Local Self-Reliance: Urban Energy Self-Sufficiency

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ILLUSTRATION: AUGUSTE LANGE/FOTOLIA
The pursuit of energy self-sufficiency in urban areas can deliver economic and public health benefits.

We often hear of homesteaders who install solar systems or
wood stoves to achieve energy self-sufficiency. But
one of the Institute for Local Self-Reliance’s studies has
shown that city dwellers can, like their country cousins, go
a long way toward achieving such a goal for themselves!

A Big City Concern

The cost of energy has rapidly become a major item in all
urban budgets. Using Washington, D.C. as a case study, the
Institute found that the city spent $601 million on energy
in 1977. In fact, the District government used more money
to purchase “power” than it budgeted for its entire court
system! Worse than that, 86¢ out of every one of those
energy dollars left the local economy, never to return, and only 3¢ of the remaining 14¢ went directly into
the pockets of District residents in the form of wages and
salaries. (This kind of “trade deficit” can rapidly drain
the treasury of even the wealthiest community!)

A reduction in the amount of such “exported” money could
have multiple benefits for a metropolis because
energy conservation efforts and solar installations produce
far more jobs dollar for dollar than do investments in
nuclear power plants and oil refineries. On top of that,
the jobs created by “alternative” programs provide
opportunities for both skilled and semiskilled workers. (In
Washington, where half of the city’s teenage blacks are
unemployed, such labor opportunities could be really
valuable!)

Perhaps the biggest benefit of urban energy
self-sufficiency, however, is that investments in power
conservation or solar technology tend to create and nurture
small, locally based businesses. In Washington, for
example, the “energy efficiency industries”–such as
insulation firms–could provide a 45% cut in present “power”
use (excluding transportation) while occupying several times
the city’s current energy-related work force. And those
dollars that formerly left the city could be spent within
the District to the benefit of its citizens.

Such a route is not just an idealistic dream either, because after reviewing information on energy consumption
in the nation’s capital, the Institute estimates that the
city could (without affecting lifestyles or standards of
living) reduce its present “power diet” by 50%. (The
complete report is available from the Institute for $13.)

Clean Solar Cities

Energy self-reliance, however, means a city must generate
its own power supply as well as reduce its consumption of
“imported” energy. Naturally, the potential for solar
technology in any given city depends upon the ratio of
available collector space to living space.

Although Washington has one of the highest densities of
population in the nation, it’s also blessed with an
abundance of flat rooftops and a height limitation on
buildings. Considering the present state of the art in
solar technology, the Institute estimates that–while higher
buildings would require more collector space than is
available on their own roofs–three-story structures could
produce all their thermal and electrical needs through the
use of solar installations.

Economics, of course, will play a major role in such
development. So it’s very important to understand the
different measures by which systems can be judged
“cost-effective.”

For example, if a single homeowner saves only 60¢ in fuel
for every $1.00 spent on solar equipment over the lifetime
of the system, then “sun power” wouldn’t make much sense.
But when the same situation is applied to an entire city,
the figures can be viewed very differently. If
you assume (as in the case of Washington) that only
14¢ of every conventional-energy dollar is retained in
the local economy, the 50¢ of every “solar”
dollar that returns to the city (in the form of payments to
local industries, workers, and taxes) compares very favorably. The multiplying
effect of such “recycled” money can make solar power
extremely economical from an urban and social
perspective.

The challenge, then, exists in the manner in which cities
can use their financing, taxing, and planning authorities
to blend individual self-interest and community interests.
One also has to keep in mind the intangible but very
important benefits of local energy systems:
self-confidence, self-reliance, a clean environment, and a
quiet city.

Ironically, talk about energy self-sufficiency in the
nation’s capital has just begun. It is to be hoped
that–through discussion, education, and experimentation–we
can look back on the energy crisis of the 1970’s as the
catalyst for the development of better, more
self-sufficient communities and cities across the entire
nation.


For the past several years, the good folks at the Institute for Local Self-Reliance in Washington, D.C. have worked to help urban residents gain greater control over their lives through the use of low-technology, decentralist tools and concepts. We strongly believe that more people (city dwellers and country folk alike) should be exposed to the Institute’s admirable efforts … which is why we’ve made this “what’s happening where” report by ILSR staffers one of MOTHER EARTH NEWS’ regular features.