Community Power vs. the Kochs

While the oil and gas lobby dominates at the federal level, communities across the United States are making great strides in gaining control of energy production by advancing an impressive range of renewable projects.
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Criticism of energy industry leviathans Exxon Mobil and Koch Industries has gone mainstream, with outlets like the New Yorker and Bloomberg Markets chronicling corporate boardroom machinations that preserve American dependence on fossil fuels, even as the rest of the world experiences a renewable revolution. Exxon, Koch and their industry allies have swallowed the Republican Party whole while seeding a complex of Big Carbon think tanks, climate-change-denying scientists, lobby shops and astro-turf right-wing social movements.

The energy industry straitjacket impedes the adoption of national policies that have fostered growth in solar, wind, biomass and geothermal systems in much of the industrialized world. Although renewable efforts in states like Iowa and California have kept the U.S. on the map in the wind and solar sectors, our lagging position in renewable energy innovation, along with the dependence that comes from our chronic over-consumption of fossil fuels, contributes to American anomie -- the palpable sense that the nation is rapidly losing ground on almost every front in an era of resource scarcity and financial instability.

In Germany, where the stranglehold of corporate energy has been loosened, renewables now comprise 20 percent, of national energy production, thanks to national policies such as feed-in tariffs which guarantee a stable price for power produced by wind, solar and geothermal systems. More than half of German energy is now produced in decentralized sites like homes, farms and community co-ops. This trend toward distributed generation conflicts directly with the corporate energy paradigm of centralized control.

The German model shows that national policies can have a transformative impact that both increases overall renewable energy production while placing ownership in the hands of farmers, small businesses and homeowners.

Renewables Rise at the Grassroots

While the oil and gas lobby dominates at the federal level, communities across the United States are making great strides in gaining control of energy production by advancing an impressive range of commercial-scale renewable projects that are heating homes and powering local businesses from Massachusetts to Oregon. Municipal utilities, community-based co-ops, universities and other nonprofit institutions in both rural and urban settings are executing wind, solar, geothermal and biomass developments.

When combined with the innovative grassroots efforts to retrofit existing buildings for conservation purposes, these renewable energy production programs are placing community-led efforts at the forefront of American innovation. In the process, they are creating a blueprint that could be used to scale-up nationally when and if we develop a rational Federal energy policy fostering both the growth of the renewable sector and democratization of production on the German model.

In Hull, Mass., residents began a campaign to build large-scale wind turbines in 1996. The first turbine was completed in late 2001 and has produced more than 12 million kilowatts to date. A second, larger turbine, known as Hull II, was erected on top of the town's former landfill in 2006 and in its first year produced enough electricity to power all of the Hull's street lights while providing the town with an additional $150,000 from the sale of excess electricity. Hull's two turbines now generate enough electricity to power 1,100 homes as well as the town's street and traffic lights.

Similar community-controlled wind projects have sprouted up across the state of Iowa, placing seven municipalities and about a dozen school districts in control of their energy destinies. The 1.65 megawatt wind farm at Iowa Lakes Community College is among the largest of these community-developed projects, built in conjunction with the ILCC's launch of the first accredited wind turbine training program in the nation.

The Iowa Lakes Electric Cooperative, which operates independently of the college, provides power to more than 12,000 member-owners in eight rural Iowa counties and has developed two wind farms that generate more than 21 megawatts, projects for which it was named wind cooperative of the year by the DOE.

In the realm of community-controlled solar energy, the city of San Francisco, propelled by a citizens movement called Vote Solar, set a new standard for municipal generation with the opening of the Sunset Reservoir development, which includes over 24,000 panels and will generate 5 megawatts daily, tripling the city's solar output and solidifying the municipal utility's ability to meet 100% of the city's electricity needs without burning any greenhouse gases.

San Francisco is also at the forefront of incentivizing residents to produce their own solar power, with rebates of up to $10,000 for residential customers. In 2009, the program's first year, solar installations increased 450%, with more than 800 homeowners taking part.

Solar innovation is also happening in the less cosmopolitan environs of Drake Landing, Alberta, a small town that became the first community on the continent to construct a district heating system powered by the sun. The Drake Landing system pumps solar-heated water through insulated piping flowing to all 52 of the town's homes.

District co-generation plants, which produce heat and electrical energy simultaneously for distribution in nearby communities and large institutions, are increasingly turning to renewables for generation. The largest such system is Minnesota's District Energy St. Paul, which relies on biomass as its primary fuel. Last year, the nonprofit corporation integrated 144 roof-mounted solar panels into its generation system. All told, District Energy St. Paul heats more than 185 office buildings and 300 homes in downtown St. Paul.

The University of New Hampshire has adopted similar co-generation technology, powered by methane emitted from an adjacent landfill, to meet 100 percent of its electricity and heating needs, without burning any carbon-based fuels.

At the community level, grassroots leaders are adapting renewable technologies to meet the needs of their neighborhoods. The Community Power Network has emerged as an association of energy co-operatives and advocacy groups committed to democratizing power production. Affiliated groups include DC Solar United, an alliance of neighborhood-based solar co-operatives in DC; the JOBS project, bringing renewables and green jobs trainings to the heart of Appalachian coal country; and GRID Alternatives, which leads solar installation projects in low-income communities across California.

As renewables are harnessed to meet the heat and power needs of more communities each year, they are proving their viability as greener and more democratic alternatives to the fossil fuel monoliths. The choice between ever more invasive and insidious extraction techniques -- fracking in Marcellus, mountaintop removal in Appalachia and tar sand processing in Alberta -- controlled by mega corporations and the adoption of community-based wind, solar, geothermal and biomass systems is stark.

In the absence of sensible federal policy, some states and cities are taking the lead in supporting the growth of renewables by instituting Feed-in Tariffs (FITs), which establish stable price supports for power that enters the grid from renewable sources. Ontario's FIT has spurred the creation of more than 20,000 green jobs in the wind and solar sectors while recently passed FITs in Vermont, Hawaii and Oregon are showing early gains.

Ultimately, our energy choices will be determined in state capitals and municipalities as community advocates and their allies battle industry lobbyists and their minions in industry-funded think tanks. The competitiveness of our national economy and the health of our global habitat lie in the balance.

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