Ecology + Justice + Culture in the American South

Reckoning with renewables, mystery pests, & the Georgia GOP

When Southern states make some sort of energy progress, like new stats showing high numbers of employment and job creation from renewable energy, or the completion of a large solar or wind farm, the stories that follow are usually predictable. If the subject is covered at all, it’s either in the context of how slow things always are in the South or how ironic it is that there’s change in a region that symbolizes reluctance.

Often, local news outlets can offer more insight into the nuances of these energy politics. Newspaper stories from cities or rural areas dig into why one utility behemoth charges high rates for rooftop solar, or the contradictory statements by the local public service commission, or how local communities are pushing back on laws prohibiting renewable energy development. But when it comes to national reporting, the typical narrative about the lack of progress persists. Instead of diving into those energy politics or economics by state, the South is lumped together as a region that just can’t move forward because voters keep electing climate change deniers and politicians who are in the pocket of the fossil fuel industry.

During the past few weeks, I researched and wrote several stories about renewable energy in the South, attempting to dissect a piece of that narrative, to illustrate that it isn’t that simple. I wrote about how Alabama lags far behind the rest of the regionwhen it comes to solar energy installation, and why that’s mainly because Alabama Power makes it difficult for residents to make the switch — not for a lack of interest from customers. In North Carolina, a massive wind farm could shift the region toward better opportunities for wind energy installations. Despite continued resistance from legislators — which is what headlines focused on — the project had widespread support from local communities, the military, and organizations throughout the state.

Finding the undercurrents to these energy stories is only becoming more important. As wind and solar prices drop and technology improves, states are seeing tangible economic benefits, so it’s not far-fetched that they’re suddenly switching gears. There is no question that in the South there are prohibitive laws, a reluctance to accept the basic facts of climate change, and an undying attachment to the fossil fuel industry. But despite that, many Southern state and local governments, organizations, and communities are excited about the prospect of more jobs, cleaner energy, and new industries — and that’s transcending the rural/urban and conservative/liberal divide. Most of the time, no one reports that story.

The Kentucky Coal Museum in Harlan County recently announced it was making the switch to rooftop solar to cut down on its electricity bills. This news was reported far and wide, a seemingly hilarious, ironic twist to the long, tragic plight of rural coal mining towns. I searched for details about the museum’s long history and significance, or how local advocates have been pushing for it to transition to solar for many years. But there was hardly a mention.

This region, perhaps more than any other, will forever have to reckon with its history and its choices — but when it begins to, it deserves more than a mocking headline.

Stories worth your time

Writer Rahawa Haile hiked the Appalachian Trail during the height of the 2016 presidential election. In an essay for Outside Magazine, she reflects on what it was like as a woman of color to spend time on the trail and in the surrounding towns, and why she’s still struggling with what she encountered.

This week, American Rivers put out its annual list of endangered rivers, and several Southern waterways made the list. Number four was Mobile Bay Rivers in Alabama, Georgia, and Mississippi, which are threatened by poor water management; number five was the Rappahannock River in Virginia, which is in danger from fracking; number seven was the Neuse and Cape Fear Rivers in North Carolina, which are polluted by hog and chicken farms; and number nine was the Buffalo National River in Arkansas, which is also threatened by a massive hog farm.

In the Mississippi River Delta, a foreign pest is destroying the roseau cane, a wetland grass that’s vital to the health of the Louisiana coast because it “serves as a living, growing bulwark against land loss.” According to the Times-Picayune, tens of thousands of acres have died off since last fall, and no one is really sure why. They also have no idea how to stop it.

News flying under the radar 

In Outer Banks, North Carolina, residents are bracing for funding cuts to coastal programs. Advocates say there isn’t enough awareness about how critical that money is, since many of the coastal properties are owned by people who live inland or out of state.

Florida’s wildfire season has gone from bad to worse. The governor declared a state of emergency from the raging fires, which have already burned nearly 80,000 acres this year, and more than 100 fires are still active. About 90 percent of them were human-caused, but unusually dry conditions allowed them to spread faster.

In Atlanta, the GOP is split over the issue of climate change just in time for an upcoming special election. Bob Gray, a conservative who has aligned himself with Donald Trump in the past, said there needs to be a national approach to staving off climate change, rather than leaving it up to the states like the other Republican candidates want. People are waiting with bated breath for the results, since this election is seen as a way to gauge the president’s popularity.

That’s all for this week. Thanks for reading!