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Renewable energy is seeping into small-town America

A small source of optimism.

barn and wind turbine (Shutterstock)

Climate change is a highly polarized and contentious issue. It has taken on great symbolic significance for both sides of America’s deep partisan divide. And if Donald Trump and the GOP actually follow through on what they’ve promised, federal climate policy may all but disappear.

Clean energy, however, is different. In public opinion polls, it is supported by virtually every demographic, region, and party.

What’s more, unlike the abstractions involved in climate, clean energy is real, tangible, and — perhaps most important of all — commercially viable. There are many things that divide Americans, but they are generally united on the benefits of making money.

Even as the (small and shrinking) number of coal jobs gets endless media attention, renewable energy has scaled up to become a serious employer in the US. And it’s happening in places far outside the usual blue urban enclaves — think solar in rural North Carolina or wind in Texas and Oklahoma.

As part of their fascinating American Futures project, the Atlantic’s James and Deborah Fallows have been flying around the country (in their Cirrus SR22), “taking seriously places that don’t usually get registered seriously.” They’ve been telling fascinating and optimistic stories about the way Americans, even as their national politics is awash in rancor and division, are coming together is practical, pragmatic ways to build better futures.

(Needless to say, this kind of sensible local progressivism will be more important than ever in the Trump era.)

Their latest episode is about the quiet renewable energy revolution happening in small places outside the national spotlight. Check it out:

It’s about wind turbines dotting the farms around Spearville, Kansas, a biodiesel refinery in Erie, Pennsylvania, solar on California’s Central Valley farms, and energy conservation in Fresno. Yes, Fresno.

These projects have nothing much in common except that they’re happening largely outside the media spotlight. And they are giving small-town residents pride in their contribution toward green jobs and greener energy. People who take that on as part of their identity become more open to further action. Someday they might even become open to seeing themselves as part of a larger struggle against climate change

I am pessimistic about a great many things, as regular readers know, but this trend is a source of optimism. Clean energy is going to seep into rural areas, where the Donald Trump voters live. It’s going to present an opportunity for economic development in places that badly need it. And as it spreads, it will gain cross-partisan legitimacy and economic clout, exerting bottom-up pressure on policymakers.

And that’s good, because there’s a lot policymakers can do, especially when it comes to encouraging distributed energy like rooftop solar panels, home batteries, and electric cars.

There’s a kind of grassroots populism to be built around distributed energy, a populism of pride, self-reliance, and rebuilding to offset the xenophobic populism that is currently ascendent. I’ll have more to say about that in a future post. For now, let’s just savor a little optimism where we can find it.