Community power is a necessary step on the path to energy security and community resilience — particularly as we face peak oil, cope with climate change and address the need to transition to a more sustainable future.
Cover Courtesy Chelsea Green Publishing
From the People (Chelsea Green Publishing, 2012) 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. Using examples from around the nation
— and occasionally from around the world — Greg Pahl explains how to plan,
organize, finance and launch community-scale energy projects that harvest
energy from sun, wind, water and earth. The following excerpt is taken from
chapter 2, “Conservation and Relocalization.”
Buy this book in the MOTHER EARTH NEWS store: Power From the People.
Keeping your energy dollars
circulating in your community is one of the biggest benefits of smaller-scale,
local energy, and the key to that is local ownership. Local ownership of energy
resources transforms what would otherwise be just another corporate energy
project into an engine for local economic development. Instead of sending money
out of state (or out of country), dollars spent on local energy projects have a
multiplier effect—direct and indirect—in the community. The direct effect comes
from the construction of the project itself, while the indirect effect relates
to additional jobs and economic activity supplying goods and services to the
project (as well as the profits retained in the community, if it is locally
owned); this might also include local bank loans that keep local dollars
circulating in the community. There is also an induced effect: the economic
activity generated by re-spending the wages earned by those directly and
indirectly involved in the project. All of this combined can add up to a
significant economic benefit for local communities.
Investments in local
renewable energy in particular help the local economy. These projects tend to
be labor-intensive, so they generally involve more jobs per dollar invested (as
much as three times more according to the Wisconsin Energy Bureau) than
conventional energy projects. They also tend to use more local resources, so
more energy dollars stay at home. It’s a win–win situation.
What types of local energy
projects might work in your community? Most of the large, centralized,
fossil-fueled energy systems for coal, oil, and natural gas that we rely on
cannot be scaled down to local community size. Most cities and towns don’t have
oil wells or refineries in their backyards—to say nothing of coal mines.
Virtually none of the sprawling fossil fuel infrastructure is adaptable for
local use. Happily, many renewable energy systems can be scaled down for small
Electricity generation can
be scaled down to the community and individual levels with solar, wind, and
small hydropower, and to the community/regional level with biomass-fueled
electricity generation and (in some locations) small-scale geothermal. On the
downside, wind and solar only provide intermittent power, which can be
unpredictable. Small hydropower, biomass, and geothermal electricity
generation, however, can provide baseload power. Hydropower in particular can
be extremely important in restoring power after a major grid failure. In the
years ahead, if grid failures become more common, local electricity generation
capability will be extremely important. Almost every community should have the
potential for generating at least some of its own electricity.
Liquid biofuels are vitally
important because most other renewable energy strategies are not much help in
the transportation sector. Biodiesel and ethanol can be produced fairly easily
on a community or even individual scale in relatively small quantities (before
they begin to compete with food crops for feedstock). Biodiesel produced from
used cooking oil does not compete with virgin edible oils, but is becoming
increasingly hard to find locally since its use as a biodiesel feedstock has
surged dramatically in recent years. Free used cooking oil from your local fast-food
outlet has disappeared in most locations. Nevertheless, liquid biofuels could
play an important role for essential services in a new downsized, localized
economy, especially in the absence of affordable petroleum.
Biomass — firewood, pellets,
and wood chips — can be scaled up or down to meet a wide variety of needs, from
the individual home up to large industrial-sized projects. It can help replace
some of our current use of natural gas, propane, and oil for space heating.
And, as mentioned above, electricity from biomass is a viable strategy in some
locations with sufficient biomass resources. When the heat produced by biomass
to generate electricity is captured and used for additional productive purposes
(combined heat and power, or CHP), the process becomes much more efficient.
Although some wood pellets are transported long distances, the main limitation
on biomass is the local availability of feedstock, particularly for wood chips
used in larger-scale heating and electricity generation. Because they are bulky
and have a relatively low energy content (compared with fossil fuels), wood
chips cannot economically be transported long distances. Biomass offers a lot
of additional opportunity for local projects.
Biogas facilities are
particularly well suited to smaller local projects. They can be home-based to
generate enough gas for a cookstove, farm-based to supply electricity to the
farm, or industrial or institutional for several buildings or a campus. A
biogas facility can be designed to provide both heat and power, offering the
potential for greater efficiencies. Biogas sources can be landfills, wastewater
treatment plants, and larger-sized food processing facilities. Biogas can also
be used as a substitute for compressed natural gas (CNG) to run vehicles,
although it must first be cleaned of impurities. Biogas can provide additional
sources of income for farmers and rural communities, while reducing odor,
pollution, and waste disposal costs at the same time. There is a lot of
untapped potential for a wide range of local biogas initiatives.
Clearly, there are a lot of
exciting local energy options. But developing local renewable energy does come
with challenges: economic, organizational, political, and even environmental.
It’s also important to recognize that all of the available local energy sources
combined will still not be able to replace our present massive consumption of
fossil fuels, especially in the liquid transportation fuel sector. What this
means is that, out of necessity, we will have to shift our thinking to a much
more local economy and lifestyle — with a strong emphasis on conservation.
This excerpt has been
reprinted with permission from Power From the People
by Greg Pahl and published by Chelsea Green Publishing, 2012. Buy this book from
our store: Power From the People: How to Organize, Finance, and Launch Local Energy Projects.