Local Self-Reliance: Alternative Energy for Public Utilities

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PHOTO: FOTOLIA/JOVAN PERIC
Some cities in California implemented environmentally friendly public utilities — and with great results.

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.

But just why do we need MSU’s? Well, to begin with, they
can provide a form of consumer protection service to ease
the fears of people buying into new technologies, help
raise capital on better terms than could be done by single
homeowners or business people and allow the formation
of public/private partnerships that can overcome
traditional building regulations that might hamper
conservation and solar energy development. MSU’s can also
help solve the problem of how to deliver sun-energy
technologies to low-income families or renters.

The California MSU program has compiled an extensive
collection of information about the legal, economic and
political possibilities of MSU’s. New housing developments
are currently using central solar generation arrays owned,
in common, by a homeowners’ association. Cities are
issuing bonds to finance energy conservation and the use of
solar technologies.

And, though California is the only state with a
formal program that encourages this kind of activity,
communities in other parts of the country are getting in on
the action as well. For example, the city of Carbondale,
Ill., (population 27,000) established an MSU program in
January of 1982.

As we noted earlier, municipal solar utility is
actually too narrow a term. The concept has grown
and changed with the times. And, of course, the roles and
functions of traditional agencies are changing, too. Water
departments now harness the power of flowing water to
create electricity, sewage authorities generate
methane gas, sanitation departments burn garbage to
produce steam and electricity and office buildings
install their own power plants. In the same way, an idea
that began with solar pool heaters in one California city
today embraces dozens of variations as neighborhoods,
homeowners’ associations, condominiums, cities and other
organizations experiment with new forms to achieve greater
energy self-reliance.