Report charts pathway for rural clean energy

By Roz Brown, Public News Service (IA)

Rural electric cooperatives serve more than 40 million people, including 650,000 in Iowa, and a new report says many co-ops could save their customers money by retiring existing coal plants in favor of renewable-energy sources.

The report was authored by the Center for Rural Affairs, We Own It and Clean Up the River Environment (CURE). Erik Hatlestad, program director for CURE, said U.S. wind capacity is expected to grow by 6% in 2019 and solar capacity by 14% - big increases aimed at reducing greenhouse-gas emissions that accelerate climate change.

"We've seen a big shift across the country towards prioritizing clean energy," he said, "largely because of the massive decline in price."

The report said rural Americans typically pay more for utilities than do urban dwellers. For years, electric cooperatives have argued the costs of transitioning to clean energy have been too high for them to move forward, acknowledging long-term contracts with coal suppliers and significant debt.

While Hatlestad said a transition away from coal to cleaner energy won't be cheap, research shows it will cost more to continue operating coal plants. 

"But it's going to require tremendous amount of the public will," he said, "and a shift in priorities to options that are statistically proven to be more affordable and to offer more opportunities for local communities."

Study co-author Liz Veazey, network director of We Own It, an Omaha-based nonprofit representing co-op customers, said rural cooperatives derive 67% to 75% of their energy from fossil fuels. She said co-op members aren't just customers - they're owners, and can make their voices heard if they want a shift to cleaner energy. 

"Sadly, most of the more than 40 million member owners of electric co-ops in the United States don't know that they're member owners," she said, "so there's a huge opportunity for co-ops to help engage their member owners."

Iowa is home to 45 rural electric cooperatives, more than 130 municipal utilities and two investor-owned utility providers. 

The report is online at