Community Energy: Power from the People

People are controlling their energy security by operating community energy initiatives with renewable energy sources harvested in their own backyards.

  • Black Rock Solar
    An arrowhead-shaped solar array provides electricity to the Pyramid Lake Paiute Tribe Museum and Visitor Center in Nevada.
    Photo by Black Rock Solar
  • Piedmont Biofuels
    Piedmont Biofuels supplies members with biodiesel made in North Carolina from waste oils and fats.
    Photo by Tami Schwerin
  • Kiowa County Memorial Hospital
    After a devastating tornado destroyed much of the town in 2007, Greensburg, Kan., rebuilt as a model sustainable community that incorporates many renewable energy technologies into its new buildings, including the Kiowa County Memorial Hospital pictured here.
    Photo courtesy Kiowa County Memorial Hospital
  • Windshare
    More than 400 people invested in WindShare, Canada’s first community-owned wind power cooperative. The towering turbine in Toronto supplies electricity to about 250 homes.
    Photo by Yvonne Bambrick
  • Harvard Solar Garden
    Residents, businesses and state agencies cooperated to build the Harvard Solar Garden in Massachusetts.
    Photo by Massachusetts Clean Energy Center

  • Black Rock Solar
  • Piedmont Biofuels
  • Kiowa County Memorial Hospital
  • Windshare
  • Harvard Solar Garden

When you pay for the energy you use, where does your money go? Chances are it goes out of town, out of state, or even out of the country. Wouldn’t it be great if you could keep your energy dollars close to home, help create new local jobs and business opportunities, and provide greater energy security and price stability? That’s where community energy comes in. A growing number of people are discovering the many benefits of keeping their energy dollars circulating in their local economies.

Community energy reflects the idea that most of the power consumed in a locality should come from — and be owned and controlled by — the locality itself. Community energy initiatives based on local renewable resources are now emerging across the country. While these projects take a variety of forms, one common element is local ownership. Community energy encourages new ways of imagining our relationship with resources: Think local empowerment.

This trend is especially apparent in the way the national electric grid is functioning as the balance of power shifts to communities. Today’s grid is being transformed from a one-way flow of electricity out of large, centrally located generation plants to a two-way flow that includes many widely distributed renewable energy sources, such as wind, solar, hydropower and biogas. This transition to renewables is opening up new possibilities for community energy initiatives, such as the Harvard Solar Garden and the Piedmont Biofuels cooperative (keep reading for more information on these two case studies).

Starting a Community Energy Project

So, how exactly do you set up a local community energy project? You can choose from many possible financial and ownership strategies, and selecting the right one will depend on a wide range of local issues. Some projects focus on a particular technology, such as solar hot water (as with the Plymouth Area Renewable Energy Initiative in New Hampshire) or biofuels. Others involve a larger enterprise, such as a wind farm or photovoltaic (PV) installation. There is no “right way,” just the way that works best for your group.

While community energy projects can tap almost any local renewable power sources, solar electric is one of the fastest-growing sectors thanks to the dramatic decrease of the cost of PV panels in recent years. Another factor has been the enactment of “group net metering” laws in some states, which allow customers served by the same utility to combine their meters as a single billing entity — thereby granting apartment dwellers the ability to participate in community energy projects. Another advantage of group net metering is that it offers a lot of flexibility for finding a good site to install, say, a large solar array. More and more co-ops, schools, municipalities and nonprofits are navigating their way through the financial, legal and technical aspects of a successful group net-metered solar project. A recent success story is that of Harvard, Mass.

The Harvard Solar Garden

Harvard, a town of 6,000 in central Massachusetts, participated in the Solarize Mass program in 2011, which resulted in the installation of 400 kilowatts (kw) of solar PV panels, serving 75 households in the community. Quite a few residents and businesses couldn’t participate, however, because of site-specific limitations. This roadblock spawned the idea of a separate shared-ownership energy-generation facility — the Harvard Solar Garden.

1/24/2015 8:35:25 PM

Shared energy installations are definitely more viable than individual setups, both financially and in terms of maintenance. However, shared usage of any resource can, without proper monitoring, lead to conflicts within the community. Resource allocation could be shared based on available energy, time, revenue paid or any combination of these. I have focussed on the battery/energy monitoring aspect with my Wattmon product - see for more details.

1/24/2015 2:53:31 AM

Quite an interesting article. Community solar projects must be taken on a large scale. having solar power saves us a lot on electricity bills.Even there are companies that provide solar funds to support solar power installation. For more information visit here



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