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Disconnected Youth in Appalachia: More Than Just the Rural-Urban Divide

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The outcome of the 2016 Presidential election exposed the general disconnect between the way rural and urban Americans view the trajectory of the country. Over the last few decades, rural Appalachian communities have witnessed economic downturns and their associated impacts in an overwhelmingly personal manner. Related to these outcomes, another type of disconnect among youth is plaguing our rural regions. As a recent Social Science Research Council Measure of America study finds, rural youth between the ages of 16 and 24 are “disconnected” – neither employed nor enrolled in school – at rates higher than 20%. In Appalachia, these disconnection rates are even higher, with counties like McDowell (West Virginia), Martin (Kentucky) and Forest (Pennsylvania) registering 45-55% youth disconnection rates.

These findings are concerning given higher rates of depression, drug abuse and suicide among “disconnected” youth, but also because our disconnected youth will soon become disconnected adults. If not adequately addressed, rural communities in Appalachia will continue to lag behind the rest of the country in significant measures, to include health, education and economic independence. There’s been a lot of discussion on the problems plaguing Appalachia, but far less discussion on addressing these problems through aggressive public policies at the local, state and federal levels. Through a comprehensive effort that better links education, infrastructure investment and broadband connectivity to our Appalachian regions, we can create the environments necessary to reconnect our youth.

It’s worth noting that none of the possible solutions or policies proposed here are revolutionary. In fact, many are described as part of the Appalachian Regional Commission’s 2016-2020 Strategic Plan. What complicates these solutions is the large amounts of financing needed to execute these programs and the need to address the diverse challenges in Appalachia in an interconnected and simultaneous manner. The Appalachian transition and the resulting reconnection of Appalachian youth, will be a long and difficult process. However, with unprecedented national attention on the region following the 2016 election, the time is ripe for local, state and federal policymakers to pursue bold actions.

Education is the centerpiece of the reconnection strategy. Our rural Appalachian communities have experienced significant school consolidations, teacher shortages and lowered graduation rates over the last few decades. To combat these challenges, Appalachian schools desperately need an adequate supply of high quality teachers to instruct on topics for which they have been trained. The Robert Noyce Teaching Scholarship, which focuses on addressing the shortage of math and science teachers across the country, is an example of the type of programs local and state policymakers should be promoting.

In addition to a focus on teachers, rural boards of education need to be better tied into local chambers of commerce and economic development offices to understand realistic local employment opportunities for high schoolers choosing to remain in the community post-graduation. It’s true that 4-year colleges are not the only route towards lifelong economic success, but as the disconnection rates show, remaining in local Appalachian communities without specific and relevant workforce skillsets can significantly limit employment opportunities. As such, career and technical education (CTE) programs should be available in all rural schools, with CTE offerings and certifications tailored to these local employment opportunities.

The Strengthening Career and Technical Education for the 21st Century Act, H.R. 5587, overwhelmingly passed through the House in 2016, is a positive sign that CTE improvement is supported at the federal level. Translating this bill into success at the local level will be of critical importance.

While strengthening local opportunities through CTE is important, we must also support those choosing to leave Appalachia for college or other employment opportunities. While much concern has been made over brain drain (for good reason), Appalachian leaders should recognize that some outmigration of post-high school youth is ok if accompanied by an in-migration of experienced professionals in their early 30s-40s. The reality is that most Appalachian communities – and rural communities in general – can’t provide the type of amenities and experiences that many people in their early 20s prioritize. But, as people mature and begin to build families, priorities change. Creating the environment necessary – good schools, adequate housing, meaningful work, etc. – for these experienced professionals to return home is critical.

As opportunities for experienced professionals to return grow, a full range marketing effort that reaches out to those who have left Appalachia will be needed. In addition to outreach, local and state policymakers can further incentivize returns through financial and tax incentives, such as college loan repayment guarantees and lowered property tax agreements. Another strategy worth pursuing involves the creation of local task forces to maintain contact with youth who have left the region to encourage their assistance on local issues from afar. This assistance could involve a range of activities from publicizing opportunities and encouraging entrepreneurial investments in their rural regions with highly skilled peers to solving technical issues via the Internet. The recently proposed and bipartisan supported Investment in Opportunity Act seeks to encourage private investment in distressed communities across the country. Should the bill – or others like it – pass, Appalachian leaders need to ensure they are positioned to funnel as much of this investment to their communities as possible.

