Published on December 28th, 2012 | by Zachary Shahan2
Community Power: Renewing Communities Through Renewable Energy
Who would have a better understanding of a community’s needs than community members themselves? And who can come up with better solutions to those needs but the community itself?
Whether the need is economic, financial, environmental, or a combination of the three, local communities can respond to such needs through community-based renewable energy projects — or as we call them, Community Power projects.
There is much meaning behind the name Community Power. It does not only refer to electrical power generated by a community; it also implies individual and community empowerment.
Community Power enables individuals to take steps towards the betterment of the environment, their communities, and also their personal finances. It also enables these individuals to gather for a common purpose and achieve something extraordinary, as a community. This is where true economic, environmental and social sustainability lies. Through igniting individual behaviour change and community solidarity, Community Power starts an empowering process that enables communities to provide local solutions to their local needs for the long term.
Local Ownership Pays Off — For Everyone!
Whether the locally generated electricity is sold to the grid or used to offset electricity costs through net metering or behind-the-meter usage, project owners receive a direct financial benefit from community power projects. A recent study from Germany revealed that half of all economic activity generated through a project returns directly to the pocket of project owners, or in other words, community members.
Community-based energy projects not only benefit their owners economically, but they lift up the entire local economy through additional employment and business opportunities as well as the creation of surplus dollars.
A National Renewable Energy Laboratory study found that the impact of community-owned projects on jobs creation during construction period is 1.1 to 1.3 times higher than corporate ones, and 1.1 to 2.8 times higher during operations period.
The employment and investment impact of community-owned projects can also go beyond a local community. Community ownership played a pivotal role in Germany and Denmark becoming global leaders not only in renewable energy generation but also in energy research & development and systems manufacturing. Currently, more than 50% of Germany’s renewable power is generated by community-based projects, and 80% of Denmark’s world-renowned windmills are cooperatively owned.
Going back to the local level, it has been shown that the surplus dollars generated by community-owned projects through ownership, employment and other business activities have a high chance of being spent within the community. A study by Iowa Policy Project shows that financial resources that remain in the community are more than five-fold for small wind projects owned by local community members compared to large wind projects owned by out-of-state companies.
Community Power projects are versatile, because their strength lies in a local community’s strength. Communities may be urban or rural; have a large tax base or not; may have a strong potential for whether solar, wind, biomass or hydro power. There is something that Community Power can do for all of them.
Community Power Leads Us Towards ‘Negawatts’
While some may think the environmental benefits of community power projects go without saying, they actually go much deeper than one may initially think! Yes, generating our electricity from clean sources is important, but in order to combat climate change in a comprehensive and sustainable manner, conservation is indispensable. It is even widely recognized that conservation before any energy generation takes place is much more cost and time effective than combating the negative effects of climate change after the fact.
As underlined by Patrick Devine-Wright, the current scheme of centralized global electricity production from traditional sources creates a significant ‘spatial and psychological distance’ between energy generation and energy use. In simpler words, we just flick on and off without knowing where and how out electricity is generated, and without even a basic understanding of the economic, social, environmental, and personal impacts of electricity generation and use.
Local ownership provides community members a direct stake in clean energy generation, and thereby reduces that ‘spatial and psychological distance’ and encourages a culture and behaviour change regarding electricity use. Community members, who are now more aware of how and where their electricity is generated, are also much more likely to consume it wisely.
In shorter words, Community Power helps individuals become more connected to themselves, the environment, their community, and to the world.
Securing Our Energy Future
Besides generating clean energy, community-owned projects also provide a more comprehensive and sustainable solution to our energy issues.
Generating electricity close to where it is consumed reduces efficiency losses during transmission. This can speed up the transition towards distributed power generation from centralized sources, protect the environment, and generate economic benefits at the micro and macro levels.
Distributed generation also increases a local grid’s reliability towards reducing its dependence on outside sources. It is safe to say that Community Power paves the way towards a safer and more reliable energy future.
Community power projects are not only gaining momentum because of the economic and environmental advantages they provide, but also because of the immense social benefits they offer. Community-owned power projects encourage community-building and social cohesion as a group of ordinary citizens is presented with the opportunity to come together and achieve something extraordinary.
An essential part of ensuring community power projects keep thriving lies in communicating the benefits of renewable energy and community ownership. Educating the public about the significant impact and tangible benefits that community power projects offer can also help convince higher-level policy makers that they can take actions that significantly improve the quality of life in their neighbourhoods and districts. And where better to start the chain of education than with our future leaders?
Today, most of us just flick switches on and off without knowing where the electricity that powers our many gadgets comes from. Patrick Devine-Wright attributed this ‘psychological distance’ between energy generation and energy use to the current scheme of centralized global electricity production from traditional sources. One significant way in which we can bridge this mental gap is to educate our younger generation about where their electricity comes from. When kids are taught about energy production, it allows them to feel more connected to themselves, the environment, their community, and the world.
Take SolSolution for example. They are a Boston-based green startup that provides solar energy solutions for K-12 schools and are dedicated to educating our next generation about renewable energy and community power. It has a clear yet powerful dual mission that seamlessly fuses community power and education.
The solar panels on the roofs serve as a catalyst for engaged, hands-on learning, and the students play an integral role in assessing their own school’s solar capacity. The panels drive students’ curiosity and interest in renewable energy projects and green entrepreneurship opportunities. By experiencing a solar installation firsthand, students are motivated to take their experience another step further. Whether it be talking with a skeptical parent or teacher about the benefits of green energy or being inspired to pursue their very own community power project, students’ newfound knowledge moves them to take action. This, in turn, inspires parents, teachers, and neighbors to get involved after they witness how excited their kids are about green energy initiatives. By educating our future leaders and the general public about the importance and value of community power projects, many people will be motivated to make a difference in their own communities, fueling new, lasting and effective community power initiatives. When students are provided with the chance to see the concrete benefits of clean energy solutions, it allows them to connect what they are learning inside their science and math classrooms with possibilities outside the classroom in the present and future to make a difference for the world.
Community power projects are capable of producing great economic benefits both at the micro and macro levels and building a strong foundation for a safer and more reliable energy future. But the social benefits that they bring are where the real magic lies. These locally-owned projects have the capacity to bring entire neighbourhoods together by strengthening their core identity as a green community. From there, this joint, concerted effort can demonstrate the measurable and significant impact individual choices and actions have on our environment. That sense of ownership leads to a sense of pride in a community, improving the natural and social environment overall. Isn’t that the type of neighborhood you want to live in?
Students are not the only community members who can benefit from learning about and starting their own community power projects. Anyone has the power to start a community power project, and by teaching people to embrace the positive change that comes along with community-based renewable energy projects, we can light up the path to a better, brighter future for us all.
What do you think about Community Power? What can it do for your community? Please feel free to contribute to our conversation by leaving us a comment below. Or you can tweet us with your thoughts and questions @thecpreport with hashtag #PowerUp.