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

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MADDIE SOFIA, BYLINE: You're listening to SHORT WAVE from NPR.

EMILY KWONG, HOST:

Hey, everybody. Emily Kwong here with NPR's food and agriculture correspondent, Dan Charles. Hello, Dan.

DAN CHARLES, BYLINE: Hi, Emily.

KWONG: Hey. So what do you have for us today?

CHARLES: Emily, I was thinking the other day about these massive changes that people are talking about to stop climate change.

KWONG: Like all of us driving electric cars and stuff.

CHARLES: Yeah. And homes going all electric, too, like we talked about the last time I was on your show. And then to generate all this clean electricity, a truly gigantic expansion in wind and solar power.

KWONG: I like your ambition, Dan. Like, I'm imagining solar panels covering suburban parking lots, giant wind turbines in the ocean, off the coasts, that kind of stuff.

CHARLES: Right. And I was thinking, the places where you hear about this happening often are places with money, like, you know, where are the most electric cars getting sold? Silicon Valley, Seattle.

KWONG: Yeah, they can get kind of pricey.

CHARLES: And that is why a lot of people are worried that this energy revolution won't be fair, you know, that rich people will get their clean energy and the poor will get left behind. And then I came across something, a snippet of history and a very similar situation almost a century ago. Let me play you some audio that I found in an oral history collection.

KWONG: Cool. All right.

CHARLES: It's a man named Alvin Morrison in 1984 telling a story about when he was a young man, just married, farming in North Carolina in the 1930s.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

ALVIN MORRISON: We wanted to have electricity, but it was not available.

KWONG: Yeah, that's a huge problem. And this is the energy revolution of the early 20th century we're talking about. Like, cities started getting electric lights installed in 1900-ish and it just took off.

CHARLES: Right. But that revolution wasn't fair either. Cities got their electricity, and most people in rural areas did not. So Alvin Morrison got involved in solving this problem and the effort succeeded, although there was some opposition, apparently.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

MORRISON: A businessman said to me - he said, what you're doing is socialism. And I replied, if it is socialism, it is good socialism. And I like it.

KWONG: Love it. He knew where he stood, you know?

CHARLES: Right. And you know what, Emily? The solution they came up with back then, it's still around, and it is back in action trying to make sure those same communities get to ride the wave of new technology today.

KWONG: So for this episode, we're going to talk about technological inclusion a century ago and now and why it matters in the fight against climate change. This is SHORT WAVE from NPR.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

KWONG: So, Dan Charles, let's pick up where we left off with the story you were telling me about Alvin Morrison and the energy revolution of the early 20th century. So what exactly happened in his town to get electricity back in the 1930s?

CHARLES: It's interesting. There was a small town seven miles away that had electricity.

KWONG: OK.

CHARLES: So three people from Morrison's community went to talk to the electric company there. It was called Duke Power. And the company's executives told them they could extend their power lines out to a main road close to some of the farmers. But then the delegation had this question.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

MORRISON: And they ask them, 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. They said if you don't serve the entire community, we won't have it.

KWONG: That's fascinating. So the wealthy farmers went to bat for their neighbors.

CHARLES: Yeah, they did. The company probably wouldn't do it because they felt like it was too expensive to string wires out to rural areas, and there weren't enough customers to make it worthwhile. But as it happened, at that moment, Morrison and his neighbors had this new option. President Franklin D. Roosevelt had proclaimed a New Deal.

KWONG: I remember it from high school history class. Thank you, Mr. Patrick (ph).

CHARLES: One big part of the New Deal was cheap loans for these new institutions called rural electric cooperatives owned by their members. Each member paid a share of the cost of running those wires, paying off the loans. So Morrison and his neighbors formed one of those cooperatives. They brought in power lines, and it changed everything. They got electric lights, indoor plumbing. People got more radios, Emily.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

MORRISON: It's almost indescribable, but it just gave us new visions into what we thought we could do, what we would be able to do.

KWONG: Dan, hearing the origin story of these rural electric cooperatives is really cool. And you said this was a big part of the New Deal. So it must have been happening more places than just North Carolina, right?

