Taking Action in Rural Athens, Ohio

As the United States embraces more renewable sources of energy, many coal mining communities in southeastern Ohio are finding ways to continue their historic role as energy producers for Americans by turning to renewables. One notable organization is Rural Action, a nonprofit based in southeast Appalachian Ohio that is working toward growing the region’s economy in sustainable ways.

After identifying clean energy as a top priority for the region, Rural Action created an alternative fuels corridor down a major state route, provided broad-based resiliency and energy efficiency education in Appalachian communities, and developed a response system to coal plant closure communities. The nonprofit also partners with local organizations, including Blue Rock Station and Upgrade Ohio, to expand solar installer training, increase solar awareness, and develop solar generator workshops. Rural Action was also part of a major project that focused on a solar supply chain initiative, an ARC-funded technical assistant program. The nonprofit collaborated with multiple stakeholders to bring manufacturers and associated jobs to Appalachian Ohio, and helped a diverse group of educational, workforce, veteran, labor, and economic development partners to create a roadmap of a solar manufacturing supply chain and workforce in the region.

Athens, Ohio, Is Focused on Solar

One of the areas where Rural Action works is the city of Athens. Athens is the county seat and home to Ohio University, with a population of around 24,000 people. This city prides itself on being a solar friendly community and provides resources to help residents gain accessible, affordable solar power. Community members are incentivized to invest in renewable energy for their homes through federal solar tax credits and PACE financing options. For those who do not own their homes or cannot afford panels on their own, there are also solar co-op solutions available to leverage bulk buying.

The city is also developing sustainable energy resources for its own usage. In 2020, the city announced a plan to create a city-owned solar array. Solar arrays are groups of solar panels that are installed and, in this case, are stand-alone structures on city parcels of land. This array will generate enough electricity to power multiple public properties, including a community center, aquatic facility, wastewater treatment plant, and other municipal demands.

SolSmart in Coal Country

The city of Athens is a SolSmart Bronze designee. To achieve this designation, cities have had to remove significant barriers to solar power for members of their communities. Athens worked hard to do just that. They created a solar landing page on their website with information on community solar goals, along with local resources for residential and commercial solar development. The city has also engaged with local utility providers about the community’s goals, net metering, and interconnection process. Finally, the city has reviewed local zoning codes and identified restrictions that may limit or prohibit solar photovoltaic development.

The city also recently passed a carbon fee in the 2018 primary election. The revenue collected will be used to fund solar projects throughout the city. Over 76% of voters were in favor of adopting the new fee. This vote made Athens the first city in the nation to develop a program like this. Continued actions to promote developments in solar power have made Athens a leader in solar-power generation for the region and across the country.

This case study was written by the National Civic League