A recent Grist article presented the usual dichotomy between cities and suburbs as the two lifestyle options available to modern Americans. As one commenter remarked, “There may not be as many of us, but some of us in rural areas would greatly appreciate an occasional post dealing with the sustainability (or lack thereof) of our lifestyle!” Dear friends, this is that post.
Roughly 50 million Americans live in settings that are neither truly urban nor suburban. We live on farms and ranches, in small towns separated by significant distances from any larger community, and small cities that lack both the density of high population metropolitan areas and the ring of surrounding suburbs that define metropolitan life. Our lifestyles, and the lifestyle options available to us, differ significantly from those of our urban and suburban neighbors. Rural Americans cherish their way of life and aren’t in any hurry to move to the metropolis, and they make up a statistically significant portion of both U.S. population and U.S. energy consumption. In short, rural households must be part of any successful climate solution.
A dated study (1982) by a Utah State University researcher in the Western Journal of Agricultural Economics evaluated 2155 Utah Power and Light customers’ winter electricity usage and found that rural households tended to consume more electricity than urban customers. A simple division was made between residents of municipalities of 2500 residents or more (urban), and people living in communities under 2500 people (rural). The study matched survey responses with actual consumption to get solid data on what was causing higher energy use.
The study found that rural dwellers “lived in colder locations and were more likely to have electric space and water heating, electric clothes dryers, and electric freezers. Urban dwellers had a higher proportion of dishwashers, were younger, had more people per household, reported higher family incomes, and lived in structures with slightly more ceiling insulation.” Rural households tended to use electricity even another energy source would have been less expensive, because they lacked access to alternative energy sources. When climate, structure energy efficiency, the stock of electricity-using devices, and demographic characteristics were held constant, the research indicated that “there is no difference in the intensity of use of electric-consuming equipment.”
Certainly there have been changes in American energy consumption patterns in the past thirty years, but the conclusions of the Utah study still ring true. Rural Americans aren’t overconsumers of electricity, but they face greater challenges in reducing consumption than urban households do.
Many rural dwellers are in politically conservative states that lack progressive energy and transportation policy and infrastructure. We don’t expect high speed rail to come near us any time soon, we drive long distances to get to nearly everything, we have lower average household incomes, and the only incentives for clean energy measures for many of us are federal tax credits.
Homegrown solutions (see Western Organization of Resource Council’s Homegrown Prosperity campaign) include everything from home-brewed biodiesel, straw bale building projects, small town energy efficiency and renewable energy makeovers, to reuse of everything that still functions and a strong traditional ethic of lending equipment to and helping neighbors in need.
There are many obvious sustainability advantages to rural living, depending on the region. Rural residents have easy access to local farms and community supported agriculture programs. We have land and expertise readily available for growing, preserving, hunting and fishing our own food. Many have access to local biomass for heat, such as downed trees, field refuse or perennial grasses.
Rural homes are generally not McMansions, because with a few glaring exceptions, capital is not concentrated in rural areas. Some of the worst poverty in the U.S. exists in rural areas like Appalachia or Great Plains tribal communities. Greater support for high energy performance building and residential renewables that operate with zero fuel costs could have a meaningful impact on quality of life, public health, and even safety in these areas where a large proportion of the population can’t afford current power bills. Unfortunately, high energy performance in rural areas comes at a premium that most rural residents can’t afford.
For high impact tips for increasing energy performance and decreasing the carbon footprint of rural households, go to our Clean Energy Ambassadors website for new energy saving ideas updated frequently. If you don’t find what you’re looking for there, email info @ plainsjustice dot org and we’ll find what you need!