Is your rural community ready for the changing energy landscape?

By DAVID KAY
Cornell University

I have become increasingly concerned about the changes facing rural communities as our country comes to terms with its dependence on cheap oil.

My experiences in community and land use planning in my hometown and my research/extension roles at Cornell University have combined to focus my attention on how a volatile energy economy is likely to magnify instability, for both better and worse, in rural places.

The turning tide

Allow me to develop an imperfect, but personally significant, metaphor. For me, this detour is most relevant because it underscores the roles of information and knowledge, collective planning, and action.

When I was a teenager, I had the good fortune to spend two years at a splendidly isolated rural high school near a village in Wales called Llantwit Major. This part of Wales abuts the Bristol Channel, which can experience a 30-foot vertical difference between high and low water — the second largest change of tide in the world. Within a matter of hours, vast expanses of beach can be deeply submerged under fast moving currents.

Bristol Channel

Of course, most adults understand the tides and have learned how to work with them. Ships often harness the current to their advantage. Nevertheless, extraordinary factors ranging from storm surges to unusual tidal confluences and tsunamis can doom the unlucky.

In 1607, thousands of unfortunates drowned in a singular tidal flood: villages vanished, farmland was engulfed, and livestock devastated.

So what’s the intended metaphor? I want to draw attention to the pace and scale of rural change in relation to coming energy transitions. Some of this change will be regular (even if large), like the daily tides.

However, from the perspective of individual communities especially, some changes will involve extraordinary surges and retreats, like the floods.

Communities that are paying attention and can come together to plan ahead will be able to better adapt to an amplified pace and scale of change. Unprepared communities will be at the mercy of the economic tides.

Unique pressures

A paper we wrote recently for the RUPRI Rural Futures Lab explores the likely implications for rural America of a transition away from cheap oil. We suggest that rural places will experience unique pressures because:

Wind, biomass, most solar and other renewable resources are especially abundant in rural places.

Different kinds of energy resources (renewable and fossil fuels) are distributed widely but unevenly across the rural countryside.

Renewable energy tends to require a great deal of land per unit of energy produced, and several sources require a good deal of water, too.

To reach urban markets, massive new infrastructure projects will likely cut through rural corridors to connect urban populations with the energy sourced in rural places.

The well-being of rural places depends greatly on the cost of moving goods, services, and people around.

Get ready

In that paper, we argue that the pace and scale of the shift to a new energy economy will be of critical importance.

Many factors constrain rapid change. These include political will, consumer habits, and the complex nature of energy and climate systems themselves. Yet rural residents who have seen factories and mines close, farms consolidate, or oil and gas fields expand know that technology, trade agreements, market forces, environmental concerns, and more can trigger rapid and large scale community change.

Lots of questions

Recent work evaluating the impact of drilling for natural gas in vast shale reservoirs calls attention to the ways pace and scale matter at the community level.

Will the impacts of 400 wells projected for eventual development in a single county be the same if they happen over 10, 25, or 50 years?

What if it is actually 4,000 wells rather than 400?

What about a similar calculus for wind turbines: 140 in five years? 500 in 10?

Boom or bust?

We already know from history that pace and scale make a difference. Natural resource-driven boom-and-bust economies have left a deep imprint on much of rural America.

On the boom side, demand for labor and housing can rise quickly. Rents and wages can skyrocket. Jobs are created, some well paid. Farmers and other landowners can earn large rents. Fortunes are made.

Given time, markets adjust, governments adjust, and residents have a reasonable chance of adjusting constructively to new conditions. A certain kind of American dream can be realized.

But there are also downsides to the boom. When changes are too fast and too large, systems break down. Local workforces may be inadequate to meet demand. Newcomers can outnumber longtime residents, and local people and businesses can be displaced or gentrified. Schools may be overwhelmed, and crime and congestion can increase. Government can’t keep up with permit and inspection requirements, and the environment is often scarred.

Later, overbuilt communities grasp for resources as jobs disappear, buildings stand empty, the community is hollowed out, and the remaining citizens pay more for less. There are few winners in this phase.

Much to learn

We know a lot about the pros and cons of boom and bust in rural economies. But we still lack a practical, policy-relevant understanding of the rates and types of change that can be integrated well by existing communities, and when enough becomes too much.

Like many educational institutions in rural areas, my school in Wales provided services to the surrounding community, including emergency rescue services for 20 miles of coastline. We trained diligently, working with surrounding communities to integrate the information and collective planning we would need to take effective action.

When the claxon sounded, we were on call to save the lives of the ill informed, the inattentive, and the poorly prepared.

No rescue team

Communities facing rapid change will have no rescue services waiting for the siren’s wail when the waters of energy driven change rise and fall.

Ideally, they will figure out how to move out of the metaphorical (and sometimes literal) tidal surge zones and flood plains ahead of time. To do so, they will have to look ahead and try to understand their roles in a higher cost energy economy.

Those who do best will adopt appropriate land use, housing, planning, schooling, regulatory, and capital management strategies that anticipate and can adapt to change.

The magnitude of the challenge is large, and capacity to anticipate and respond is increasingly limited. Institutions and government at all levels, not least land grant universities like my own, must help “lift all boats” by working with communities to develop the information, expertise, and community capacity building that provide the foundation for effective action.

What are the likely opportunities and concerns a changing energy landscape might bring to your community? Have community leaders planned for or even thought about this issue at all?

What pace and scale of change would be manageable? What might overwhelm and transform your community altogether?

(David Kay, a senior Extension associate with Community and Regional Development Institute, CaRDI, was trained as an economist, works in the Department of Development Sociology, Cornell University, and focuses on land use planning and community/economic development issues. He grew up in California’s burgeoning Silicon Valley but settled in Ithaca, N.Y., after graduate school, not least because of his growing appreciation of the small city’s uniquely combined scale of community and pace of life.)

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