Why Rural Americans Are (and Aren't) Adopting Renewable Energy

Some rural residents are investing in solar, heat pumps and EVs. But demographics play a key role in who is -- and who isn't.

A man carrying a solar panel toward a farmhouse.

If the US is going to meet its climate goals and electrify, well, pretty much everything, homeowners will need to get on board with solar panels, heat pumps, electric vehicles and more.

Mint Images/Tim Robbins/Getty Images

If the US is going to meet its climate goals and electrify, well, pretty much everything, homeowners will need to get on board with solar panels, heat pumps, electric vehicles and more.

In place of the gas and oil we've long used to fuel our cars and heat our homes, technology powered by clean electricity promises to get the job done without any of the planet-warming emissions.

But an energy transition of this scale is easier said than done. "A big element of this [is] transitioning the residential sector, and it looks very different in rural areas," said Erin Mayfield, an assistant professor at Dartmouth College.

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She recently studied clean-energy adoption in rural communities and found unique dynamics that have big implications for public policy. "We do have to treat rural areas differently. Geography matters, and the nature of the built environment matters. Also, the political environment matters," Mayfield said.

Here's what the energy transition looks like in rural America right now -- and what needs to change to speed it up.

Reasons for adopting (or avoiding) clean energy in rural areas

Perhaps not surprisingly, Mayfield's study found that adoption of clean energy tech in rural areas is correlated with a few key demographic factors.

"We were able to find that adoption of these technologies is highly related to income," Mayfield said. "We also find that education is also a main factor of these technologies." In other words, rural Americans with higher incomes and more education are more likely to put solar panels on their roof or buy a heat pump.

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This is critical, as it undercuts the general skepticism that many rural Americans have toward renewable energy. A recent survey of rural residents found that 54% didn't think renewable energy sources could ever meet 100% of the country's energy needs, and 57% believed the US should rely on a mix of fossil fuels and renewables.

Mayfield's study illuminates one other factor that cuts against this resistance to clean energy tech.

"Higher Democratic voting rates, we find, are significant predictors of technology adoption across everything," from solar to EVs and heat pumps, Mayfield said. 

So, well-educated, wealthy residents who vote for Democrats are the rural Americans most likely to embrace the clean energy transition. But Mayfield found one other thing that's motivating adoption in rural areas: something she calls "diffusion."

"If your neighbors are adopting a technology, then you're more likely to adopt a technology," Mayfield said. Other studies have previously found that effect for solar, but "we're also finding that for heat pumps," she said.

This could be because neighbors have similar types of houses that are more amenable to certain technologies, or because a local installer makes heat pumps easily available, for example.

The unlikely boomtowns of wind and solar in America

Regardless of which technologies individual homeowners choose to adopt, many of their rural communities are becoming home to huge amounts of renewable energy.

A recent analysis, reported by The Washington Post, shows that former coal towns and fossil fuel sites have become some of the biggest beneficiaries of the federal push to build clean-power infrastructure, mostly in the form of wind and solar farms.

"While communities that once hosted coal, oil, or gas infrastructure make up only 18.6% of the population, they received 36.8% of the clean energy investment in the year after the Inflation Reduction Act's passage," according to the Post.

But Nicole Bulgarino, an executive vice president at renewable energy company Ameresco, said pulling off these kinds of big clean-energy projects in rural areas requires deep community outreach and education.

"People want power, but then they don't want it next to them," she said. Rural residents are often especially sensitive to disturbances to the land, aesthetic impacts or noise disruptions from wind and solar projects.

When her company is developing a project like this, it spends a lot of time analyzing impacts on noise, traffic, soil, species and cultural sites. But it also outlines the potential benefits of renewable energy development, like job creation and pollution reduction. 

"A lot of it is just educating," Bulgarino said.

Education is key to the energy transition

The importance of education is another takeaway of Mayfield's study. Rural residents are a critical piece of the energy transition, but many lack the information and resources to take part.

Even in places like Vermont, which has robust clean-energy programming at the state level, and which Mayfield analyzed in her study, rural clean-energy adoption is still lagging.

"Maybe that information is not getting to all populations and communities," Mayfield said.

She plans to do more studies to identify other policy gaps. But generally, she sees potential for more outreach (and financial assistance) to rural, especially low-income, Americans who stand to benefit from clean energy.

And crucially, Mayfield wants to see these programs tailored to specific regions and communities with unique needs.

"You can't treat all rural areas the same," she said.

Renewable energy resources for rural Americans

Most incentives for going solar aren't contingent on where you live, but here are a few that apply to rural Americans, either specifically or generally.

  • Any American with a tax bill can take advantage of the residential clean-energy tax credit from the federal government. It reduces your tax bill by 30% of the cost of your solar panel system. Thirty percent of the cost of batteries qualifies for the credit, too.
  • Under the Rural Energy for America Program, farmers and small business owners can apply for loans and grants from the federal government for clean-energy projects like installing solar panels or replacing energy-inefficient equipment.
  • Some states, cities and utilities have incentives of their own. Check with your local authorities to learn more.

Updated Nov. 22, 2023 5:00 a.m. PT

Written by  Mike De Socio
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Mike De Socio Contributor
Mike De Socio is a CNET contributor who writes about energy, personal finance and climate change. His path in journalism has taken him through almost every part of the newsroom, earning awards along the way from the Boston Press Photographers Association and the Society of Professional Journalists. As an independent journalist, his work has also been published in Bloomberg, The Guardian, Fortune and beyond.
Expertise Energy, climate change and personal finance Credentials
  • Journalism awards from the Boston Press Photographers Association, the Society of Professional Journalists and Boston University
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