Weather, football and local renewable energy

March 1, 2017

There’s no question that a political conversation nowadays with someone who holds an opposing view can be hard, often just too hard.

A story this year about the politically divided town of Lime Ridge, Wisconsin said that to avoid problems residents there steer conversation away from anything politicized, and talk instead about “the Packers, the fickle weather, the best kind of feed for Black Angus cattle.” That might be taken as unfortunate, but here’s the glass-half-full view: people from “divided America” talk with each other.

I’m a Green Bay Packers fan (I grew up in Wisconsin), but the NFL season is over and so I’m thinking another topic is needed for Lime Ridge and other places where Democrat meets Republican, or rural resident meets urban, or heartland family meets coastal. Here’s a suggestion: local renewable energy.

I know what you’re thinking: “clean energy” is no “cattle feed” or “sports talk” substitute – it’s geeky and politicized, right? Geeky, okay. But it’s not at all polarizing if you trust the polls. And I’d suggest especially not when it’s discussed in terms of “locally-generated energy from sources like solar and wind that support local communities and economies.”

Around the country, there are now some 100 rural electric cooperatives in 29 states that have led the way on local community-scale solar installations, their projects accounting for more than 70 percent of all utility-sponsored community solar projects so far. That’s helpful data, but in keeping with my colleague Nicole Lampe’s recent advice that “numbers numb and stories stick,” let’s switch to stories.

Last fall, I started aggregating stories about solar, wind and energy efficiency access in the rural electric co-op sector, and today they make for quite an online poster about the values at heart:

“We need to use what God gave us. It’s going to save us money in the long run.” That’s southern Oklahoma resident Paul Riley talking about a new community scale solar array built by his rural electric co-op.

“The beauty of this entire project is that it’s also helping our local economy.” That’s the manager of the rural electric co-op in the town of Paulding in northwestern Ohio, reflecting on the fact that a local company won the contract to make the racking systems for community solar installations by 24 co-ops in the state.

“We can use that money for investing in our cattle farm.” That’s Kassy Starr from Sparkman, Arkansas (she lives 30 miles from the nearest grocery store). Kassy is explaining what she and her husband will do with savings they’re netting from home energy efficiency upgrades made possible through an innovative “on-bill financing” program from her electric co-op.

“A secret weapon toward retirement costs.” That’s business owner Jane Anderson in Hawley, Minnesota, not far from the North Dakota border, describing the financial savings to come from her decision to invest in solar panels instead of a new pickup truck.

“It’s great for the community because it brings a tax base to the community that adds directly to their tax revenue over time.” That’s what a project manager for community-owned wind turbines in Iowa had to say about the benefits of that approach. The turbines hook into Farmers Electric Cooperative substations.

You can access all those articles from here, as well as others from Kansas, Kentucky, Indiana, New Mexico, Montana, South Carolina, Colorado and more. Together they reveal pretty sure-bet themes no matter whom you’re speaking with: ways to save money; making investments in a home or business; keeping energy dollars local; supporting local economies and jobs; access to latest technology.

Those values steer clean energy or climate solutions conversation across most any divide, and easy divide-bridging conversations may also help lay groundwork to support communication about a tougher topic next. Check out this recent piece on Slate about facts, emotions and conversing strategically about topics like the Muslim ban.

Oh, and what about Wisconsin, where it’s going to be offseason for the Packers for another five months? Well, the Dairy State is coming off its most active year for solar development, about five times as much as the year prior, driven in large part by a series of community scale solar arrays built across the western part of the state by the Dairyland Power Cooperative.

More homegrown power instead of spending hard-earned electric bill dollars for fuel from out-of-state? Sure sounds like something to get behind in addition to the Pack.

Jeff Cappella