Local Self-Reliance: Alternative Energy for Public Utilities

Some California cities are taking advantage of alternative energy sources to power public utilities. Learn more about municipal solar utility.

| May/June 1982

The Institute for Local Self-Reliance works to help urban residents gain greater control over their lives through the use of low-technology, decentralist tools and concepts. Because we believe that city dwellers and country folks alike can profit from the institute's admirable efforts, we've made this "what's happening where" report by the ILSR staffers one of MOTHER'S regular features. 

Alternative Energy Sources to Power Utilities

Until recently, utilities were pretty much limited to offering gas and electric service, but now there are a few that help people make use of "alternative" energy sources as well.

The municipal solar utility (MSU) concept was originally intended to provide a new approach to financing and marketing solar energy systems. The first one — established in 1976 in Santa Clara, California — came into being when the city-owned electric utility made solar pool heaters more attractive to customers by allowing buyers to spread the purchase price over the term of a lease.

The results so impressed the U.S. Department of Energy that it gave a $112,000 grant to the California Energy Commission (CEC) to expand the idea. Since 1979, CEC's Barry Saitman has been doing just that. Under his guidance, the MSU program has been given considerable depth and sophistication.

As a matter of fact, even the phrase "municipal solar utility" has now become a misnomer, since one of the first actions taken by Saitman was to broaden the scope of the program. Therefore, "municipal" now applies not only to cities, but also to community organizations, homeowner associations or condominiums, community development corporations, profit-making firms, and special-purpose jurisdictions (such as school, water, irrigation, and housing districts). And "solar" has come to serve as a blanket term for various energy alternatives: conservation, cogeneration, hydro, biomass, wind, and photovoltaics as well as solar hot water systems.

In 1979 small grants were given to six cities — Palo Alto, Ukiah, Santa Monica, San Dimas, Bakersfield, and Oceanside — to take part in the first phase of the program and rarely has so much been accomplished with so little money! Palo Alto has generated almost $2 million in loans for solar systems and energy conservation measures. Oceanside has attracted more than $15 million in private investment capital to create a sophisticated solar leasing program. Seven local energy staff positions have been established and nine more jurisdictions have entered the program's second phase since 1981.

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