Local Energy, Local Ownership

When local energy combines with local ownership, the entire community benefits.
By Greg Pahl
January 17, 2013

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
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Power 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 community-sized projects:

Electricity Generation

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

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 Sources

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 Sources

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.  


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