducing the burden of this twice-a-day task. Electrification made day-to-day farm work and housework easier. 

Like many, I left for “the city” after college. But unlike many, I eventually moved back. I settled onto my family’s farm and found a job with CURE (Clean Up the River Environment), a rural-based people’s organization focusing on climate, energy, water and democracy

CURE’s work addressed my concerns about rural life in the 21st century. What would happen to my community, and others like it, if we lacked the infrastructure required for people to live, work and play? For example, across the globe, the transition from gas-powered cars to electric vehicles (EVs) is well underway, but rural communities are being left behind again.

This summer has offered a scary glimpse into our climate future — the only climate my two young kids will ever know. The extreme weather has been consistent with some of the worst-case climate modeling from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s new report. To fight this, it’s imperative for the U.S. to move to a clean energy economy. If we don’t, 1-in-1000 year heat waves and record-breaking wildfires, hurricanes and floods will become the new normal.

The biggest source of climate pollution in Minnesota — and the U.S.— is cars and trucks. Transitioning to EVs for our daily driving is critical for both preventing the worst impacts of the climate crisis and for cleaning up our air. President Biden recently announced a goal for half of new vehicle sales in the U.S. to be electric by 2030. This is an exciting development for the climate, but hard to imagine for myself right now. The access to and overall cost of EVs are still both barriers for most Americans, and EV infrastructure is almost non-existent in rural areas.

To begin to make EVs more available and more affordable, there are policy options on the table right now, like Minnesota’s clean car standards, and the tax incentives and consumer rebates that could possibly become law through a new package of Congressional investments. But we still need serious financial and political support to build out EV infrastructure in rural America. I worry that healthy rural communities will not exist for my kids if our communities and economies are left behind because they lack basic EV infrastructure, like public charging. 

The Biden-Harris Administration prioritized federal funding for a national EV charging network through their “Build Back Better” agenda, and the Senate’s recently-passed bipartisan infrastructure proposal made that a partial reality with $7.5 billion in funding for EV charging infrastructure across the country — including $68 million for Minnesota. 

But that’s not enough on its own. We need the entirety of the Build Back Better agenda. We need more investments from Congress that provide enough funding to build up EV infrastructure and make electric vehicles affordable to all through consumer rebates and tax incentives. 

Rural places were some of the last to benefit from the monumental changes of the 20th century and must be included in the transition to an inclusive 21st century clean energy economy. We can’t afford to ignore the threat of our changing climate and our rural communities can’t afford to be left behind again. Everyone — especially rural places — need to be included.

Our stories may be republished online or in print under Creative Commons license CC BY-NC-ND 4.0. We ask that you edit only for style or to shorten, provide proper attribution and link to our web site. Please see our republishing guidelines for use of photos and graphics.

Anne Borgendale
Anne Borgendale

Anne Borgendale is the communications director of Clean Up the River Environment. She is also a cheesemaker.