Renewable energy investments not only benefit the environment, they are also essential for economic growth. Most renewable investments are done through tax credits, and in late 2015, a bill titled American Clean Energy Investment Act (S.2391) was introduced in the Senate in order to extend state tax credits through 2020, citing tremendous effect clean energy investments have on poor and rural communities. While the bill initially gained bipartisan support, it stalled as the attention of lawmakers quickly shifted elsewhere, highlighting once more the marginalization of clean energy as a vehicle for economic development.
Yet renewable energy holds the greatest potential for economic growth for distressed rural communities. As many states across America gradually lose their manufacturing and agricultural jobs, rural areas in particular need to find different industries to develop. With cheap land available across many states and counties, North Carolina is a great showcase of how investment into solar industry continues to be a strategy for economic stability in the 21st century.
In 2007, North Carolina became the first state in the South to adopt a renewable energy and efficiency standard, which led to a strong commitment to renewable energy, especially solar energy, for the energy needs of the state. And the commitment has paid off big time. North Carolina spent $135 million on clean energy incentives between 2009 and 2013, which generated $2.67 billion in investments, and continued private investment is expected to generate an additional $8.1 billion over the next 10 years. Between 2012 and 2013, North Carolina’s also saw solar industry employment grow 10 times faster than the national average, and the industry now employs over 3,000 residents.
North Carolina’s rural counties saw the bulk of this investment, with Catawba, Davidson, Duplin, Person, Robeson, and Wayne Counties, getting more than $100 million each. The state now has 150 utility-scale solar facilities, with 60 of them in rural counties. These facilities provide jobs, local tax revenue, and generate income for farmers and landowners who lease some of their property to a solar farm. This kind of economic activity is essential for rural communities that have struggled to find their footing in the wake of the recession.
North Carolina’s strength in solar has also attracted companies with energy-intensive data centers, as they see the state and its rural communities as an environmentally friendly and progressive place to do business. American Express chose North Carolina for a $400 million data center because of the state’s robust clean energy policy, and Apple built the largest privately owned solar facility in the nation at its data center in Maiden.
While indicators predict that the sector will continue to generate an average of $523 million in annual revenue from 2017 to 2023, there is a serious concern that clean energy investments will slow down without sufficient federal tax credits under the Trump administration. By overlooking and marginalizing continued investments in renewable energy, success stories like North Carolina will become less common across the economic development landscape.