How A New Deal Legacy Is Building Clean Energy In Rural North Carolina : Short Wave In North Carolina, a rural electric cooperative is reliving its New Deal history, bringing technologies like fast Internet and clean, low-carbon heating to communities that some have abandoned.
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How A New Deal Legacy Is Building Clean Energy In Rural North Carolina

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How A New Deal Legacy Is Building Clean Energy In Rural North Carolina

How A New Deal Legacy Is Building Clean Energy In Rural North Carolina

How A New Deal Legacy Is Building Clean Energy In Rural North Carolina

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  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/978884296/979369763" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
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The countryside around Ahoskie, North Carolina, is dotted with old family cemeteries. The population of this area has been declining. Dan Charles/NPR hide caption

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Dan Charles/NPR

The world stands on the cusp of a massive shift from fossil fuels to clean electricity, but many are worried that the transition won't be fair. Already, electric cars and efficient heating technologies are showing up disproportionately in wealthy neighborhoods.

The U.S. faced a very similar problem almost a century ago with electricity, the energy revolution of that time. Most cities had been electrified by the 1930s, but many rural areas had not, because private electric companies saw little profit in string wires down lonely country roads.

REA (Rural Electrification Administration) line going to a home in Caswell County, North Carolina Marion Post Wolcott/ Library of Congress hide caption

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Marion Post Wolcott/ Library of Congress

"We wanted to have electricity, but it was not available," recalled Alvin Morrison, a farmer in central North Carolina. He recounted his experience in 1984 for an oral history of rural electrification.

A small town seven miles away had electricity, so three men from Morrison's community went to talk to the electric company there, called Duke Power. The company offered to extend their power lines out to a main road close to some of the farmers. According to Morrison, the delegation then asked Duke's executives, " 'Will you serve the entire community?' They said, 'No.' And the wealthy farmers living on the road, who could have gotten it, would not accept it. They said, 'If you don't serve the entire community, we won't have it.' "

Instead, Morrison and his neighbors voted for something new, called a rural electric cooperative, owned by its members and jump-started with loans from a newly created federal agency.

The cooperative brought power lines. Electric lights, radios, and indoor plumbing soon followed. "It's almost indescribable," Morrison said, recalling the moment when electricity arrived. "It gave us new visions into what we thought we could do. What we would be able to do."

Hundreds of rural electric cooperatives still exist. They serve a majority of the country, measured in square miles. Those areas are often sparsely populated.

Curtis Wynn, president and CEO of Roanoke Electric Cooperative, wants to repeat history, and bring the clean energy revolution to Roanoke's service area, a part of northeastern North Carolina where main streets sometimes are lined with empty storefronts and twenty percent of the people earn less than the poverty level.

Curtis Wynn, president and CEO of Roanoke Electric Cooperative, with a bi-directional charger that can use electricity from an electric vehicle's battery to power a building. Dan Charles/NPR hide caption

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Dan Charles/NPR

Curtis Wynn, president and CEO of Roanoke Electric Cooperative, with a bi-directional charger that can use electricity from an electric vehicle's battery to power a building.

Dan Charles/NPR

When Wynn was named president and CEO of Roanoke Electric in 1997, he was the first African-American leader of a rural electric cooperative anywhere in the country. He says he's trying to dispel a myth. "The myth is, that an electric vehicle, or a high-efficiency heat pump, or LEDs, that that's not something a low or moderate income family should have," he says.

In fact, he says, lower utility bills are even more important for people who are scraping by. And if they don't catch the wave of clean technology now, they'll be stuck with dirty, energy-wasting, and ultimately more expensive technology down the road.

In the parking lot of the cooperative's headquarters outside the town of Ahoskie, there's a Nissan Leaf, hooked up to a special "bidirectional" charger made by a company called Fermata Energy. It can send power both ways, either to charge the vehicle's battery or to use that battery to power Roanoke Electric's headquarters.

A lineman adjusts the top wire of a rural electrification project during the 1930s. Library of Congress hide caption

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Library of Congress

Wynn says he could imagine a fleet of electric buses hooked up this way, serving as a reservoir of electricity, storing the power when it's abundant — for instance, when the sun is shining on solar farms — and releasing it when it's in short supply. "We're looking ahead to the day when we would be able to draw on that power," he says.

Roanoke Electric also is paying for energy-saving upgrades in its members' homes. In Calvin Bond's double-wide mobile home, the cooperative sealed air leaks and replaced an old air conditioning unit and propane furnace with a highly efficient heat pump.

The upgrades have cut his bills so much that Bond can split the savings with Roanoke Electric and they both come out ahead. "I really don't see how they're making [money]," Bond says, smiling. "It's really benefiting me more than I can see it benefiting them."

The cooperative is also stringing new wires to connect its members to fast, fiber-optic Internet service. "No one wanted to do it then, and nobody seems to want to do it now," Wynn says. "So here we are again!"

Calvin Bond, in Windsor, North Carolina, took advantage of Roanoke Electric's free energy upgrades and cut his utility bills. Dan Charles/NPR hide caption

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Dan Charles/NPR

When Curtis Wynn talks about these initiatives, he usually emphasizes the money they save. But these technologies — heat pumps, electric cars, and broadband Internet that allows utilities to control its customers' demand for power, and not just supply — also are key elements of most national plans for getting off fossil fuels and fighting climate change.

"It's not easy," Wynn says. "But I imagine it wasn't easy to string those first wires, either. If we have the same principles and the same mission as we had in the 1930s, we should not expect it to be easy."

This episode was produced by Rebecca Ramirez, edited by Gisele Grayson, and fact-checked by Rasha Aridi. Marcia Caldwell was the audio engineer. Special thanks to Conor Harrison and Holmes Hummel for their help with this episode.