Michelle Moore has been invited to deliver the keynote address at the 2024 Indiana Sustainability and Resilience Conference, to be held Friday, Feb. 9, 2024 at the IUPUI Campus Center.
Moore is author of “Rural Renaissance” and CEO of Groundswell, a nonprofit organization that builds community power by eliminating energy burdens and increasing economic opportunity with community solar, resilience centers, residential energy efficiency, and pioneering research.
A social entrepreneur and former White House official with roots in rural Georgia, Moore is a relentless agent for change. Her accomplishments range from cutting the government’s energy bill by $11 billion and deploying 3.2 gigawatts of new renewable energy for President Obama, to developing LEED into a globally recognized brand for the US Green Building Council.
Moore also serves as a Senate-confirmed member of the Tennessee Valley Authority Board of Directors and as Secretary of the Board for the Interdenominational Theological Center. Her work is rooted in her faith and the commandment to “love your neighbor as yourself.”
The following interview was conducted in October 2023. It has been lightly edited for length and clarity.
How long have you worked in the sustainability field and in what capacities?
Little crazy to say, but going on 30 years. I got my start in sustainability in my hometown of LaGrange, Ga. working at Interface for Ray Anderson. Ray was the founder, CEO, and chairman of the company, which is a global carpet and textile manufacturer, and he was the first CEO of a US public company to declare his commitment to becoming fully sustainable and, ultimately, regenerative.
From there, I went on to work with a tech startup focused on bringing sustainability criteria into how we search for and find the building materials that we need. I was with the US Green Building Council for many years and helped to build the global green building movement, which was an incredible blessing.
From there, I joined the Obama administration and served in the Obama White House for four years, leading sustainability across the entire federal government and then the President’s infrastructure delivery office, which was all about finding ways to work together and apply a lot of integrated design principles from sustainability.
For the past eight years, I’ve been blessed to lead Groundswell, which is really where my heart is, connecting sustainability to real life, with real benefits for people like my neighbors in my hometown. I love it. It's joyful work every single day.
What inspired you to pivot your career toward communities like your hometown of LaGrange, Ga. and work with rural and disadvantaged communities?
When I was working at the White House, I realized that I had dedicated my career to helping big organizations, but I had never done anything that would have a direct beneficial impact on everyday working people like my grandparents. I wanted to make a shift.
I was so grateful for the opportunity to join and lead Groundswell. The mission is all about community power. So instead of thinking, “Okay, how can we maximize greenhouse gas reductions and XYZ manufacturing process”—which is important, but those big companies have plenty of money to go figure that out themselves—I wanted to figure out, “Okay, how can we maximize energy efficiency and comfort for families living in millhouses,” like the homes that my parents grew up in and my grandparents lived in all their lives, where the utility bills could be $400 to $500 in a given month if the temperature got cold enough. That's where I wanted to focus. And it was just really that love for people and love for places like where I grew up that inspired me to make that shift.
When I talk about love for people and place being the root of my inspiration to make this shift for myself professionally, it's all really grounded in my faith. I’m a Christian. I believe that it is our job to love our neighbors as ourselves, and that is a very expansive command. The thing I know how to do is energy and sustainability. It’s kind of geeky, but that's what I can do every day to love my neighbor as myself—think about our energy systems and how they can provide for the needs of people, our communities, our society, and our economy.
In your book, you talk about creating a rural renaissance. What does a rural renaissance look like to you and why is clean energy an important part of that picture?
As I was researching the book, I found more and more people want to live in rural communities or smaller towns, but that's not where most people live. Most people live in more urban communities. Why is that? Well, it's hard to have a family-sustaining job in a rural place. Even if you're a business person, if you're thinking about moving your business to a rural place, it's hard to find rural places that have access to broadband and the energy infrastructure that you need to run your business
When I think about a rural renaissance, my vision is that our small towns, our rural places, would be places that families could thrive for multiple generations. No one has to move away just to get a decent job. You can stay put if that's what you want to do, or you can move to the city if that's what you want to do, or you can move back home after living in the city if that's what you want to do. That hasn't been the case for a lot of years because there's been so much outmigration and also just so much incursion, so much rural land loss and agricultural land loss to urban development.
