‘There’s a lot more jobs and investment that could happen.’ Economist says Arkansas could be ripe for renewable energy growth

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FAYETTEVILLE, Ark. (KNWA/KFTA) — President Donald Trump and Democratic challenger Joe Biden covered many topics in last night’s debate, and they discussed the future of America’s energy structure. An Arkansas economy expert said the state is ripe for investments in renewable energy.

Trump and Biden took different stances on longterm strategies concerning eliminating carbon emissions, which the scientific community has long listed as a main cause of climate change.

“Impacts from climate change are happening now,” said a blurb on the U.S. Dept. of Commerce’s National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s website. “These impacts extend well beyond an increase in temperature, affecting ecosystems and communities in the United States and around the world. Things that we depend upon and value — water, energy, transportation, wildlife, agriculture, ecosystems, and human health — are experiencing the effects of a changing climate.”

The National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) reported that over the last century, widespread burning of fossil fuels like coal or oil, “has increased the concentration of atmospheric carbon dioxide.”

Trump adamantly defended America’s natural gas industries and indicated he wouldn’t look to federally implement any plans for widespread renewable energy infrastructure, which would come in the form of solar, wind and nuclear power.

“If you believe in carbon emission, the fumes coming up to make these massive windmills, is more than anything we’re talking about with natural gas, which is very clean,” Trump said. “I love solar, but solar doesn’t quite have it yet. It isn’t powerful yet to run our big, beautiful factories that we need to compete with the world.”

Biden struck a different tone, endorsing a plan for a gradual reduction in the country’s reliance on natural gas toward renewable energy sources, ultimately culminating in a goal to achieve net-zero emissions by 2050. He touted the job-creation possibilities such an undertaking would include.

“I would transition away from the oil industry, yes,” Biden said. “The oil industry pollutes significantly. It has to be replaced by renewable energy over time.”

Many countries, states and companies are moving toward a “green” model, and it’s likely the trend toward renewable energy sources regardless of policy, said political analyst Brian Calfano.

“That’s something corporate America’s gotten behind, and I don’t see that as really shifting much depending on who ends up in the White House,” Calfano said.

Mervin Jebaraj is the Director of the Center for Business and Economic Research at the University of Arkansas’ Walton College. He said Arkansas has a big opportunity to land early investment in what he called a, “toddler industry,” considering its relatively-recent emergence as a key sector.

“There’s a lot more jobs and investment that could happen in that particular space,” Jebaraj said.

In the past, Arkansas served a leader in the country’s oil industry.

“A long time ago, we used to have a lot of well-producing oil fields in Southern Arkansas,” Jebaraj said.

As oil prices fluctuated throughout the 20th century, the state’s oil production was priced out of its viability, leaving the industry to flourish in other states like Texas. Now, Arkansas’ economy is untethered to natural gas.

“Most of the investment is gone,” Jebaraj said. “Most of the players in the Fayetteville Shale Play are gone.”

Jebaraj said massive job creation and a move toward net-zero carbon emissions could be an incentive for the state to be at the forefront of any national push toward heavier reliance on renewable energy. Though Arkansas still trails other states and countries in this growing sector, solar panels have become increasingly popular. Some have posed upgrading the state’s power grid to accommodate an impending shift toward alternative energy sources.

The job opportunities would span multiple fields, Jebaraj said.

“We’re talking about people who go out and install the stuff, people that construct buildings, people who work in research and develop these products, people that work in finance to pay for some of these things,” Jebaraj said.

Though this portion of the debate stood out, Calfano said the future of America’s energy sources isn’t a top priority for most voters. Instead, pandemic recovery still dominates most Americans’ list.

“In this particular situation, I think it’s a blip on the radar,” Calfano said.

In the future, Calfano said this will be an increasingly-important question asked of political candidates.

“When it comes to climate change, doing nothing about it won’t make the situation go away,” Calfano said. “At some point, it’s going to have to be addressed.”

Copyright 2020 Nexstar Inc. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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