Clean energy is a growing economic engine for rural communities across the United States.
The sector—which includes jobs in renewable energy generation, energy efficiency, advanced electric grid development, clean fuels and clean vehicles —employed approximately 360,000 workers in rural counties as of 2019, accounting for as much as 10% of total employment or more in some counties. The sector has also experienced rapid growth in recent years, and with federal investment, can deliver greater benefits still despite industry losses weathered during the coronavirus pandemic.
In many regions, clean energy jobs are diversifying the rural economy and helping to transform areas that may otherwise struggle to attract jobs and investments or have been facing years of economic stagnation. With rural areas representing 86% of persistent poverty counties in the United States, rural America provides both a great opportunity and challenge to fulfill the Biden administration’s promise to lift up historically disadvantaged communities. As Congress and the administration explore policy solutions to turn around a pandemic-crippled economy, it is imperative that solutions target rural places.
Below, we provide a close look at jobs in the clean energy sector at the U.S. county level, highlighting regions where clean energy jobs are particularly prevalent, trends in growth over time, and the extent of job losses due to the economic downturn. Analysis and visuals presented are based on data from BW Research, using data reported in the annual U.S. Energy and Employment Report. (See end of article for more details on data sources and methodology.)
Clean Energy Jobs Are a Vital Part of Rural Economies Across the United States
Clean energy employed approximately 3.5 million Americans in 2019; roughly 1 in 10 of these jobs were in rural counties. While the majority of clean energy jobs are in urban locations, they play an outsized role in rural communities relative to the size of their economies.
Nationally, clean energy jobs account for roughly 2% of total private sector employment, but represent a larger share of total employment in many rural areas. Rural counties in 27 states have clean energy jobs representing more than 2% of their total employment, with clean energy jobs comprising 5.7% of total rural employment in Vermont, 3.6% in Hawaii, 3.2% in Indiana, and 3% each in Nevada and Wyoming.
A closer look at county-level data reveals in more detail how clean energy is transforming rural economies across the country. Of the 139 counties where clean energy employment represents more than 5% of total county jobs, two-thirds are rural as opposed to urban.
There are also 18 rural counties (and seven urban counties) where clean energy jobs account for more than 10% of total employment. These include Pulaski County, IL, (total population of 5,500) which has a high concentration of solar energy jobs; Jefferson County, NE (total population of 7,100), which hosts the Steele Flats Wind Farm; and Surry County, VA (total population of 6,422), which has also seen a boom in utility-scale solar development.
The map above shows where clean energy jobs (shown as clean energy jobs per 1,000 total jobs) make up the most significant share of local economies in both rural and urban areas.
Clean Energy Jobs Outnumber Fossil Fuel Production and Power Generation Jobs in Rural Counties
*This map shows clean energy jobs and fossil fuel jobs by county as a share of “total energy jobs,” defined simply as the sum of both categories. For example, a 90% share for clean energy jobs indicates that there are 9 clean energy jobs for every 1 fossil fuel production or power generation job in this particular area. This definition of total clean energy jobs does not take into account other types of energy jobs not falling within the “clean” or “fossil” classifications. More details on the definitions of these categories can be found in the methodology note at the end of this article.
As of 2019, the total number of clean energy jobs in America’s rural counties outnumbered fossil fuel jobs by 1.5 times. Clean energy jobs also outnumber fossil fuel jobs in 81% of rural counties (1,592 out of 1,976 rural counties). This comparison looks only at fossil fuel production (e.g. extraction and refining) and power generation jobs, and so is not an apples-to-apples comparison. But nonetheless, it is illustrative of broader trends.
The energy efficiency and renewable energy generation sectors alone employed 260,853 workers, compared to 235,618 workers employed in the fossil fuel industry across all rural counties. The trend is particularly stark in the Northeast and Pacific West states, where clean energy jobs outnumber fossil fuel production and power generation jobs 9 to 1 in rural areas.
There are 12 states, however, where fossil fuel jobs are still more prevalent than clean energy jobs. Fossil jobs account for a particularly significant share of total rural employment in North Dakota (9%), Alaska (7.7%), Wyoming (7.2%), New Mexico (5.9%), Oklahoma (5.8%) and Texas (4.9%).
A more dynamic picture emerges when looking county by county. For example, in Texas there are five rural counties where clean energy jobs now outnumber fossil fuel production and power generation jobs 9 to 1, but 23 rural counties where the opposite is true. For the majority of Texas counties, however, the split between clean energy and fossil fuel jobs is closer to even, with both sectors representing a significant share of local employment.
