Renewable Energy and the Good Ol’ Boy: Perception vs. Reality

renewable_energy_southeast.jpg

Along with the fiddle, big hair, and American Idol/pop music rejects, Country music relies on the persistent theme of recollecting the “good ol’ days.” That time when things were simpler and ugly modern-day slang terms like “anthropogenic global warming” and “mountain-top coal removal” didn’t exist. And nobody loves country more than Southeasterners (a.k.a. Southerners).
Among some Southerners there exists a “Good ol’ boy” mentality. There are many definitions for what a “Good ol’ boy” is, but I think Waylon Jennings summed it up best when he sang, “Just the good ol’ boys, wouldn’t change if they could. “Good ol’ boys are perfectly happy with the way things are in the South, including how they get their energy.


While I share in the appreciation of country music, college football, and cold beer, there is one glaring difference between myself and most “Good ol’ boys”: I realize the need for a renewable energy future in the South, while others prefer simpler times and the status-quo.
I’ve lived in and around Atlanta – the capital of the New South – my whole life, yet whenever I’m around certain Southern friends or co-workers and the topic turns to renewable energy, I immediately feel like an outsider. I keep treacherous visions of solar PV on the Georgia Dome and wind turbines whirring off the coast of Savannah to myself. Speaking out on my thoughts would earn me the dubious label of “hippie-tree-hugger,” the scarlet letter of Good ol’ boy code.
This resistance to renewable energy in the Southeast was the topic of a story on Renewable Energy World titled, “Winning Dixie: Drawing in the Southeastern US,” and is summed up nicely in the first few paragraphs of the story:

The Southeast’s resistance to renewable energy (or at least any national mandate to build the resource) stems from a combination of factors – among them a long-standing concern about federal control and support for states’ rights (note: See Civil War). The region also has strong coal and nuclear industries and some of the lowest electricity rates in the nation. They have a healthy skepticism of anything smacking of federal legislation that takes away from their autonomy or ability to tailor solutions to their utilities,” said Paul O’Rourke, head of global consulting firm LECG’s energy and environment sector.
“They see renewable energy as an expensive alternative, given the uncertainty around the quantity and reliability of renewable resources in the region. Are they being overly cautious? You might argue that. There is a tendency in the South to wait and see,” he added.

Along with renewable generation in the Southeast, the article looks at the possibilities of a national Renewable Portfolio Standard (RPS), and how the South would adapt to any mandates coming from Washington.
In my view, the “Good ol’ boy” resistance to renewable energy can be put in two categories: Perceptions and Reality
Perceptions:
Southerners know that renewable energy works in places like California, Arizona, Iowa, and New York, but the perception in the South is that renewable energy just doesn’t work down here. This sentiment was echoed most recently by Georgia Public Service Commissioner Stan Wise in speaking to the Georgia Congress back in February:

My job is (to provide) safe, reliable – and affordable – electric service. I support renewables. But it’s not sustainable in our state.”

I’d love to know on what Mr. Wise bases his claim of “not sustainable.” Has he seen the plans for Florida Power and Light’s plans to install the nation’s largest Solar PV array? The site is only a little over 300 miles south from the Georgia-Florida border.
Another perception of Good ol’ boys is that the only reason for renewable energy is to slow global warming, a concept many Southerners haven’t fully embraced. Southerners who are heavily resistant to renewable energy would rather make fun of Al Gore and his hippie liberal cohorts than admit that:

