Making Room for Rural Solar Energy

We know that solar energy is on the rise in big cities like Los Angeles and Honolulu... but what does progress look like in the rural sector? Graham Marema of Environment America and Tim Marema of the Daily Yonder (known to some as “dad”) team up to tackle the question.

Sometimes you can tell solar energy’s story in numbers. As of 2020, the amount of solar power installed in just seven U.S. cities exceeded the amount installed in the whole country at the end of 2010. That year, Los Angeles led the country for most total solar capacity installed with a whopping 483.8 megawatts. If you’re a solar nerd, those are pretty exciting numbers. They come from Frontier Group and Environment America Research & Policy Center’s 2020 Shining Cities report highlighting the cities with the most solar energy in the country.

But if you take a look at the report, you might notice a trend. These shining cities appear in red states and blue, on the East Coast and in the West. They are coastal and inland -- but one thing that remains the same: They’re all large urban centers.

So what does this mean for rural residents?

When it comes to big cities, data about solar energy jumps right off the page, but that doesn’t mean it’s the only place that progress is happening. Rural energy is transitioning to clean technologies too, but it’s harder to tell that story in numbers. Instead, the “data” comes in the form of storytelling -- which is why I sat down to try and tell that story with the smartest (and closest) rural expert I could find: my dad.

My dad (known to others as Tim Marema, editor of the Daily Yonder) and I focused on one place in particular -- how the solar transition came to rural Eastern Kentucky. That area, where I was born, is what you might call “coal country.” Our home in Jeremiah was right next to the railroad tracks, where coal gons would come roaring by, loud enough to frighten me into playing inside. But around the time that the 2020 Shining Cities report, which celebrated solar success in such cities as San Diego and Albuquerque, was released, an organization called the Mountain Association reached out to us at Environment America.

Whitesburg, Ky., near our home in Jeremiah, in 1993

The Mountain Association is a nonprofit that supports businesses and organizations in the coalfields of Eastern Kentucky with energy savings projects. They wanted to let us know that a grocery store run by Gwen Christon in the small town Isom, Ky. had just installed solar, meaning the unincorporated community of about 500 households now had 419 solar panels.

It wasn’t the numbers that caught my attention about this project -- it was that this grocery store was a 15-minute drive from our house by the railroad tracks in Kentucky.

When I brought this up to my dad, it quickly became evident that this was only one character in a larger feel-good drama playing out in the area. He pointed out that the Mountain Association had also helped with a solar project for Breeding’s Plumbing & Electric, a local business we frequented when we lived in Kentucky, especially when my dad was redoing our bathroom. Tim Breeding, who ran the business with his family, also installed solar on his truck parts business.

That might sound like small potatoes compared to the numbers coming out of cities like Los Angeles’s -- until you consider the context. In this small corner of Kentucky there isn’t another grocery store within miles and, back when we lived there, Breeding’s Plumbing & Electric was the only nearby place my dad could find the right parts for our bathroom. Within Isom -- a community that sits in the heart of coal country -- the percentage of pivotal, local businesses being powered by the sun is much higher than I had ever assumed.

As my dad and I spoke, the story continued to unfold on a regional scale. Appalshop, a media, arts and education center located in Whitesburg, Ky., where my parents used to work, installed 192 solar panels on their roof, making it the largest net-metered solar project in the state. Even the Kentucky Coal Museum, about a 40-minute drive away, made the switch to solar in 2017 to cut down on costs -- a powerful symbol that you can be proud of the work you or your family have done in the coal industry and still embrace the clean renewable energy technologies of today.

Me (Lil Sip) and my dad (Cuppa Joe) along with my brother (Cuppa Milk) and my mom (Cuppa Tea) doing some family radio DJing while my parents were working at Appalshop in the 90s.

Energy is changing in rural America -- from wind turbines sweeping across the Great Plains to solar panels appearing on rooftops in coal country. It’s redefining the story of extractive energy traditions in those regions, and it’s bringing the benefits of clean, pollution-free power to communities across the nation.

It’s not as easy to pin that kind of progress on a map the way we did with our Shining Cities report. But you can paint a picture of these rural pockets using local stories. They highlight how communities and people like me, my dad, Tim Breeding, Gwen Christon and others are affected by these projects. When you step back, it’s clear that the impact of solar energy in these areas is just as significant as those living in a shining city.

Painting that picture is exactly what I tried to do in creating this video with my dad, “A Conversation about Rural Solar,” so take a look if you’d like the hear the full story (and hear my dad embarrass me in front of all of my coworkers).