As the low-carbon transition continues to unfold across rural counties, it will be important to pay attention to adverse impacts on workers and local communities reliant on the fossil fuel industry. Solutions that incorporate workforce support and labor standards, economic development and diversification opportunities, and environmental remediation to address legacies of pollution by fossil fuel infrastructure can enable a fair and equitable transition for these workers and communities.
The map above shows where clean energy jobs outnumber fossil fuel jobs, and vice versa (by clicking the right arrow).
Clean Energy Jobs Across Rural America Are Diverse, Driven by a Variety of Technologies and Industries
The makeup of clean energy jobs varies significantly from one region to the next. In terms of overall mix for rural counties, energy efficiency accounted for nearly 6 in 10 (58%) clean energy workers in 2019, followed by renewable energy generation (14%), clean fuels (13%), clean vehicles (11%) and advanced electric grid (4%).
In urban counties, the distribution is similar, with some notable differences. In particular, energy efficiency is more dominant in urban areas (70% of clean energy jobs) followed by renewable energy generation (15.5%). Also, clean fuels comprise only 3% of all clean energy jobs in urban counties, whereas their share is much higher in rural counties.
The picture is of course more nuanced at the regional and county level. For example, two rural counties in Illinois where clean energy jobs are particularly prevalent (more than 20% of total jobs in each county) are Pulaski and Edwards Counties. In the former, renewable energy generation is the dominant driver of clean energy employment (9 in 10 clean energy workers); in the latter, efficiency is most prevalent (7 in 10 clean energy workers).
Aggregated at the state level, rural counties in Texas have the highest number of renewable energy generation and advanced grid jobs, while rural counties in Ohio, Iowa and Indiana lead in energy efficiency, clean fuels and clean vehicle jobs.
The map above shows which types of clean energy jobs are most prevalent in rural counties across the United States.
Prior to the COVID-19 Pandemic, Clean Energy Jobs Grew Rapidly in Rural Counties, Outpacing Job Growth in Urban Counties
Prior to the pandemic, rural counties across America added a net of approximately 29,500 clean energy jobs, a growth rate of 9%, from 2017 through 2019. By contrast, urban counties grew slower, increasing by only 6%, but still adding a total of 180,807 jobs given their larger labor market.
This national trend masks the much faster growth seen in specific parts of the country. For instance, Texas — which among all states has the second-highest number of clean energy jobs in rural counties — saw 19% growth in clean energy jobs in its rural counties between 2017 and 2019. In comparison, clean energy jobs in its urban counties grew by 8% over the same period.
Nevada’s rural counties added nearly 1,800 clean energy jobs in its rural counties, representing a growth rate of 139% between 2017 and 2019, led by strong performance in the renewable energy sector. Another five states — Illinois (14,514 rural clean energy jobs in 2019), Louisiana (3,577), Washington (5,334), Georgia (10,184) and Hawaii (3,875) — witnessed more than 20% growth in clean energy jobs in rural counties. In each of these states, clean energy jobs grew significantly faster in rural as opposed to urban counties.
Finally, seven states, including Alaska, California, Massachusetts, Michigan, New York, Oregon and South Carolina actually saw net losses in clean energy jobs in rural counties from 2017-2019.
Renewable energy generation jobs grew the fastest of all clean energy jobs, increasing its rural workforce by 20%, or 8,252 jobs. This growth was faster than in urban areas — not just in terms of rate, but in terms of total jobs added, with urban counties adding only 7,000 renewable energy jobs over the same period. In rural communities, clean fuels jobs also grew significantly, by 17% during the same period, followed by energy efficiency and advanced grid development (at 5% and 3%, respectively).
View the above table to see which states have experienced the fastest growth in clean energy jobs in recent years, and which types of clean energy jobs have grown the fastest for rural versus urban counties.
COVID-19-related Clean Energy Job Losses Have Hit Rural Counties Hard
Between March and December 2020, rural counties lost 47,956 jobs in the clean energy sector as a result of pandemic-induced economic stress. Though the number of jobs lost in the clean energy sector is much higher in urban counties, at 327,772, the pandemic has led to a 13% decline in rural clean energy employment from 2019 levels, compared to an 11% decline in urban counties.
Six states — Kentucky, Michigan, Georgia, Ohio, North Carolina and Indiana — accounted for more than one-third of all rural clean energy jobs lost, each losing more than 2,000 jobs since the start of the pandemic. States that suffered most as a percentage of their rural clean energy workforce are Hawaii, Georgia, Kentucky, Alaska, Michigan, Massachusetts, Minnesota and Louisiana, all declining by 20% or more.
