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Biden's climate bill brings investments and jobs to many GOP strongholds

Roger Garbey and Andres Hernandez (L-R), from the Goldin Solar company, install a solar panel system on the roof of a home a day after the Trump administration announced it will impose duties of as much as 30 percent on solar equipment made abroad on January 23, 2018 in Palmetto Bay, Florida.
Joe Raedle
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Getty Images
Roger Garbey and Andres Hernandez (L-R), from the Goldin Solar company, install a solar panel system on the roof of a home a day after the Trump administration announced it will impose duties of as much as 30 percent on solar equipment made abroad on January 23, 2018 in Palmetto Bay, Florida.

It's become commonplace to find workers installing solar panels on the roofs of homes in states like California or Arizona. But in West Virginia, it's still a rare sight. That's slowly changing, however, partly due to President Biden's signature climate law, which promotes investments in the manufacturing and deployment of green technologies like solar power.

Over the past year, the Inflation Reduction Act has spurred nearly $280 billion in new investments across the country. The vast majority of those investments have flowed into Republican-held districts, according to numbers compiled by advocacy group Climate Power.

"We've never had a day where we didn't have jobs or anything," said Aaron Millner, who works as a crew lead for West Virginia-based Solar Holler. Millner previously worked as a journeyman electrician for a home renovation company. He decided to join Solar Holler in September 2022.

"I came here because of the IRA bill that Joe Biden passed," said Millner.

Millner, along with a handful of colleagues, is preparing a residential home in Kearneysville, West Virginia, for the installation of a rooftop solar system on this particular summer morning.

With nearly a year in the solar industry under his belt, Millner is confident he made the right decision. "Solar is really going to be a huge thing in America, and it's just going to keep growing. And the sooner you get into it, the more time you'll have to reap the benefits." he said.

Aaron Millner leads crew installing solar rooftop for West Virginia-based Solar Holler.
H.J. Mai / H.J. Mai
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H.J. Mai
Aaron Millner leads a crew installing solar rooftop for West Virginia-based Solar Holler.

His conviction is reinforced by better pay and, in his case, health insurance for the first time in six years. And Millner is not alone. Jobs and investments in green technologies across the country have opened up new opportunities for many Americans.

Solar Holler CEO and Founder Dan Conant credits the Biden administration for passing policies that aim to strengthen American production.

"For the first time in my lifetime, the federal government is really promoting American manufacturing, trying to compete globally and onshore more of these really critical industries for the century," he said.

West Virginia's economic fortune has been tied to the rise and fall of coal. But the state has attracted new industries in recent years. Massachusetts-based Form Energy broke ground on a new battery production facility in the state in May. It will employ at least 750 people, once it is fully operational. The state has also attracted an electric school bus manufacturer and an electric pontoon boat manufacturer.

And West Virginia is just one red state that is reaping the benefits of the Inflation Reduction Act's climate provisions, which total roughly $370 billion. "Nine of the 10 top states to be the biggest beneficiary of jobs in their states are either red or purple states," said Jack Conness of policy firm Energy Innovation.

Despite the investment announced across many red states, Republicans in Congress unanimously opposed the bill. They argued that the Democratic-led legislation would lead to unnecessary spending and do nothing to curb inflation.

"The only things their 'Inflation Reduction Plan' will reduce is American jobs, wages, after-tax incomes, energy affordability, and new life-saving medicines. Wow, what an accomplishment," Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) said during remarks on the Senate floor in August 2022.

Earlier this year, House Republicans tried to use the debt ceiling negotiations to roll back many of the law's climate and energy provisions. However, other Republicans have come around and are taking credit for the investments flowing into some of their districts.

In fact, many traditionally Republican states such as Texas or Iowa are leaders in the production of renewable energy, assisted by a rural geography of open spaces with a lot of sunshine or wind. Other GOP strongholds have a manufacturing tradition, with an existing infrastructure and a skilled labor force. This makes retooling a production facility much more feasible, according to Conness.

"Places like Michigan and Ohio, there is that already pre built infrastructure with [them] being the car manufacturing hub of the U.S. for such a long time," he said. "But even in the southeast areas of Georgia, South Carolina, Tennessee, etc. there are strategic locations there."

Conness also credits Republican state governments and officials for being proactive in attracting those investments. Of the roughly $280 billion in green investments that have been announced over the past year, nearly $225 billion have gone to Republican-held districts and states, based on numbers from Climate Power.

Solar Holler team members work to install solar panels on a rooftop in West Virginia.
H.J. Mai / H.J. Mai
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H.J. Mai
Solar Holler team members work to install solar panels on a rooftop in West Virginia.

For people like Millner, investments in green technologies are not only crucial in the fight against climate change. They are also critical for the future of communities that in the past depended largely on fossil fuel jobs.

"It's so frustrating to hear these people 'poopoo' solar and renewable energies, and I just don't see the logic of it. Because it's just one more feather in our hat to make America more viable for companies to come to, and for Americans to thrive," he said.

President Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris this week hailed the investments and jobs created by the IRA as a success during events celebrating the one-year anniversary of the act.

That administrative push coupled with efforts in states like West Virginia could mean that investments in clean energy jobs and innovation will continue.
West Virginia has seen a steady increase in solar installations over the past three years. The state's largest solar farm, which is currently under construction, will occupy 3,000 acres of a defunct coal mine and provide enough energy to power an adjacent industry park. West Virginia has lost thousands of coal jobs over the past decade as renewable energy sources have become cheaper and it's the government's job to embrace this diversification, said Gov. Jim Justice.

"I'm not here to declare victory on the economy. Our economy is stronger and better than any industrial nation in the world right now. We — but we have more work to do. We have a plan that's running — turning things around. The Inflation Reduction Act is a part of that plan," president Biden said on Wednesday.

The audio version of this story was edited by Lima Abdullah and produced by Chad Campbell. Treye Green edited this digital piece. contributed to this story

Copyright 2024 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

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