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Rural Communities Need Internet Access, and Rural Electric Co-Ops Are Providing It

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  • Dec 21, 2017

When I stop for a quick bite back home in rural North Carolina, I know the restaurant crowd is not always an indication of how great the food is. Often people are there for the free internet connectivity because access is very limited in the community.

The digital divide between those who have internet at home and those who do not occurs in both rural and urban areas. It is markedly apparent in rural communities, where nearly 40 percent of residents lack access to broadband, compared to 4 percent in cities.

As a result of the digital divide, rural communities are suffering, yet are coping in innovative ways with the help of strong leadership from rural electric cooperatives. More than 900 member-owned, non-profit rural electric co-ops today represent more than 42 million people in 47 states.

Rural electric co-ops are more than just poles and wires; they are economic drivers for the communities they serve. They are in the business of not only providing energy, but also social and economic benefits.

Broadband helps rural co-ops use new technologies.

CoBank, which provides financial services to rural public utilities, recently released a report, “Making the Move into Broadband: Rural Electric Co-ops Detail Their Experiences.” The report shares best practices from six electric co-ops that deliver both power and internet service to their rural members.

“[Rural cooperatives] are attracting new businesses, making it possible for their members to work from home, and improving education, health care, and overall quality of life,” said Jonathan Mann, a credit supervisor in CoBank’s Denver office.

Broadband provides multiple benefits to rural communities.

What does broadband have to do with energy? Actually, broadband has a lot to do with energy, and we must be concerned with communities that do not have modern-day access to both. Today, some energy technologies, such as smart meters and energy apps, depend on the internet to help the electric grid operate more efficiently.

In addition to helping co-ops modernize their infrastructures, broadband offers multiple benefits to member-owners:

  • Help boost economic development – As Brett Kilbourne, General Counsel and VP of Policy at the Utility Technology Council explains in the CoBank report, “Today, broadband is just as essential as electricity service was during the turn of the last century. Electric companies are proposing to provide broadband service and internet connectivity for the same reason they began providing electricity back in those days, and the reason is simple: You will attract new businesses in rural areas, where today we are currently seeing population declines. We believe lack of broadband is driving migration from rural areas to urban areas. For example, lack of broadband creates difficulty for people trying to find jobs.”
  • Improve access to health care – Internet connectivity can increase access to medical professionals with telemedicine and other online resources. For example, the report cites medical record sharing and remote surgery.
  • Expand access to educational resources – Internet connectivity can enrich educational experiences with access to mobile technology, expanded research, online classes, and tutorials. Having these resources will help students be more competitive and better prepared for a post-secondary education. According to The Atlantic, “There are practical reasons to raise rural college-going rates. Economies in states including Iowa are shifting toward industries such as information technology, wind energy, and health care, which require postsecondary educations.”
  • Allow co-ops to communicate directly with electricity users – Two-way communication, such as the use of smart thermostats or load management devices on appliances, allow co-ops to run efficiently when demand is high. By better using resources, the co-op can improve its bottom line and pass savings to members.

In the business, energy, and environmental sectors, we often focus on individual missions. By seeking a holistic view, we can explore more opportunities and stronger outcomes. Having broadband available in rural communities is a big boost for local economies, families, and clean energy. Broadband must be available for rural co-ops to take advantage of more efficient energy technologies to improve grid security, reliability, and resiliency.

By Marilynn Marsh-Robinson

Photo source: Flickr

Original Post

Rick Engebretson's picture
Rick Engebretson on Dec 22, 2017

When I moved my young family from the U of MN to rural Minnesota in 1981, I started pushing a fiber optic super network and my wife was a young food scientist. Today, doing searches on eBay for farm parts and local quality food growers is a complete changed culture. Technology and environment are working better together.

Decades ago I spent far too much time and money trying to get our electric coop interested in distributed power technology. They were helpful then. But I don’t have the luxury of time to chase Minnesota’s political garbage anymore. So I’m very satisfied with rock solid Verizon wireless rural internet access.

Rex Berglund's picture
Rex Berglund on Dec 22, 2017

So Rick, have you heard of suberin?

A Joanna Chory of the Salk Institute is attempting to create varieties of plants that can remove carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, reducing its heat-trapping effect. The idea revolves around a material called suberin, a waxy substance naturally found in cork.

Suberin is largely composed of carbon and will not biodegrade, meaning that it can last as long as a few thousand years.

By engineering the plants, it can be trapped underground as part of the roots.

The claim is that if we were to use about five percent of the world’s farmland to grow crops with a high output of suberin, we could store half of the carbon dioxide released into the atmosphere.

Of course, if the plants survived after harvesting above ground for use in BECCS, it would sequester even more. I believe the U of Minnesota has a portable bioreactor using ruthenium to gasify biomass, useful in reducing transportation costs.

Rick Engebretson's picture
Rick Engebretson on Dec 22, 2017

I made some calls to the U of MN. (etc) over the summer and have seen some GMO ideas floating around. I’m pleased Excel has canceled some “biomass” burners. And I’m glad corn ethanol is hitting a limit. I’ve seen hype for so many years I can’t organize my own thoughts. Hybrid poplar, whole tree burning, now green slaughtered bio-diverse forest for electricity.

I keep it simple, I watch a fire and it uses photochemistry. Never saw different. I did recently learn how Fresnel lenses from old big screen TVs can melt brass using solar.

Also, florists have been making potting soil from ancient peat and sand and clay for a long time. If I can make the soil better than I found it I’ll be doing better than many farmers these days. And I’m delighted by the many dedicated small growers sprouting innovation and quality around Minnesota.

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