Complicating matters, Appalachian communities face unique transportation challenges given the region’s rugged mountainous geography. At the federal level, local and state policymakers need to continue aggressive lobbying efforts to receive financial support for infrastructure improvement. However, as ongoing construction of the King Coal Highway in southern West Virginia highlights, these efforts will take a great deal of time. At the local level, rural policymakers need to create and promote usable public transportation networks. Innovative urban transportation solutions should be reviewed for key lessons, but the dynamics associated with Appalachian communities will likely require solutions that look far different than those found in the city. Car sharing programs, personal rapid transit (PRT) systems (for example, see West Virginia University’s PRT), autonomous vehicles and community networked bus lines all represent areas for investment with potentially innovative transportation solutions.

Finally, interconnectivity through universal broadband Internet cannot be understated. The latest Federal Communications Commission broadband progress report shows that an alarming 39% of rural Americans lack access to broadband. The need for universal broadband in Appalachian communities is well documented, and there have been successes made in certain Appalachian regions. In parallel with efforts to continue promoting broadband for all Appalachians, local and state policymakers need to start laying the groundwork for how to benefit from broadband once it’s available. For example, telecommuting – a relatively common practice in urban districts but rarer in rural communities – instantly becomes a viable employment option with broadband access. Coworking spaces– also a rarity in rural regions – might prove useful in promoting and providing space for this type of work while also addressing the many vacant buildings scattered across rural communities.

As Appalachian regions begin to develop local workforces, infrastructure and broadband, large companies should begin recognizing the benefits of relocating some aspects of their operations to these locations, which already offer cheaper real estate and costs of living. One component of operations that organizations might find appealing to conduct in rural Appalachia is backoffice operations, such as accounting, human resources and IT. These operations can be completed from almost anywhere given adequate physical and interconnective infrastructure. As such, there’s no reason Appalachian communities can’t fulfill many of these companies’ backoffice needs, supplying many jobs at diverse skill levels.

The high rates of youth disconnection in Appalachia should serve as a warning that, if not addressed, our Appalachian populations will continue to fall behind other regions on issues related to health, education and economic development. The ultimate goal of these educational, infrastructural and broadband initiatives is to create an Appalachia where diversely skilled workforces and adequate connective infrastructure are able to lure productive businesses, entrepreneurs and investors. The process will be long and difficult, require synchronized support at local to federal levels and necessitate innovative financing mechanisms, but as productive pockets of Appalachia begin to emerge, so too will the opportunities necessary to reconnect our Appalachian youth.

Kenny Sholes is a recent graduate of Princeton University’s Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs. While he doesn’t reside within Appalachia, he is committed to finding policy solutions to the challenges in the region.

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Profiting Off Prisoners: State Inmates Mean Big Bucks for Local Jails

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County jails make money from holding prisoners under state jurisdiction. Photo: Thinkstock

Rural jails in Kentucky are increasingly relying on income derived from payments for holding state prisoners in county facilities, according to a new report by a think tank that advocates for criminal justice reform.

To address overcrowding, states make payments to counties to hold convicted prisoners and pretrial detainees. States save money, and counties get an extra influx of cash.

In rural Kentucky, the report’s authors warn,  the dynamic speaks to a perception that incarceration is a tool for economic development. The reliance on income from state prisoners is particularly stark in cash-strapped counties suffering from a decline in another major form of revenue, the coal excise tax.

“Kentucky is one of only a handful of states that relies so heavily on local jails to hold people who have been sentenced to prison,” said Jasmine Heiss, outreach director at the Vera Institute of Justice, which authored the report. “This has deepened political and social alignment around prison,” she said. “In the coal fields, the political and social alignment has the additional context of the decline of the coal industry and needing to turn to another industry or source of revenue.”

Unsustainable Growth

Kentucky has the ninth highest rate of incarceration in the nation. As of February, 2019, Kentucky had more than 23,000 people under state prison jurisdiction but only 11,700 prison beds available, the report said. The state’s solution to overcrowding is to pay “per diem” fees to county jails to house excess inmates. The state pays eligible county jails $31.34 per inmate per day for food and medical expenses, roughly half of what the state spends to house per inmate in a state prison.

Among all states, Kentucky houses the second highest percentage of state inmates in county jails, at 49 percent.

