Community energy initiatives offer a potentially important means for reshaping the electrical system in a manner compatible with emissions reduction goals. Many such initiatives, however, focus upon top-down, institutionally-structured approaches that understand community residents as atomistic, economically-motivated, and minimally engaged. This paper examines a number of case studies that are based upon a bottom-up approach rooted in a civic culture that seeks to maximize the capacities of an active and engaged citizenry. The paper focuses upon two mutually dependent issues: first, recruiting community members, and second, sustaining their participation.
Climate Change and the Grassroots
Buttressed by claims of uncertainty and insisting that the costs of action overwhelmed the benefits of meaningful action, the Bush administration was resolute in its refusal to deal with global climate change (Donaghy 2007; IPCC 2007). It would be unfair, however, to portray the United States as a deep reservoir of inaction. Instead, the most substantive actions meant to reduce the level of carbon and other greenhouse-inducing gases occurred at the subnational level (Byrne, et al. 2007; Hoffman 2007a).
Multi-state regional initiatives, for instance, have been organized throughout the country and include the Western Regional Air Partnership (WRAP), the Northeast States for Coordinated Air Use Management (NESCAUM), the Southwest Climate Change Initiative, the West Coast Governors’ Global Warming Initiative, and Powering the Plains, a collaboration involving North and South Dakota, Minnesota, Iowa, Wisconsin and the Canadian province of Manitoba (Pew 2007). In addition to providing discussion forums for relevant elected officials and policymakers, these partnerships have produced a number of significant greenhouse gas-reducing programs. The Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative (RGGI), for example, involves eight Northeast and Mid-Atlantic states in a cap-and-trade program for power plants in the region (www.rggi.org). Likewise, the Climate Registry is a multi-state and tribal collaboration aimed at developing and managing a common greenhouse gas emissions reporting and reduction system. In many, if not all cases, these efforts have been stimulated by the absence of effective policy at the national level.
Individual states, both large and small, have been equally aggressive in developing greenhouse gas reduction programs. California’s Global Warming Solution Act, for instance, establishes a program of regulatory and market mechanisms to achieve cost-effective reductions of greenhouse gases (Bushnell 2007). California has also pioneered the development of a Low Carbon Fuel Standard (LCFS) which calls for a reduction of at least 10 percent in the carbon intensity of California’s transportation fuels by 2020. Under the LCFS, fuel providers would be required to track the ‘global warming intensity’ of their products, measured on a per-unit-energy basis, and reduce this value over time (Farrell and Sperling 2007). Efforts to establish a LCFS are now taking hold in other parts of the country (Grant 2008).
At the other end of the demographic and geographic spectrum, the state of Delaware has created a Sustainable Energy Utility (SEU) which, according to its proponents, will allow “energy users [to] build a relationship with a single organization whose direct interest is to help residents and businesses use less energy and generate their own energy cleanly. Directly put, the SEU [will be] the point-of-contact for efficiency and self-generation in the same way that conventional utilities are the point-of-contact for energy supply” (McDowell and Byrne 2007). Some twenty-eight other states have developed climate action plans, the intent of which is to provide a “portfolio of measures whose effectiveness derives from the simultaneous and mutually reinforcing effect of each of its provisions” (www.climatestrategies.us). As in the case of Minnesota’s Next Generation Energy Act of 2007, many of these programs were rooted in “the absence of federal action on global warming” (Fresh Energy 2007).
The emissions reduction created by such programs is impressive by any measure. Using conservative estimates that exclude transport policies, Byrne, et al. conclude that collectively, various regional and state commitments represent “emissions reduction of 1,822 million tonnes of CO2 by 2020, compared with the [business as usual] case of 2812 million tonnes of CO2, or a 65% decrease in emissions” (2008, 45) (italics in original).
Local units of government are also aggressively pursuing climate change programs. The International Council for Local Environmental Initiatives (ICLEI), through their Cities for Climate Protection Campaign, has assisted over 800 local units of governments in adopting policies and implementing quantifiable measures to reduce local greenhouse gas emissions, improve air quality, and enhance urban livability and sustainability (www.iclei.org). There are also, of course, many other local units of government that are acting on their own to aggressively pursue climate-friendly strategies (see www.localpower.org).
