The lure of community owned renewable energy and why it's ok to be an unsung eco-hero
Sometimes we come across an idea that resonates so powerfully, it immediately shifts our understanding. This happened to me a couple of weeks ago when I read an article entitled “Energy citizenship: Europe’s communities forging a low-carbon future”. It’s a story about the many towns and villages in Europe that have installed their own renewable energy stations in order to power their communities. With one effort, these communities reduced their carbon footprints, decreased air pollution, cut energy bills, and secured their energy supply. The latter two are especially poignant as the invasion of Ukraine continues to disrupt Europe’s energy mix.
My first reaction to the “Energy citizenship” article was bubbling enthusiasm. I thought that’s a very clever all-in-one solution to environmental problems, financial inequities, and energy insecurity. After more research, my thoughts crystalized into the conviction that I should be helping my community to develop its own community energy project. But it wasn’t long before I hit the great wall of Ugg - developing a local renewable energy project is a massive undertaking. There are a lot of laborious steps: permit applications, budgeting, employment of contractors, and empowering the transition to an independent energy cooperative. Indeed, research has concluded that developing local energy is so complex that engaging an advisory organization greatly increases the change of successfully navigating all these steps. So it would seem to be pretty reasonable that I paused on my new crusade and considered what I was getting it.
But rather than gracefully accepting this pause in my newest crusade, I went into a familiar tail spin. I lamented and criticized my lack of commitment and “great achievements” with regard to protecting the environment. One of the major reasons for this lack of grand achievements is that I have wandering mind. I am inspired by exploring lots of different aspects of saving wildlife. I meandered in a similar way in academia - studying star formation, cloud formation on tropical mountains, land-atmosphere gas exchanges, biodiversity, and geo-engineering. Furthermore, I was never as focused on my career as my more academically successful colleagues. Not even close. I am far happier outside of academia now that my life reflects my inner butterfly and I can flit across a patchwork of gardening, writing, activism, yoga, bike riding, Magic the Gathering, nature watching, reading, family, friends … Undoubtedly, there is the same need for consistency, verging on obsession, for reaching eco-warrior pinnacles as underpins a high flying academic career.
And so, mini drum roll please, I’m learning to accept that I’m unlikely to become a great eco-warrior with household name status. I am striving to not give myself grief because I, quite rationally, don’t want to take on a massive admin burden to start up a community energy project. With this growing acceptance, space has opened up to acknowledge that I can be a mover and shaker in my spheres and relief in not having to climb this Everest. Such relief. I’m delighted that I am learning about and communicating eco-issues, decarbonizing my own life, and endeavoring to love and acceptance others. I hope that you too will take a moment to appreciate your efforts in protecting wild life - be it reducing your meat intake or recycling.
Having gotten that off my chest, let’s get back to the cure-all of community owned renewable local energy sources and break it down into its different adjectives: local, renewable, and community owned.
Local energy is simply energy that is produce and distributed within a small region. It could be a solar parking meter, geothermal heating of your house, a wind farm run by a community group, or a solar farm run by a utility company. Local energy is not necessarily renewable, but it often is. Fossil fuel or nuclear power electricity generation lend themselves to large scale production because it is cheaper to run one large plant than it is to run lots of little ones. And nobody is going to build a coal burning plant in their neighborhood, so communities tend to favor renewables. Renewables, on the other hand, are suited to small scale because they take advantage of local environment - e.g. windy or sunny sites.
Many local energy communities remain on their national grid in order to solve the issue of a constant supply of energy - local energy producers can sell excess electricity to the grid and rely on the national grid when the local plant isn’t producing. The national grid itself can suffer from unbalanced supply and demand problems which has led to major regional blackouts in the US in 1965, 1977, 1996, 2003, 2011, and most recently in Texas in 2021 which affected more than 4.5 million homes. Multiple local energy sources can help to protect against regional blackouts as diversity of energy production is inherently resilient. Just as diversity in ecosystems, investment portfolios, and society, makes from stronger systems, making energy in different ways makes energy at the plug less susceptible to any given vulnerability.
In addition to contributing to a more reliable power stream, local energy has the advantage that it doesn’t need to be transported. In the US, about 7% of generated electricity is lost in transmission, which works out to 3% of our total carbon budget, that’s non trivial. Cost wise, energy transmissions account for about 25% of our electricity bills. The electricity transmission infrastructure is so expensive, that the US government guarantees a 12% return on construction costs. Many studies and municipalities have concluded that multiple local sources of energy are less expensive, and more secure, than upgrading the electricity transmission infrastructure to meet growing demand. Local energy, of course, sidesteps most of these transmissions costs.
Next in the hierarchy is local energy sources that are renewable. Although it is more expensive to install a local renewable energy system, than simply linking into the national grid, most renewables have a pay back time of about 6 or 7 years. Once installed, the only cost to generating electricity is maintenance and so savings in the electricity bill quickly pay back for the cost of installation. In many cases, renewable electricity becomes a cash source as excess energy can be sold back to the grid. Once pay back is reach, electricity bills plummet and the consumer avoids price fluctuations and reliance on fossil fuels. Installing local energy production also stimulates local economic growth. One recent study found that local renewable energy jobs could replace all coal jobs, while also filling in the electricity gap, if coal plants in the US were closed.
Local renewable energy is, of course, also part of the answer to climate change. Fossil fuel combustion for electricity generation is responsible for 40% of the CO2 emissions in the US, as well as 67% of sulfur oxides and 23% of nitrogen oxides - the two major contributors to poor air quality. Currently 20% of the US electricity comes from renewable energy, but this could easily be much more.
The gold standard of local energy is community owned renewable energy - which is just what it sounds like - a community that bands together to build a local renewable energy plant. Over 7000 communities in the EU, produce and distribute local renewable energy to their residents. Over 100 communities in the US are powered by 100% clean energy. The reason community owned renewable energy projects are the gold standard is because they add social benefits to the list of financial and environmental ones. Community owned renewables are demonstrably more democratized, collaborative, and socially just than traditional top down energy markets. Lurian Klein, an academic who studies energy communities, comments that community owned energy plants “reinforce positive social values, really strengthen empowerment and social engagement”. No wonder I got a bit starry eyed when I first read about these projects.
Although I’m not going to spear head an effort to get my neighborhood running on renewables, thinking about these project means I am making changes. Just this morning I got an email about a nation wide event called Redesigning Our Communities for Life After Fossil Fuels. I might have deleted that email out of hand before I wrote this article, but now I’m hoping this event will teach me more about developing community energy. I’m also in the midst of signing up with a local solar farm which I was delighted to find while researching this article. Supporting them will promote more solar farms and will reduce my electricity bill by at least 10%.
It occurs to me as I finish writing up this article, that my approach to activism, with all its varied branches, is highly diverse. By not focusing on converting my community into a mecca, I’ve managed to slashed my carbon footprint by 40% by simply changing my energy supplier amongst many other changes from writing these newsletters. Diversifying my efforts means I have time to fill my basket with the low hanging fruits of eco-conscious living and sharing these ideas with others. Diversification supports resiliency. In the end, I may well be making a larger impact than if I dedicated my life to an energy project that might never see the light of day. But whether larger or smaller, the many pronged approach to eco-action is the method which suits me and therefore is the best approach for me - because I’ll do it. We are, each us, different, but I hope these musings help you to accept that your actions to save wildlife make a difference. Whatever shape they take.
In the immortal words of George Elliot:
“… the growing good of the world is partly dependent on unhistoric acts; and that things are not so ill with you and me as they might have been, is half owing to the number who lived faithfully a hidden life, and rest in unvisited tombs.”
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