According to the report, the number of people held in local jails for the state increased by 39 percent between 2000 and 2018. West Virginia falls seventh, at 18 percent. Ohio does not hold state inmates in county jails.

Jack Norton, one of the report’s co-authors, said that despite policies aimed at reducing Kentucky’s prison population, incarceration continues to grow at an “alarming” rate. “If the incarceration rates continue to rise in Kentucky at the same rate is has since 2000, every person in the state would be behind bars in 113 years,” Norton said.

Despite the mathematical impossibility of continued growth, the report said many county officials, particularly in rural counties, consider increasing jail capacity a solution to budget woes.

Knox County, in southeast Kentucky, has plans to build a new 350-bed jail. The report notes the current Knox County jail has space for 36 inmates but regularly holds 100 people.

“The state prison system is pushing people down to the county jail level, which is incentivizing counties in Kentucky to build bigger jails in order to take advantage of the per diem payments that the state DOC gives to county jails,” Norton said.

Coal Cuts

Harlan County, in eastern Kentucky, has seen its population decrease, but its incarcerated population has risen by 1,500 percent since 1978. A lot of that increase, the report says, is from prisoners sentenced in the state system. A Harlan County official told the Vera Institute nearly two-thirds of the county jail budget, or $1.8 million, comes from state payments for housing inmates.

Judah Schept, Norton’s co-author and a professor at Eastern Kentucky University, said the per diem payments for holding state inmates were particularly important in the state’s eastern coal fields, where budgets once boosted by coal severance taxes were flagging.

“The money that the state pays for locking up state prisoners in local jails has supplanted the role of coal as a revenue source for county budgets,” the report said.

Coal production began to decline decades ago, but around 2011, cheap natural gas caused a steep decline in coal production in eastern Kentucky. The decline in coal production meant drastic cuts to many local budgets, which have long relied on the tax on mined coal that the state distributes to mining counties.

Harlan County, a traditional coal county, saw its severance tax payments drop from $3.2 million in 2011 to $850,000 in 2016, according to the report.

Depending on Growth

The report’s authors urged county officials to be wary of relying too heavily on payments for housing state prisoners. If the state’s criminal justice policies change and the prison population begins to decline, county jails could be left footing the bill for unnecessarily large jails, even as the loss of per-diem revenue causes further hardship to local budgets.

“Rather than pursue policies that would address [over-incarceration] in some way, that would reduce the number of people behind bars,” said Heiss, “this quiet jail expansion around the state enables this limiting of the political and moral imagination around over-incarceration. The only solution that is being pursued is to provide more and more beds.”

As the federal government and states across the country pass legislation aimed at reducing prison populations, Kentucky’s incarceration rate has continued to rise. Legislation has been introduced in Frankfort that could reduce the number of people jailed before trial, potentially reducing the the state’s reliance on counties for bed space. Previous versions of the bill have been introduced but not passed.

This article was originally published by Ohio Valley ReSource.

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Plastics: The New Coal in Appalachia?

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Gas processing plants like this MarkWest plant in Butler County, Pennsylvania, separate natural gas liquids from natural gas. Photo: James Bruggers

With the natural gas fracking boom, plastics production is spreading in the Ohio River Valley. But at what cost to health and climate?

MONACA, Pennsylvania — Along the banks of the Ohio River here, thousands of workers are assembling the region’s first ethane cracker plant. It’s a conspicuous symbol of a petrochemical and plastics future looming across the Appalachian region.

More than 70 construction cranes tower over hundreds of acres where zinc was smelted for nearly a century. In a year or two, Shell Polymers, part of the global energy company Royal Dutch Shell, plans to turn what’s called “wet gas” into plastic pellets that can be used to make a myriad of products, from bottles to car parts.

Two Asian companies could also announce any day that they plan to invest as much as $6 billion in a similar plant in Ohio. There’s a third plastics plant proposed for West Virginia.

With little notice nationally, a new petrochemical and plastics manufacturing hub may be taking shape along 300 miles of the upper reaches of the Ohio River, from outside Pittsburgh southwest to Ohio, West Virginia and Kentucky. It would be fueled by a natural gas boom brought on by more than a decade of hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, a drilling process that has already dramatically altered the nation’s energy landscape—and helped cripple coal.