Energy efficiency bore the brunt of job loss, shedding 33,616 jobs (a 16% decline compared to 2019) across all rural counties. Energy efficiency lost the most jobs in urban counties, but — consistent with national trends — the decline was smaller (at 11%) in comparison with rural counties. Clean fuels faired the best out of all rural clean energy technologies, yet still lost nearly 2,000 workers, for a 4% decline since the beginning of the pandemic.
Rural and urban counties across all states also lost nearly 90,000 jobs in the fossil fuel industry, representing a decline of 38% from 2019 levels. Hardest-hit states in this category include Colorado, Louisiana, Pennsylvania and Texas, all of which lost more than half of their jobs.
The impacts of COVID-19 on the U.S. fossil fuel industry has exacerbated the trend of job loss already underway as a result of shifting economics and the transition to a low-carbon economy. Workers and communities reliant on the fossil fuel sector need proactive policies that can enable them to transition to new opportunities in clean energy and other viable industries.
The table above shows total clean energy job losses from March to December 2020 by state, broken out by rural and urban areas.
Federal Investment Can Bolster and Accelerate Clean Energy and Economic Growth in Rural America
The above trends show that clean energy can be a major investment opportunity and economic engine in rural counties across the nation. Targeted federal investments can not only offset losses from the previous year, but allow for more robust, durable growth moving forward. Several programs, including USDA’s Rural Energy for America Program and Rural Energy Savings Program and DOE’s Weatherization Assistance Program, have supported clean energy development in rural communities. Their funding could be enhanced to accelerate the clean energy transition in those communities.
President Biden’s $2 trillion infrastructure plan, called the American Jobs Plan, has the potential to deliver critical infrastructure and clean energy priorities in the nation’s rural communities. The infrastructure plan could create 2.5 million more jobs by the middle of the decade compared to total employment without the plan, in addition to generating stronger economic growth.
Among the various pillars of the American Jobs Plan, considerable investment in electrical infrastructure, affordable broadband connections, reclamation of abandoned mine lands, and plugging of oil and gas wells would be transformative for rural communities facing economic challenges.
Rural America is hungry for economic opportunities, and the clean energy sector can help provide some of that opportunity. In the process, we can also ensure an equitable energy transition and build back stronger, greener and fairer across all of America — urban and rural.
Rural versus urban classifications
For the purposes of this analysis, we use Rural-Urban Continuum Codes developed by the USDA Economic Research Service to delineate rural areas. This geographic-economic classification scheme distinguishes between two broad types of regions: metropolitan counties (codes 1-3) and non-metropolitan counties (codes 4-9). This analysis considers all non-metropolitan counties to be rural.1 By this definition, there are no rural counties in Delaware, District of Columbia, New Jersey and Rhode Island.
Clean energy and fossil fuel job classifications
Clean energy jobs for the purposes of this analysis include renewable energy generation (solar, wind, geothermal, hydro and biomass); energy efficiency (equipment manufacturing, installation and construction, services); advanced electric grid (transmission, distribution and storage); clean vehicles (hybrid, hydrogen fuel cell and electric vehicles); and clean fuels. The clean fuels category includes about 35,000 rural jobs in corn ethanol production and the production of fuels from woody biomass. Due to the opportunity costs of utilizing lands that may otherwise provide climate, food production, or other ecological benefits, these sectors may not always be considered “clean.” However, closer analysis of these tradeoffs was beyond the scope of this article.
Fossil fuel energy jobs for the purposes of this analysis include jobs directly related to fossil fuel production and use, including oil and gas mining and extraction, oil and gas production, coal mining and all fossil fuel-derived power generation.
Other categories of energy jobs not included in this analysis include traditional grid transmission and distribution, nuclear fuel production, nuclear power generation, and gas and diesel motor vehicle production. “Total energy jobs” as defined in this article does not include these additional categories, and is therefore meant to highlight the proportional relationship between the clean and fossil fuel energy job categories only.
Clean energy jobs data from 2017 to 2010 as well as COVID-induced job loss in clean energy were obtained from BW Research Partnership. The clean energy jobs data is derived from the United States Energy Employment Report (USEER), which is based on an annual survey (n≈30,000) and Bureau of Labor Statistics Quarterly Census of Employment and Wages (QCEW) data at the county level. The average margin of error on USEER county level data ranges from +/- 4.78% to +/-7.97% based on county size and distribution.