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Can Solar Benefit Rural America's Economy?

In its heyday, the coal industry was the driving force behind rural communities across the nation. But as the fossil fuel’s popularity dwindles, so do the livelihoods of the towns dependent on it.

Look no further than the mining towns in Wyoming’s Powder River Basin. In areas like these, the coal industry touches nearly every aspect of the towns’ economies. As a result, when the plants announce layoffs or closures, they leave behind a broken and potentially impoverished community.

With the push for renewable energy and the rising tide of cheap natural gas, coal companies and the regions that depend on them are in a tight spot. As of 2015, the average U.S. coal company employed 65,971 people — a 12% decrease over previous years. And with coal consumption falling 13.1% in 2015, it doesn’t seem likely those jobs will be coming back.

The Renewable Revolution

It’s almost ironic that one of Big Coal’s main rivals — the renewable energy industry — may just be the force that saves rural America.

Take, for example, wind power facilities. Companies have paid out about $222 million a year to rural landowners for the use of their property. At least 70% of wind farms are in low-income areas and employ over 100,000 workers in 50 states.

These statistics make it clear that the wind power industry has started to fill the gaps left behind by coal. However, can rural areas benefit from growth in other renewable sectors, such as solar power?

Harnessing the Sun

Advances in solar cell technology make it an increasingly popular choice for homeowners and businesses alike. Especially since scientists have achieved 40% efficiency by utilizing solar cells. The Solar Energy Industries Association reports that the photovoltaic market grew 97% in 2015, and solar power represented 39% of the new electric capacity added to the U.S power grid.

This huge growth spurt makes it one of the fastest-growing energy industries, meaning that there’s a high demand for workers in all parts of the industry, from installers and engineers to sales and management.

Rural Growth Through Solar Power

Currently, the solar power industry employs 260,077 workers — up 24.5% from 2015 — and 51,000 of the jobs added were for newly created positions. Many of these positions are in rural areas, taking advantage of ample space and solar’s unique scalability.

Also on the rise are rural solar cooperatives, which invest in and support solar power, like the Tri-State Generation and Transmission Association. This association is a conglomerate of 44 coops from Wyoming, Colorado, Nebraska and New Mexico. Notably, Tri-State has partnered with First Solar, based in rural AZ, to develop a solar plant in New Mexico.

At its peak, the Cimarron solar facility employed over 300 workers to assist in the construction of the plant’s 500,000 solar modules. The plant takes maximum advantage of New Mexico’s plentiful sunlight, outputting 30MW to power 9,000 households.

Consumer Advantages

Beyond the jobs market, rural consumers also stand to gain from the advent of affordable solar technology. The cost of solar panels has been declining for some time, allowing more and more rural consumers to install them on their property.

Additionally, solar power systems have a long lifetime and reduce a family’s dependence on grid power, leading to money saved on power and heating costs. In rural areas, which naturally receive more sunlight, the savings are far more substantial. And because the cells don’t need much maintenance other than basic cleaning, a family will not have to invest much money after the initial installation.

As the coal industry declines, it’s left pockets of rural America in the lurch. But as concerns about climate change grow, renewable energy companies are swooping in to fill the void. Solar plants and installation companies bring the promise of new jobs, while decreased costs allow consumers to free themselves from their potentially costly grid power.

Overall, solar power has a lot to offer rural America, and the changes have only just begun.

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