But there’s a climate price to be paid. Planet-warming greenhouse gas emissions from the Shell plant alone would more or less wipe out all the reductions in carbon dioxide that Pittsburgh, just 25 miles away, is planning to achieve by 2030. Drilling for natural gas leaks methane, a potent climate pollutant; and oil consumption for petrochemicals and plastics may account for half the global growth in petroleum demand between now and 2050.

Map: Ethane Cracker Plants on the Ohio River

Despite the climate and environmental risks, state and business leaders and the Trump administration are promoting plastics and petrochemical development as the next big thing, more than three decades after the region’s steel industry collapsed and as Appalachian coal mining slumps.

“We have been digging our way out of a very deep hole for decades,” said Jack Manning, president and executive director of the Beaver County Chamber of Commerce.

“When Shell came along with a $6-to-$7 billion investment … we were in the right spot at the right time,” he said.

Everyone wants jobs and economic growth, said Cat Lodge, who works with communities in the Ohio River Valley affected by the shale gas industry for the Environmental Integrity Project, a national environmental group. But not everyone wants them to be based on another form of polluting, fossil fuels, she said.

“While the rest of the world is dealing with global warming, Pennsylvania and Ohio and West Virginia are embracing developing plastics, and that just appalls me,” Lodge says. “It’s just not something I see as the future and unfortunately that seems to be the push to make that the future. And that’s upsetting.”

Lodge and her husband moved from Pittsburgh to the countryside 18 years ago in search of fresh air and open land. They have a small farm in a corner of rural western Pennsylvania, where winding roads trace the contours of Appalachian hills and a stark transition fueled by a shale gas boom is underway.

“We still love it, but little by little, and quickly over the last several years, we have become totally surrounded by the oil and gas industry,” she said.

Rising Demand, but Also Pushback on Plastics

The natural gas that’s pulled from deep underground in the Utica and Marcellus shale formations has done more than outcompete coal for electricity generation.

Drilling companies have also extracted a lot of natural gas liquids, particularly ethane, also called wet gas. It’s used to produce ethylene, which then gets turned into plastics, providing an additional revenue stream for the oil and gas industry. It’s the industry’s latest play, and it comes at a time when industry analysts and the federal government say the demand for plastics is skyrocketing.

Illustration: Plastics: From the Gas Plant to Your Home

“These materials are hooked into just about every part of the economy, from housing to electronics to packaging,” said Dave Witte, a senior vice president at IHS Markit, a global data and information service. “Today, the world needs six of these plants to be built every year to keep up with demand growth.”

IHS Markit calls the Appalachian or upper Ohio River region “the Shale Crescent.” Last year, it reported that the region’s gas supplies could support as many as five large cracker plants, like the one Shell is building. The plants “crack” ethane molecules to make ethylene and polyethylene resin pellets and would be in close proximity to a number of manufacturers that use those products to make everything from paints to plastic bags.

Chart: 3 States' Natural Gas Boom

IHS does see some headwinds, including an international backlash against plastics. It published a report last summer that found that worldwide pressure to reduce plastic use and increase recycling was one of the biggest potential disruptors for the plastics industry and was “putting future plastics resin demand and billions of dollars of industry investments at risk.”

The oil and gas industry might find themselves with stranded assets, needing to abandon Ohio River valley communities, said Lisa Graves-Marcucci, a Pennsylvania-based organizer for the Environmental Integrity Project.

“Do they really care,” she asked, “if they can make money for the first 10 years or 20 years of their operation, but then plastic goes away in the world? What happens to the communities that are left behind?”

She said she is also worried about such a major investment in oil and gas as the world grapples with the effects of climate change.

Visions of an Appalachian Plastics Hub

The idea for a plastics hub in Appalachia got a lift in December with a reportto Congress from the U.S. Department of Energy. It described a proposal for the development of regional underground storage of ethane along or underneath the upper Ohio River.

Storage is needed to help provide a steady and reliable stream of ethane to ethane cracking plants, and it would be important for the development of a regional petrochemical complex in the upper Ohio River valley, the report concluded.

Storage is another growing part of the plastics pipeline as natural gas is turned into natural gas liquids and eventually into plastics. Credit: James Bruggers
Storage is another growing part of the plastics pipeline as natural gas is turned into natural gas liquids and eventually into plastics. Credit: James Bruggers

A West Virginia business, Appalachia Development Group LLC, has proposed developing storage for ethane, possibly in mined salt or limestone cavernsdeep underground. It’s in the second phase of an application process for $1.9 billion in loan guarantees from the Department of Energy for the project, according to the department.