CHARLES: Yeah, it was happening all over the country. Hundreds of rural electric cooperatives were formed, and they are still around. If you look at a map of the United States, in just over half of the land area, people get their power from an electric cooperative.

KWONG: But like you said, these are sparsely populated, often rural areas. So you're telling me that these areas today are facing some of the same challenges that people living in rural areas did in the 1930s, yeah?

CHARLES: Yeah. I recently took a trip to one of those places, a part of eastern North Carolina, right by the border with Virginia, Halifax County, Bertie County. It feels honestly a little left behind. The small towns have main streets with a lot of empty storefronts. Twenty percent of the people here earn less than the poverty level. And the people here get their electricity from one of these rural electric cooperatives, Roanoke Electric. And the man who runs it, Curtis Wynn, wants to repeat that century-old story and build tomorrow's low-carbon energy future right there. He wants to demolish a myth.

CURTIS WYNN: The myth is that an electric vehicle or a high-efficiency rated heat pump or LEDs, that's not something that low and moderate-income families should have.

KWONG: Dan, is this in part why you wanted to look at this cooperative specifically in this part of the country?

CHARLES: Yeah, absolutely. I had been wondering what rural cooperatives were doing these days, like how they were dealing with climate change or getting ready for the big energy transition. And when I started calling around asking questions, several people told me, you should check out what Curtis Wynn is doing. You know, he's bringing in energy-saving technologies - electric cars, even high-speed Internet. And that's why I went. I mean, he is an interesting guy. He grew up in a little town in the panhandle of Florida, very rural area. Loved sports as a teenager, did not love his job cleaning up big silos built for storing peanuts.

WYNN: The dust was so thick that you could probably not see the person in front of you and come out and your mask was sticking to your face from the sweat.

KWONG: Let me guess - he found a job with the local rural electric co-op instead.

CHARLES: He did. And a supervisor there encouraged him to go to college. He went back to work for electric co-ops. Twenty-four years ago, he took over as president and CEO of Roanoke Electric. At that time, he was the first African American to run a rural electric cooperative anywhere in the country. And he says that is when he really started thinking about the co-op's mission, you know, and that history and the founding ideals. He gave an interesting speech a couple years ago when he became president of the National Rural Electric Cooperative Association.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

WYNN: We have no other choice. We have to be more than an electric company that collects from people who can barely pay their bills.

KWONG: Yeah, I hear that. But, Dan, what does the activity of this co-op have to do with big-picture, scary climate change?

CHARLES: That was my question when I went to visit. And Curtis Wynn took me on a little walking tour, first out to the parking lot. It was full of cars.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

WYNN: I can see a day when this co-op will have - almost every vehicle here would be an electric vehicle.

CHARLES: There was just one electric car there at the moment, a Nissan Leaf, and it was hooked up to a special kind of charger that can send power both ways. It can charge the battery, or it can use the battery to power Roanoke's headquarters.

KWONG: Oh, I see. So the idea is that if everybody has an electric car someday, that's a huge amount of storage capacity, and maybe you could use these cars to store electricity when you have too much of it, like in the future when the sun is shining and then release that electricity when it's needed, when the sun goes down.

CHARLES: Exactly, exactly. This is just an experiment right now, but Curtis Wynn was saying he could imagine a fleet of electric buses hooked up this way.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

WYNN: So we're looking ahead to the day that we will be able to draw on that power.

CHARLES: Pretty cutting-edge stuff here in...

WYNN: Ahoskie, N.C. Yes, sir. Yeah.

KWONG: (Laughter).

CHARLES: And then he took me into the warehouse next door and showed me racks of equipment for connecting homes to high-speed fiber-optic Internet, which people here apparently haven't been able to get. He said it's just like the 1930s, you know, stringing wires to people who need them.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

WYNN: No one else would do it then, and no one else seems to want to do it now. And we're - here we are again.

KWONG: It's super interesting that an electric cooperative is getting into the Internet business.