Until the perception of renewable energy changes from mocking the efforts of mitigating CO2 emissions to one of realizing that the fossil fueled status-quo is detrimental to the to bucolic vision of Dixie that so many Southerners hold dear, renewable energy has an uphill struggle.
Reality
But it isn’t just a battle of perceptions.
The fact is, the Southeast does have very cheap power. And in some cases renewable generation will cause energy costs to rise. However, one reason the power is so cheap in the first place is that external costs (like air pollution, mountain-top removal, and coal sludge) aren’t taken into account. Until the externalities of fossil fueled electricity generation are addressed, renewable energy will remain more expensive, which will fuel the perception that it “doesn’t work in the South.”
Along with cheap power, the Southeast may not have the same potential for renewable energy generation as other states like California or Texas, but this should not be an excuse for the Southeast to sit on its hands. The fact that Arizona may have better solar radiation isn’t stopping FPL from building the nation’s largest PV array! And guess what, according to NREL’s PV Watts tool, the same size array built in Savannah would put out 97% of the power as it would in Tampa (the closest big city to FPL’s site in DeSoto Co., FL).
And most Southerners’ are right in saying wind power on land in the Southeast won’t work, but off-shore wind power is another question. A two-year study done by a Georgia Tech and Georgia Power partnership concluded that wind power is feasible off the Georgia coast!
Using the excuse that renewable energy isn’t sustainable in the Southeast is just not accurate. Sure, it may take a little more work than in other states, but having to work harder at something does not mean it is not worth working for.
Eventually Washington will move forward with attempting to pass a National RPS, and the Southeast will have to come to terms with fully embracing renewables. There is sure to be much debate on what a National RPS will look like, but many Southeastern utilities would rather leave RPS up to the states. The Renewable Energy World article quotes Duke Energy’s stance on RPS:

Renewable portfolio standards are better set by state legislatures, which understand their jurisdiction’s unique characteristics and siting capabilities. We are concerned that a federal one-size-fits-all approach might well fail to recognize what works in California or Texas might not work at all in Ohio or North Carolina.

To counter that view, the Southern Alliance for Clean Energy published a report in February titled, “Yes We Can: Southern Solutions for a National Renewable Energy Standard (RES).” The paper found that the 11 Southeastern states can meet a national RPS (or RES) of at least 15% by 2015, 20% by 2020, and 25% by 2025. The report states:

The Southeast has been portrayed as a region that will face significant cost and difficulty meeting a national RES due to scarce access to renewable energy resources. This assertion is simply inaccurate.

Determining what a National RPS will look like and how the Southeast will meet the goals will be interesting to say the least. But it is important that before the realities of renewable energy in the South are fully addressed at a national level, the change in perception start long before that.
In order for those perceptions to begin to shift, the Southeast needs to have an honest discussion about external costs of existing methods of generating electricity (pollution from fossil fuel generation and risks associated with storing nuclear waste) and projects currently underway (like FPL’s solar site) should be highlighted and applauded.
Southerners who favor a renewable energy future need to help Good ol’ boys see that renewable energy doesn’t mean higher energy costs and saving polar bears. It means less “red-alert” smog days so kids with asthma can actually play outside, no more coal sludge spills polluting the land and water, an Appalachian mountain range that is actually intact, and the potential for a cleaner, more prosperous future.
Once perceptions begin to change, then the realities of generating renewable energy and meeting renewable portfolio/energy standards can be overcome. Problems are solved much faster when everyone admits the problem needs to be solved in the first place.
As the saying goes, “The South will rise again,” and when it does, I hope it is fueled by renewable energy.

Chris is a graduate of Georgia Tech with a degree in Mechanical Engineering. Chris has worked in many industrial settings including the only U.S. BMW manufacturing plant and a nuclear power plant. Since graduating in 2006, he has been selling industrial automation and electrical control products to manufacturers in Georgia. This has enabled him to see many manufacturing processes and witness how energy is used in industrial settings. Chris is a huge believer in active Energy Management and the power of Sustainable Manufacturing (although he is surprised at how few companies are doing either of these). In the Spring of 2009 Chris started Mapawatt Blog, which focuses on practical energy and water conservation techniques that the individual can utilize in their home and business. He believes that the only way Sustainable practices will take root in our society and reach a tipping point is if individuals take action and become "sustainability preachers" to their friends, family and co-workers.