“We have sites of interest in Pennsylvania, Ohio and West Virginia,” said Jamie Altman, a representative of Appalachia Development Group. “We are aggressively pursuing private capital.”

The Energy Department is thinking big, too.

Its report projects ethane production in the Appalachian basin would continue rapid growth through 2025 to a total of 640,000 barrels per day, more than 20 times greater than five years ago. By 2050, the agency said ethane production in the region is projected to reach 950,000 barrels per day.

China Energy signed an agreement with West Virginia in 2017 to potentially invest $84 billion in shale gas development and chemical manufacturing projects in the state. Late in January, West Virginia’s development director, Mike Graney, told state senators that China Energy was looking at three undisclosed “energy and petrochemical” projects. An announcement could be made later this year, he said, though President Donald Trump‘s trade war with China was causing delays.

Other experts see a natural gas industry that’s subject to booms and busts and question whether the region is headed down another unsustainable path, like coal.

“We are less optimistic than the industry that this will really boom out,” said Cathy Kunkel, an energy analyst with Institute for Energy Economics and Financial Analysis, an environmental think tank that just published a reportdetailing how the natural gas industry in West Virginia hasn’t lived up to earlier expectations for jobs and tax revenue.

There is a huge amount of international competition for plastic production, she said. “All of the major oil exporting countries in the Middle East are talking about making massive investments in petrochemicals over the next five years or so,” she said. “That contains the risk that you will be exporting into a market that would be oversaturated with products.”

Increasing amounts of plastic waste are ending up in streams and oceans. Credit: Rosemary Calvert via Getty Images
IHS Markit, a global data and information service, published a report last summer that said worldwide pressure to reduce plastic use and increase recycling was one of the biggest potential disruptors for the plastics industry and was “putting future plastics resin demand and billions of dollars of industry investments at risk.” Credit: Rosemary Calvert via Getty Images

The Energy Department report also cited “security and supply diversity” as a benefit of developing a new plastics and petrochemicals hub in Appalachia. The bulk of U.S. plastics and petrochemical plants are currently along the Gulf Coast, where they face supply disruptions caused by hurricanes, it said.

Vivian Stockman, the interim director of the Ohio Valley Environmental Coalition based in West Virginia, called that a “hugely ironic” justification for an Appalachian plastics hub, since science is showing that global warming can intensify hurricanes.

Economic Benefits, with Health Concerns

The Shell plant was lured to Beaver County by Pennsylvania officials with some $1.65 billion in tax incentives. It’s scheduled to open “early next decade,” company spokesman Ray Fisher said. This year, as many as 6,000 construction workers will be working on it, and Shell says it plans 600 permanent jobs to run the plant.

It’s in Potter Township, a community with fewer than 700 residents. Rebecca Matsco, who chairs the township commission that gave Shell the local zoning permits, said she sees the plastics plant as an industrial upgrade from a dirty zinc smelter that had stood on the property for about a century, and that Shell cleaned up.

“It had become a real environmental burden, and we do feel like Shell has been a real partner in lifting that burden,” Matsco said.

Others, however, see the cracker plant as its own environmental burden—a new source of emissions that cause lung-damaging smog and heat the planet.

People in Pittsburgh were sad to see so much of the steel industry go, but they don’t miss the dirty skies, said Graves-Marcucci, an Allegheny County resident. The economic resurgence that followed was centered around health care, academic institutions and cleaner industries, she said.

Pittsburgh has been brushing off its sooty steel city past and is now pledging to slash its carbon emissions. But the Shell cracker plant alone, just 25 miles away, would emit 2.25 million tons of carbon dioxide a year, effectively wiping out nearly all the gains in carbon reduction that Pittsburgh plans to achieve by 2030, said Grant Ervin, Pittsburgh’s chief resilience officer.

The Shell plant will also emit as much smog-forming pollution as 36,000 cars driving 12,000 miles year; that would equate to about a 25 percent increase in the number of cars in Beaver County, said James Fabisiak, an associate professor and director of the Center for Healthy Environments and Communities at the University of Pittsburgh.

The environmental and health threats will only increase with a plastics hub buildout, and no regulators are looking at those potential cumulative impacts, Graves-Marcucci said.

Two More Communities Could Get Cracker Plants

About 70 miles southeast of the Shell plant, another community waits for news about what could be the region’s second major ethane cracker plant, in Belmont County, Ohio.