CHARLES: Yeah. It's partly just because the co-op members really want it, but it could also be important for managing electricity. Like, if a utility is relying in the future on power sources that it can't exactly control, like wind and solar, it's going to be looking for ways to control the demand side of that supply-demand equation - you know, maybe turning car chargers on and off or home water heaters. And that is going to take good Internet.

And I checked out one more big initiative that Roanoke has going. I visited one of the co-op's customers/owners named Calvin Bond. He was moving into a double-wide mobile home on a gravel road outside the town of Windsor.

CALVIN BOND: I've owned it for years, yeah. And I was renting it out, and now I'm moving back in.

CHARLES: Roanoke Electric just paid for a bunch of upgrades in this house, which Calvin Bond showed me.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

BOND: They replaced all of the lightbulbs with energy-efficient bulbs.

CHARLES: Yeah, the LEDs. Yeah.

BOND: Yes. Yes, all of those bulbs have been replaced.

CHARLES: He told me his electric bill used to get up to $500 a month and then hundreds more for the propane heating in the winter.

KWONG: Yeah.

CHARLES: But not anymore.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

BOND: So everything underneath the house has been replaced - new ductwork, new crossovers and this nice, new unit here.

CHARLES: So this is the heat pump.

BOND: Yes.

CHARLES: So this is now your heating and your cooling.

BOND: Heating and cooling, yes.

CHARLES: It's cutting his bill so much he can split the savings with Roanoke Electric, and they both come out ahead.

KWONG: So it's a money-saving thing and a climate-saving thing.

CHARLES: Yeah. You know, all of these things - the heat pumps, the electric cars, the fast Internet - they are part of most plans for getting off fossil fuels, you know, fighting climate change. Curtis Wynn says he is building that low-carbon future.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

WYNN: Yes, that's exactly what we're doing because it's a sustainable model, and it has - above all, it has an inclusive component to it.

KWONG: Yeah, the inclusivity part of this is what's key. Like, we can invent green technology until the cows come home, but it doesn't matter if it's not widely implemented and can make an actual dent in our carbon footprint.

CHARLES: And it's also so places like eastern North Carolina don't get left behind...

KWONG: Yeah.

CHARLES: You know, get stuck with yesterday's technology - the dirty, energy-wasting technology. So it's heat pumps and clean energy for everybody, Emily, just like in the 1930s it was electricity for everybody. I think it's no accident that people pushing for, you know, really aggressive climate action these days are calling it a Green New Deal.

KWONG: Yeah. So, Dan, I am an optimist, but I am a practical optimist. How hard is it going to be to repeat history and embark on a 21st century energy revolution?

CHARLES: Yeah, it is hard. For instance, Roanoke doesn't really control where it gets its power. It buys it from bigger companies which run the power plants. And right now it's mostly nuclear and gas. Also, about 40% of all the cooperative members who get in touch with Roanoke asking about those home upgrades...

KWONG: Yeah.

CHARLES: ...Can't take full advantage of the program because their homes have problems like leaking roofs or clogged septic systems that have to be fixed first. The cooperative's trying to raise money to help those members.

WYNN: Yeah, it's not easy. But I imagine it wasn't easy to string those first wires, either. If we still have the same principles and the same mission that we had in the '30s, we should not expect it to be easy.

CHARLES: They're just going to keep working at it.

KWONG: Well, I wish them the best of luck. It's a big undertaking but will make a big difference one day.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

KWONG: All right. Thank you, Dan, so much for this reporting and bringing it on SHORT WAVE. We really, really appreciate it.

CHARLES: Happy to be here.

KWONG: This episode was produced by Rebecca Ramirez, edited by Gisele Grayson and fact-checked by Rasha Aridi. The audio engineer for this episode was Marcia Caldwell.

CHARLES: I'd like to thank Conor Harrison and Holmes Hummel for their help with this episode.

KWONG: I'm Emily Kwong.

CHARLES: And I'm Dan Charles.

KWONG: And thank you for listening to SHORT WAVE, the daily science podcast from NPR.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

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