So how could we reverse and rebalance that? Energy is a huge part of that equation. It's an enormous industry. It's an industry that's going through a massive transformation when you think about decarbonization. And then also the introduction of all these distributed technologies that allow us to do more stuff locally, which we just didn't have the technology to do before.
It's fundamental to all these big businesses and manufacturers coming back to America. Their decisions about where to put their factories, where to put the places that have the jobs, has a lot to do with where they can get enough energy to power the plant. So energy is fundamental to economic development and quality of life in so many ways, being able to harness that transformation and harness this enormous investment—the biggest investment in a hundred years that America is making in energy, rural energy in particular. That's a wave you want to catch to build that future where rural communities are thriving and where people can live and stay for multiple generations.
What have been the greatest barriers to realizing this vision up to this point?
If we're talking about federal investment, even with all the grant funds and low-cost financing that is out there, there's a whole lot of paperwork in-between. If you're living in a smaller place, if you're a leader in a smaller place, you know a lot of times the institutions—the municipality, the county government, the town or city government—everybody's as thin as the rural economy. It can seem pretty daunting. Even if you could go and get $10 million to build your project, it doesn't matter if you don't have anybody who can write the grant that it takes to get there.
A whole lot of these federal dollars need to land in rural America, but that won't happen without focused, intentional effort. And it won't happen unless folks who've been in this stuff for a long time pitch in and support their neighbors.
How is Groundswell working to help communities overcome some of these challenges?
Groundswell builds stuff. We build community power, and we mean that in every way. On the front we work with community partners to identify the opportunities, develop the programs, and go after the dollars. A great example is the SOUL program that we've been advancing in my hometown and across rural Georgia.
When we think about a family's experience with energy—and in rural America, particularly if you're a working family with low or moderate income, chances are you're paying the highest energy bills in your community. It's not because the electricity rates are high but because of poor energy efficiency of housing. Rural housing is in a state of disrepair writ large, and if it's hard to make ends meet, you're not fixing roofs and upgrading windows.
Groundswell looks for ways to pull forward the value of the energy savings—paying for energy improvements now with future savings. And then, partnering to find grant sources to really get in there and do the repair and maintenance work.
Groundswell has partnered with communities, done the data work, identified where the need is, and how much money is required to start fixing people's houses. We're in there doing it. We will have just completed 25 pretty significant home repairs across Troop and Herd counties in Georgia, and we’re getting ready to do another couple of dozen in the next year.
These are often multigenerational homes. They have a lot of repair and maintenance needs, including roofs, windows, plumbing. To be able to get in there and get the houses right makes way for energy efficiency. We typically see cuts in bills by 33%. And you know, that's real money back in people's pockets. That's a mortgage payment, or that's several trips to the grocery store. It makes a meaningful difference in people's lives.
Some rural communities in Indiana and elsewhere have been hesitant to embrace clean energy, particularly industrial-scale solar and wind farms. Do you have thoughts on why this is and how we might better work with communities on clean energy?
Some of it is misinformation. There's a lot of misinformation floating around these days, regardless of the topic. And so part of the solution, I think, is just having trusted data out there from trusted sources that can help dispel the myths and rumors. But there's a significant part of the pushback that’s very substantive. I've heard from friends and colleagues in Georgia living in rural areas where a lot of the big projects get built to support corporate demand, which is not bad in and of itself. But what are the local people getting out of that project? That’s the question.
The infrastructure that we currently have creates tax payments, so there's some tax revenue that comes to the county or to the municipality, which isn't insignificant. But how about sharing some of the savings? How about bringing some of those jobs to rural areas or how about working together to understand what local economic development priorities are and how the development of these projects can really help to meet those needs in creative ways?
Some of that's happening. There is a recent transaction that Google did with Sol Systems where their solar purchases are helping to invest in repairs, maintenance, and energy efficiency for low-income residents in North and South Carolina.
I think we need a much more systemic approach at the state level that adopts some of these best practices and really listens to people's concerns, like about farmland. How about having some best practice rules about prime agricultural land and energy production so that we're not taking heritage farmland out of agricultural production in favor of a large-scale solar project.
We should be able to look at best practices for sustainability, land use, and integrated planning to solve some of these problems so that we're not just fighting about it.
In Indiana, about half of generated electricity still comes from coal-fired power plants, with solar and wind providing a small but growing percentage of power generation. What can Hoosiers do to accelerate the transition to clean energy?
