Rural Texas is generally not a place where we look for advice, but perhaps it should be.
A recent commentary in The Amarillo Globe-News caught our eye because the problems it describes sound so similar to the ones we find in rural Virginia. The writer bemoans the population exodus from rural counties as the economy finds more and more reasons to create jobs in metro areas and fewer reasons to create them in rural communities.
“That rural exodus has come at a cost,” the writer says. “As people have moved away to the urban areas, the lifeblood of many smaller Texas communities has been eroded. Fewer residents mean a shrinking tax base to pay for roads, schools, law enforcement, first responders, and sometimes even the local hospital or community college.
“When a community loses its hospital, school, or grocery store, not only does it lose the physical building, but part of the community’s history is forever lost – not to mention their future.”
All that sounds exactly like what has happened across much of Southside and Southwest Virginia. Then the writer comes to its proposed solution: renewable energy.
The writer points out that Texas is now the nation’s top producer of wind energy – and ranks fourth for solar energy production. However, what the writer really emphasizes is how much tax revenue that has meant for rural Texas in the form of taxes on wind farms and solar farms.“
So what kind of liberal tree-hugger is pushing this green energy agenda (although in rural Texas, it might be more of a sagebrush-hugger)? None at all, actually. The writer was John Davis, who for 16 years was a Republican state legislator in Texas. And a pretty darned conservative one, too. He got an A-rating from the National Rifle Association, once got an 84% favorable rating from Phyliss Schlafy’s Eagle Forum. He voted to return corporal punishment to schools. He voted for bills that LGBT organizations considered hostile. He voted for drug testing those receiving unemployment benefits. The point being: He sure seems a pretty hard-core conservative, right? Yet he’s also gained the nick name of “the energy rancher” for his support of renewable energy.
And therein lies a lesson for rural Virginia – and the conservative politicians who represent it. The point isn’t that we should be completely dependent on wind energy; some of those turbines infamously froze during the recent polar vortex (so did conventional fossil fuel plants). Instead, the point is you can be both a conservative and a renewable energy advocate. More importantly, renewable energy can be a way to help build a new economy in rural communities.
Davis sits on the advisory board of a group called Conservative Texans for Energy Innovation. It recently produced a report that documented just how much renewable energy facilities are pumping into rural Texas. Oldham County in the Texas Panhandle has a history as an oil and gas county. “In the best of times, oil and gas revenues make up about 20% of Oldham Counties’ operating budget, but times are not always the best and those payments are hard to count on,” the report says. In fact, over the past decade, oil and gas revenues have dropped 80%-90%. That sounds a lot like counties in Virginia’s southwest coalfields that have seen their revenues from coal severance taxes plummet along with coal production. However, now six wind farms have located in Oldham County – and they account for 50% of the county’s tax revenue. Put another way, wind farms now account for 2.5 times as much revenue as oil and gas did. “Because of the agreements that school districts are able to make with wind farms, three out of the four school districts in the county were able to hold bond elections and build new facilities, something that would have never happened without the wind industry coming to town,” the report says. “Three-quarters of the cost of the new school facilities can be attributed directly to the wind industry.” Furthermore – and this is something that really ought to get conservatives’ attention – thanks to all the wind farm tax revenue, Oldham County has been able to cut the county’s real estate tax rate. That’s right – more services and a tax cut, all at the same time, thanks to wind.
That’s the most dramatic example, but not the only one, in the report.
Are county supervisors in rural Virginia paying attention yet? Now, granted, the flat lands of Texas are far better suited to wind energy than the mountains of Virginia. But renewable energy isn’t impossible here. Eleven years ago, Dominion Energy bought 2,600 acres in Tazewell County with plans to build a wind farm. The county blocked that. Part of the county’s objection was that wind turbines would ruin the view – that’s a hard argument to counter. However, it was also clear that many in Tazewell opposed the wind farm on a different principle – that wind was the enemy of coal. One county supervisor railed that renewable energy “is part of the portfolio responsible for the war on coal.” Guess what? In 2019, renewables passed coal, according to a federal audit of energy consumption. In blocking the wind farm, Tazewell didn’t save coal but it did forgo about $22 million in tax revenues over 25 years. County taxpayers might think about that the next time they pay their taxes.
The real question, though, isn’t simply tax revenue, but jobs. Can localities once dependent on one form of energy (coal) build a new economy based on another (renewables)? Southwest Virginia has a lot of potential assets — there are proposals to use the land above abandoned coal mines, effectively converting coalfields to “brightfields.” What’s missing is a plan for how to lure the private investment necessary. In November, the mayors of eight cities from Pittsburgh to Louisville joined together to issue a call for a “Marshall Plan for Middle America.” They have a plan for how to turn the Ohio Valley into a Silicon Valley for renewable energy research and production. Studies project the region is set to lose 100,000 jobs connected to fossil fuels in the coming years – but that with the right investments, renewable energy industries could create 410,000 jobs there. Will that happen? Don’t know, but at least that region has a plan – a pretty ambitious one, too. When are we going to see local officials throughout rural Virginia put together their own plan? We know a conservative Republican in Texas who might be able to offer some advice.