PTT Global Chemical, based in Thailand, and its Korean partner, Daelim Industrial Co., Ltd., could announce any day whether they intend to proceed with an ethane cracker plant after getting state permits in late December. That plant would be along a section of the Ohio River in Belmont County where hulking old manufacturing plants and shuttered businesses paint the very picture of the nation’s Rust Belt.

Bellaire, Ohio, is a few miles from another proposed cracker plant. Belmont County officials are waiting to hear whether PTT Global Chemical and its partner are going to invest $6 billion to build the facility. Credit: James Bruggers
Bellaire, Ohio, is a few miles from another proposed cracker plant. Belmont County officials are waiting to hear whether PTT Global Chemical, based in Thailand, and its Korean partner are going to invest $6 billion to build the facility. Credit: James Bruggers

“Do you know what the biggest export is from Belmont County? Our youth,” said Larry Merry, an economic development officer with the Belmont County Port Authority, overlooking the Ohio River bottomlands where the cracker plant would be constructed on the cleared-away site of a former coal-fired power plant.

Merry, who has been working to secure the plastics plant, called the oil and gas industry “a great employer for us that’s provided a lot of investment that’s helped.”

But it’s not fully made up for losses in steel and coal, and this cracker plant “is about jobs and opportunities so people can make the most of their lives,” he said.

He brushed aside any concerns about climate change or too much plastics. “How are we going to live and have products? Until you come up with a solution, don’t expect the world to shut down,” he said.

A spokesman for PTT American said he could not say when an investment decision will be made.

A third potential cracker plant is planned for Wood County, West Virginia, but it has been delayed because of unspecified “challenges” with its parent company, the Department of Energy report said.

“It just blows my mind that there could be three or four cracker plants, or even one,” said Steve White, a western Pennsylvania builder. “That’s some serious investment. It just shows you where everything is headed and how much development is coming.”

White is also a pilot, and he said he has observed from the cabin of a Cessna 3,000 feet aloft the spread of oil wells, pipelines and processing plants across shale drilling zones in Pennsylvania, Ohio and West Virginia, slicing up farms and encroaching on homes, schools and businesses.

“We are just in the way,” he said.

This article was originally published by Inside Climate News.

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Rural Drivers Can Save the Most From Clean Vehicles

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Photo: Shutterstock/Standret

This post was written in collaboration with Maria Cecilia Pinto de Moura

The transition to clean vehicle technologies such as electric vehicles will benefit consumers everywhere, promising lower operating and maintenance costs, along with less pollution and a cleaner environment.

But the drivers with the greatest economic potential to gain by purchasing an electric vehicle are the residents of small towns and rural counties. Drivers living outside of urban areas often have farther to travel to work, shop, and visit a doctor. They have to repair their vehicles more frequently, they produce more carbon emissions per capita, and they spend more money on gasoline. As a result, rural drivers have the greatest potential to save money by making the switch to an electric vehicle.

Overall, rural residents have the potential to save up to twice as much as urban residents by making the switch from a conventional sedan to an electric vehicle. In addition, rural residents who drive pickup trucks and SUVs have the potential to dramatically cut their fuel costs and emissions through programs to encourage efficiency and electrification.

Rural drivers’ potential to save money and cut emissions

Using data from the 2017 National Highway Traffic Survey, we created a model that approximates what vehicles are being driven, and for how many miles, in every county in the Northeast and Mid-Atlantic region. This data allows us to approximate the average cost and emission savings from an electric vehicle in each county. We also mapped out some of the differences in vehicle miles traveled that form the basis of these calculations (see below, our full methodology is here).

Annual average fuel savings, miles driven and emissions reduction for a typical driver in 12 states and the District of Columbia

Overall, we find that in our most rural counties, the average driver will save $870 per year and cut carbon dioxide emissions by more than 3 metric tons per year by choosing an electric vehicle over a conventional sedan. That is almost twice the average emissions reduction from an EV in our most urban counties.

Bringing clean vehicle technologies to rural areas will not only benefit rural drivers, but it will also improve whole rural economies. Nearly all the money that we spend on gasoline and diesel fuel ultimately leaves our towns and our region, for other parts of the world. As electric vehicles replace the internal combustion engine on our roads, there will be more money in consumers’ pockets – which means more jobs, and more local development for our small towns.

