Solar and wind energy are increasingly popular options for powering your home. However, not everyone can make these renewable energy systems work for them on their own property — maybe your rooftop is not good for solar because it’s shaded by trees, or you are in a valley shielded from winds strong enough to power a turbine. Or, maybe home-scale wind and solar are simply too much to ask of your wallet right now. What do you do in this situation, then, when you want to power your home with renewable energy sources, but they just don’t seem feasible for your situation or home site?
Homeowners have another option. Community-scale renewable energy projects, such as solar parks and wind farms initiated and funded by individual neighborhoods or towns, are popping up like dandelions in a city park.
What does community-owned renewable energy look like? Colorado recently installed the largest community solar farm. The 5-acre, 858-kilowatt Garfield Community Airport Solar Array is sited on an otherwise unusable south-facing hillside at the Garfield County Airport. The array’s 3,575 panels will produce more than 1.5 gigawatt-hours of clean, renewable energy each year, serving up to 350 members of a community group that calls itself the Clean Energy Collective. But this is just one large example; community-based energy comes in smaller packages, too.
Energy collectives such as the Colorado group put the power of energy procurement in the hands of rate-payers. Typical, fossil-fueled energy systems are governed by inconsistent rules and opaque, unaccountable organizations. The average citizen has little understanding of how it works, who is in charge, or how it might change for the better. The financial benefits of electricity, like power generation itself, tend to be centralized, concentrating in the hands of shareholders and executives. Community wind and solar, on the other hand, are governed by rules and regulations drafted and voted on by community members. This is true energy democracy.
The U.S. Department of Energy divides community energy projects into three broad models:
- Utility-Sponsored Model: A utility owns or operates a project that is open to voluntary ratepayer participation.
- Special Purpose Entity (SPE) Model: Individuals join in a business enterprise to develop a community-shared solar project.
- Nonprofit Model: A charitable nonprofit corporation administers a community-shared solar project on behalf of donors or members.
As Greg Pahl says in his new book, Power From the People, 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,” Pahl says. “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.”
One great part about community-based renewable energy is that it’s not a risky, experimental model at all. North Americans can look to Northern Europe for examples of community energy systems that have been hugely successful for years. The experience of community wind in Denmark and Germany is particularly instructive. Not only are the wind turbines (or clusters of turbines) distributed across the landscape, the ownership is spread across hundreds of thousands of individual participants. Pahl tells us that “a quarter of the wind generating capacity in Denmark has been developed by windmill guilds (or vindmølleaug) roughly equivalent to what would be called cooperatives in North America. And in Germany, as much as one-third of the nation’s wind capacity has been built by associations of local landowners and residents, also known as Bürgerbeteiligung. Individual German investors have installed as much as 4,000 megawatts of wind-generating capacity, an investment of over $4.8 billion. About 200,000 people in Germany own shares of a local wind turbine.” Learn more in Community-Supported Wind Power.
So, you like the idea of community-based renewable energy. How do you get started? Don’t go at it alone. Begin by talking to your neighbors and finding out their level of interest. Many may not know much about renewable energy, or what it means to be a “locavolt.” Organize a meeting — going through established channels such as church or civic groups can be helpful — to educate your neighbors and rally support. For example, schools have found great success with wind power. You’ll want to work with your town from the beginning. Including all stakeholders from the onset is the best way to foster inclusive buy-in for your idea.
Most of all, remain confident in your path toward cleaner, sustainable energy. Get in with the right crowd by joining a solar energy or wind tour and educate yourself on the many benefits of renewable energy systems built through community willpower. Demanding your right to energy democracy is also the right thing to do.
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