Opinion

There Are No Red Counties or Blue Counties, Only Solar Counties

America’s modern politics are more divided than ever. President Joe Biden may have won a greater share of the popular vote than any challenger since the Great Depression, but Democrats and Republicans are farther apart than liberal and conservative voters in more than a dozen developed nations.

In this political climate, virtually any issue can seem either red or blue — not least in energy. Investments in renewable energy like solar are regularly treated by media outlets, political pundits and politicians as a solely Democratic priority.

This couldn’t be further from the truth. The best opportunities for solar energy development — and the economic development and jobs such projects bring — aren’t just along America’s traditionally “blue” coasts, but in deep-red counties across the country. These are places such as Nolan County, TexasKern County, Calif., and Lea County, N.M. — counties long reliant on fossil fuel extraction that are increasingly taking advantage of abundant sunshine to generate well-paying jobs and significant economic benefits from tax revenues and direct contributions to local schools and first responders, as well as from construction-related infusions for local gas stations, restaurants and other small businesses.

One key reason for this shift transcends political ideology: Solar is simply better on both cost and reliability. Thanks to recent efficiency and manufacturing advancements, the levelized cost of utility-scale solar paired with battery storage has dropped by half in just the last two years, making it the lowest cost of new generation, even compared to natural gas. This ultimately makes power cheaper for the end-consumer – something red and blue folks can happily agree on as a good thing.

And what may come as a shock to both Democrats and Republicans is that solar-plus-storage is more reliable and responsive than natural gas-fired power plants. These modern solar plants offer firm power at more than 99 percent reliability, compared to just 80-85 percent for gas plants, and can come online in a fraction of a second, making the grid more stable and resilient than today.

This is a game-changer with the potential to drive billions of dollars into rural America. Aging coal-fired plants in New Mexico, Arizona and West Virginia, for example, are set to be replaced with utility-scale solar plants, most with energy storage. Better yet, in Utah, regional players are laying out a vision for how a retiring coal plant will be retrofitted with gas turbines that will run on (an increasing amount of) green, clean-burning hydrogen produced with low-cost renewables. The green hydrogen can be stored underground for months or even years and be called on to supply industries and electric grids as far away as Los Angeles.

All these projects promise to bring crucial economic development to their regions, including the Navajo Nation in the Southwest, plus tens of millions of dollars in tax revenue for schools, infrastructure, and other initiatives. Critically, states, counties and public utilities are designing new economic development and job-creation strategies built entirely around clean energy.

And there’s good reason for that: Before the pandemic, clean energy industries already employed three times more workers than fossil fuels, with solar and wind offering higher average wages than jobs related to coal and natural gas. Looking forward, creating a majority clean electric grid over the next decade could create upwards of 800,000 direct American jobs in construction and technician roles, with average salaries between $60,000 to $110,000 per year.

The bottom line is that there are expansive opportunities for solar development far from big, blue cities in places with abundant sunshine, especially those with existing grid infrastructure or an energy-savvy workforce. These developments demonstrate just a sliver of the economic investment, job creation and reliable renewable electricity that can be readily deployed and produced across the United States, including — or perhaps especially — in traditionally red counties that depended for decades on fossil fuels for jobs and revenue.

Solar — and now solar-plus-storage — is an economic driver, one readily harnessed by policymakers at every level, and ready to fuel robust economic growth for every community, rural or urban, red or blue or purple. That’s something that voters across both parties can get behind.

 

Tom Buttgenbach is CEO of 8minute Solar Energy.

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