Over 90 percent of US power generation comes from large, centralized, highly polluting, nonrenewable sources of energy. It is delivered through long, brittle transmission lines, and then is squandered through inefficiency and waste. But it doesn't have to be that way. Communities can indeed harness their own local, renewable energy resources. In Power from the People (Chelsea Green Publishing, 2012), author Greg Pahl explores how homeowners, co-ops, nonprofit institutions, governments, and businesses are putting power in the hands of local communities through distributed energy programs and energy-efficiency measures. In the following excerpt from chapter 3 “Rethinking Energy,” Pahl explains why local ownership of renewable energy is necessary to meet the ever-growing threats of climate change.
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As we move farther into the uncertainties of the twenty-first century, rethinking energy has shifted from an option to a necessity — and it involves taking a fresh look at how we produce and consume energy at every level, from the home to the community, region, and beyond. Critically, it also means rethinking how decisions are made about our energy system — and who makes those decisions.
Because most of the elected officials in Washington, DC, can’t see past the next election cycle, it’s become increasingly obvious that waiting for Congress or the president to “do something” productive about our fossil fuel addiction and climate change isn’t enough. And the problem isn’t just our elected representatives. National governments everywhere tend to be reactive rather than proactive, particularly with such crucial, complex issues. That’s why getting organized at the local level is so important. Fortunately, we don’t need permission from Congress to proactively begin addressing long-term energy issues from the ground up. And best of all, we can start immediately. This is an opportunity to rethink many of the basic assumptions about how our society and economy function from an energy standpoint. Those assumptions have led to many unsustainable patterns in our daily lives that we need to reassess before we can come up with an alternative plan that has a better chance for success in an extreme energy future.
Cheap fossil fuel energy has given us decades of economic growth, most visibly in the form of economic globalization: Most every U.S. household now enjoys the benefits of cheap imports like electronic gadgets from Asia, out-of-season fruit from South America, and trendy apparel from just about everywhere. But cheap energy has also had many negative consequences. Cheap oil spurred the phenomenal growth of interstate highways and automobile-dependent suburbs, and all those cheap foreign goods (sold in megastores accessible only by car) have decimated domestic manufacturing. Cheap coal and natural gas led to poorly designed housing (especially tract housing in suburbia) that is enormously inefficient to heat or cool.
If we start to seriously rethink energy, this leads to some pretty basic questions about other aspects of our “normal” lifestyles. Is it sensible to have a lifestyle that requires piloting a giant, expensive vehicle many miles every day to meet even the most basic needs of getting to work, acquiring food, and meeting up with friends and family? Does anyone truly need a five-thousand-square-foot, three-car-garage McMansion that requires hundreds of dollars’ worth of natural gas (or oil, or electricity) every month just to keep it habitable?
Rethinking our homes and our personal lifestyles are good first steps, but they will only get us so far. If we’re going to be serious about preparing for the era of extreme energy, we need to extend this rethinking of energy to our communities as well.
Local and Regional Energy
Fortunately, it’s not necessary to live in a totally new community that has been designed for maximum energy efficiency in order to make productive use of local energy. There are many ways existing buildings and communities can be retrofitted for smarter energy consumption, and even production. Around the country, people and organizations are finding local energy solutions and innovations that save money, boost their local economies, and build local resilience. And as we’ll see throughout this book, local ownership and local control are key to many of these efforts — both because that’s how the benefits of local energy are kept in the community, and because it’s often the local citizens, business owners, and government leaders who are most familiar with local resources, needs, preferences, and potential pitfalls. What you have to work with in terms of local energy in your own community may surprise you.
Until fairly recently, it has never occurred to many communities that they may have lots of local energy opportunities in their own backyards (or on their rooftops). But when you start rethinking energy to look at ways of becoming more energy-resilient that don’t necessarily rely on centralized, corporate-dominated utilities, a wide range of new possibilities begin to come into view. This has the potential to turn the usual “not in my backyard” arguments into “please in my backyard,” especially if the community stands to benefit directly.
So what exactly is local energy? There are many possibilities. Simply stated, local energy projects rely on locally available renewable energy resources that serve local needs. One of the most obvious would be individual homeowner projects for solar hot water or PV-generated electricity that rely on the sun. That’s about as local as it gets. But local energy can also include larger neighborhood, municipal, educational institution, cooperative, small-business, and commercial projects of many types. Another possibility might be a combination of these kinds of projects with, for example, a municipality working with a local cooperative (WindShare in Toronto, Canada, immediately comes to mind). There are many different possibilities, and there is no one “correct” approach. The best match between your available resources and your community’s needs is the one to choose. If it’s locally based and (preferably) locally owned, it qualifies as local energy. A community wind farm (or even just a single wind turbine) that is locally owned and generates electricity for the community qualifies. A large-scale, commercial wind farm owned by a distant corporate entity that sends its electricity — and profits — out of town does not really qualify.
In some situations it makes sense to step back from local initiatives to look at how those individual projects might fit together in the regional picture. Not every community has a viable site for hydropower, but it might have a great site for wind energy. Another community might have excellent sites for large solar PV projects, but none for wind. A regional strategy allows communities to benefit from one another’s strengths. It also means communities can share information, avoiding the need to reinvent the wheel for every project. A regional approach can especially make sense in an area where political boundaries artificially bisect a distinct energy-producing area such as a watershed or a mountain ridge.
In addition, some local renewable energy strategies are large enough to have a regional impact. Community biomass projects are a prime example. A number of communities in New England and New York have been studying possible district heating and power projects that are large enough to negatively impact forest resources in the surrounding region due to the potential for overharvesting. This has led a number of organizations collaborating on community-scale biomass projects to implement pre-feasibility studies, sustainable harvesting plans, and other services. The Regional Renewable Energy Advisory Network, based at the Northern Forest Center in Concord, New Hampshire, is made up of several dozen regional nonprofits, community groups, educational institutions, wood products industries, and state and federal agencies. The network has also collaborated on producing indexes, system diagrams, planning guides, financing forums, and roundtable discussions to advance greater sustainable use of available biomass resources.
In a separate initiative, the Nashua Regional Planning Commission in Merrimack, New Hampshire, has been assisting local community energy planning efforts for several years, according to Jill Longval, the group’s environmental planner. “We started by helping communities do a basic inventory of their energy use to help them to see what they were spending on energy, how much energy they were using, what buildings were using more energy than others, and so on.” More recently, the communities have started to use a regional approach to explore their renewable energy options. “There’s a lot of research that goes into it, and communities can learn from each other when we take a regional approach,” Longval says. “This has been a beneficial process to go through at a regional level rather than burdening each community with starting from scratch with all the research.” This strategy can make a lot of sense for many other communities and regions across the nation.
This excerpt has been reprinted with permission from Power from the People: How to Organize, Finance, and Launch Local Energy Projects , published by Chelsea Green Publishing, 2012. Buy this book from our store: Power from the People.