The first thing I would do is—particularly where you've got local utilities, where you've got municipal utilities, and you've got rural electric cooperative utilities—look at what you can do locally. Where can you align having locally generated power to increase your resilience to storms, or other things that knock the power out, to benefit the local community? Getting clean power, with lots of benefits surrounding it, builds a lot of really wonderful momentum.
So number one, get moving on the local level. Number two, Iook at your big industries and think about it from an economic development perspective. There are more than 350 companies at this point who will only purchase clean energy, which also means they won't consider your community for a new facility or for new jobs unless they can get clean energy there. But we want to make sure the projects that get built also have broader benefits. So engage with your big industry through that economic development lens to increase the amount of clean energy that you're producing within your state.
The third thing I would say is really dig in on energy efficiency. It is the least sexy thing in the clean energy pantheon, but you feel the benefits. If your community or utility does not have an energy efficiency program, get one started. It's a wonderful time for it. There are tons of tools and lots of local businesses out there that can implement energy efficiency, too. Those create local jobs, and they're good jobs, too.
Those are the three things that I would recommend as the first places to start to build that momentum. Yes, you're getting more clean energy. Yes, you're reducing greenhouse gas pollution and dependence on fossil fuels. But you're also really building into your local economy, building into your community, and building into the comfort and quality of people's lives.
You’ve noted that the Inflation Reduction Act contains the single largest investment in rural electric cooperatives since their founding, with $9.7B allocated. How might cooperatives apply these funds to benefit their members?
There's some beautiful symmetry here. In the 1930s when rural America was being electrified with the TVA, rural cooperatives, and small municipal utilities around the country, there was this incredible spirit of local self-reliance. And it was all about economic opportunity and improving quality of life. It wasn't just about the electricity.
That's where we are now, too. Massive investment—it's not just about the electrons. It's about the value to our communities and our ability to thrive in the future—not just financially, but to thrive from the quality of our lives and the quality of our environment, too.
If you're a smaller cooperative or a smaller municipal utility, there are a lot of folks who are there specifically with programs to support you in this. So reach out to those people, like the Beneficial Electrification League and the Rural Climate Partnership.
And then, if you want to just dip a toe in and you've got a project or a set of projects that you'd like to fund, check out the Milken Institute's Community Infrastructure Center. It's also a free tool. It takes 15 or 20 minutes to profile your project, and it will literally give you a list in rank order of all the federal and other philanthropic funding opportunities out there that might apply to your work. There are a lot of helping hands out here with a lot of love for rural America and for our small towns.
Given your decades of work in sustainability, how would you describe the moment we are in right now as the effects of climate change become more pronounced and governments and businesses ramp up their commitments toward reducing global emissions?
We're in kind of this narrow passage, right? The weather is crazy. It's a bit scary out there. The funding environment is abundant. It's more abundant than it's ever been. Lots of ideas. How do you find the expertise to get the ideas done?
We're in that narrow passage before you come out into another open space when we move fully into implementation. I think there's a lot of intensity and excitement and anticipation in that moment. And it can be scary, too, particularly with the media environment that we're in, which is bombarding us with the bad news every day. It can be a little daunting some days.
So I would say, on that front, everybody just stay encouraged and keep your focus local. Keep getting the good stuff done. The headlines may be bad, but the sum total of all the good that we do spreads. Don't lose hope, and take time to be grateful for the abundance of the environment that we're in—because I sure haven't seen anything like this in my 30 years of this stuff.
In the midst of all this activity, how we do we make sure rural communities stay engaged?
One way is to build relationships and stay connected. I spend a lot of my time in small places, but because of the structure of our society, a lot of the people who are the experts—the policy makers, the financiers—tend to live in bigger places and maybe haven't spent a lot of time in small places in their careers or in their lives.
As one of my colleagues, Rev. Mitchell Johnson says, it's about the ministry of presence. Show up. Go put eyes on the places you're trying to serve and get to know the people and build those relationships.
Getting something done tends to cut through a lot of clutter, and it's sustaining. That's how we really share and learn from one another, too. So get out there. If you're a leader in this space, go visit some rural communities, see how this stuff is going, talk to the economic development leaders, talk to pastors, talk to community leaders, talk to the city councils and county commissions. See how it's going, see what their concerns are, and help get some good done.