Local Energy, Local Ownership

When local energy combines with local ownership, the entire community benefits.

| January 17, 2013

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.”  

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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.

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