Obstacles to rural electrification

Unfortunately, although rural residents have the greatest potential to save from purchasing an electric vehicle, currently EV sales are concentrated in urban areas and inner suburbs. As of 2017, people in urban areas and inner suburbs report that they are about three times more likely to own a plug-in vehicle compared to people in rural areas.

Rural drivers share many of the same challenges in selecting an electric vehicle as urban and suburban drivers: not many consumers are aware of how easy it is to make the switch to an electric vehicle, and the charging infrastructure is inadequate. These concerns are particularly acute for rural drivers, who on average need to travel greater distances between charging stations and destinations. Rural drivers do have one major advantage over urban drivers: they are much more likely to have access to offstreet parking, which should make installation of a home charging station easier.

In addition, rural drivers may have additional concerns about electric vehicle technology, such as the ability of electric vehicles to provide adequate performance in cold weather climates (hint: EVs are great in cold or inclement weather) or to provide enough range to deal with rural driving distances. Some of these concerns are being addressed through improvements in technology: at 200+ miles, cars like the Chevy Bolt and Tesla Model 3 can serve the daily driving needs of residents of all areas. But even as the technology improves, cultural assumptions about what kind of vehicle is appropriate in what kind of area may remain.

As more electric vehicle models come to market, and vehicle costs continue to drop, rural drivers will have increasing choices in vehicle types from SUVs to pick-up trucks. But an EV may not work for every rural household today. Fortunately, automakers compelled by vehicle efficiency standards have been bringing more efficiency gasoline and diesel cars and trucks to market. Upgrading to a newer, more fuel efficient vehicle is another strategy available for every household today.

The Northeast needs a rural electrification strategy

Increasing growth of EV sales in rural areas will require states of the Northeast region to take a more proactive approach towards electrification in rural areas. We need a targeted strategy to reduce the barriers to adopt electric vehicles in our outer suburbs and rural areas. Such a strategy should include:

  • Increased incentives for rural & low- and moderate-income drivers. Overcoming the high purchase price of the vehicles is critical to achieving mainstream penetration of electric vehicles. Northeast states should consider adding additional incentives to make electric vehicles affordable for rural drivers. These incentives should include not only additional upfront rebates to reduce the purchase price of the car, but also financing assistance to help people with insufficient credit to purchase a new car. By targeting rural drivers, we can use incentive money most effectively to achieve our goals for emission reduction and cost savings.
  • Vehicle retirement programs to take the most inefficient trucks off the road. Many rural drivers are stuck driving some of the dirtiest, most inefficient vehicles on the road. A 10 year old Ford F-150 gets as little as 14 mpg, for example. A rural driver who trades an old F-150 to a new model can save up to $1,000 per year. Programs such as California’s Enhanced Fleet Modernization Program have helped retire some of these low-emission vehicles and in the process saved money for drivers of all kinds of vehicles.
  • Build rural charging infrastructure. Addressing rural range anxiety will require increased investment in rural charging stations. Utilities should target rural areas for support, both for public charging and for support in constructing home charging stations.
  • Support grassroots education outreach and marketing efforts. Bulk purchasing programs such as the Drive Green program run by Green Energy Consumers Alliance can reduce costs and help consumers address the complex decisions necessary to purchase an electric vehicle. Utility programs such as Green Mountain Power’s electric vehicle program can negotiate good deals from the auto industry and help their customers make the switch to electric vehicles. These programs should be encouraged to target rural communities and drivers.

As states in the Northeast and Mid-Atlantic consider new regional strategies to address transportation emissions, it will be critical for states to identify new strategies to help rural residents cut emissions and save money on transportation. One piece of a rural transportation strategy should be to enhance infrastructure that provides an alternative to driving an automobile, through expanded regional public transportation that give them easy access to urban centers, pedestrian and biking infrastructure that create vibrant communities in small towns. We should also consider how to best use innovative new transportation models facilitated by technology, such as vanpools, flexible bus routes, and ride hailing and sharing services to expand clean mobility to rural residents.

At the same time, we know that realistically driving a personal vehicle will remain an important part of the transportation system for rural communities. We need to provide rural residents with the cleanest vehicles that fit their needs. We encourage states to meet the challenges facing rural drivers with bold investments that can save money for consumers and reduce pollution for everybody.

This article was originally published by the Union of Concerned Scientists.

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