For many, these regional, state, and local initiatives are understood as a new kind of civic or “grassroots action” capable of creating and sustaining “community-based renewable energy initiatives” (Byrne et al. 2008, 45, 46; see also Bolinger 2004; Mahkijani 2004; Sawin 2004; see also www.windustry.org). Populating this work, however, is an overwhelming attention to a distinctly technocratic set of issues, i.e., the problem of interconnection and feed-in tariffs, the need to produce larger machines that can be more easily integrated into the grid, the development of financial mechanisms that assure profitability to investors, and so on. While these are no doubt important issues, both the policy literature and the work of on-the-ground advocates is largely indifferent towards a range of issues central to any robust sense of community, i.e., participation, civic engagement, governance or any other notion commonly associated with the identification, development or social construction of communities.
A recent report by Alexander Farrell on the problems with the Production Tax Credit (PTC) illustrates this point. According to Farrell, “the SEC provides five ways to gather investors for renewable energy projects and none of them marry the typical wind development model (dozens of turbines) with democratic ownership (many owners per turbine)” (2008, 2). Farrell argues that relatively simple changes in the rules for the PTC could dramatically change this situation, finding that, “if 600 investors could share ownership of a single turbine, over a third of Minnesota could be self-reliant on renewable electricity . . . Amending SEC regulations to simplify ownership of renewable power generators could streamline development and allow democratic ownership” (Farrell 2008, 2-4). An accompanying report by Farrell and David Morris comes to the same conclusion, namely that “better in the long term would be policies that discriminate in favor of local ownership and maximize development that benefits communities,” including a substantial increase in employment, gains in overall economic output, healthier local banks, and substantial income and tax benefits for individual local investors (2008, 34, 22-23; see also Morris 2007).
Yves Gagnon, in addressing the possibilities for community wind energy in the Canadian province of New Brunswick, neatly sums up the point when he argues that the objective of such initiatives “is to maximize the economic impacts of wind energy developments throughout the province” (2008, 9). Democracy, from this perspective, is largely about equal opportunity for financial gain, community participation is limited to the development of a financial mechanism capable of attracting multiple local owners, and governance, including whether, and/or the terms under which, this energy is delivered to the community, is limited to the landowner or those with the capacity to take advantage of the available financial incentives.
Part of the problem is, of course, a lack of clarity regarding just what is meant by an alternative that might encompass an enormous variety of both distributed technologies and social organizations (PCE 2006). Indeed, the label “community energy” has been applied to individuals outfitting their homes with micro turbines and solar PV and/or thermal systems; to small groups of local landowners investing in, or receiving lease payments from, corporate owners of large wind turbines (www.windustry.org); and to urban-based cooperatives supplying district-level neighborhoods with heating or cooling services, perhaps using locally-supplied waste products. As such, a “community energy initiative” can be characterized by the degree of community participation in the creation of an initiative; the manner of governance subsequent to its creation; whether or not locally generated energy is consumed locally (California Energy Commission 2001); the structure of ownership; or by the technology employed in such a system.
While most of what passes for community energy is defined by the last of these possibilities, developers of all sorts have been quick to recognize the value to be gained by framing even the largest of grid-connected projects as ‘community-based.’ According to the Farmers’ Legal Action Group, for instance, a project steeped in the rhetoric of community will likely lead to a “greater acceptance of wind power [since] community wind gives local people a greater say in where and how much wind energy is developed. Further, since more local people and businesses benefit, local support for community wind projects can be greater than for wind projects by large developers. In areas with sensitive habitats and landscapes, this support can be critical” (www.windustry.org).
If community energy is to move beyond its role as a rhetorical device useful for capturing public support for what might otherwise be a controversial project, it is necessary to return to Amory Lovins’ question of more than three decades ago, namely, whether or not it is possible for “everyone [to] get into the act, unimpeded by centralized bureaucracies [and make] energy choices through the democratic political process” (1977, 99). That is, do top-down, institutionally-structured approaches that understand community residents as atomistic, economically-motivated, and minimally engaged define the fullest possible set of community energy initiatives? Or is it possible to realize meaningful, i.e., emissions-reducing, bottom-up approaches rooted in a civic culture that maximizes the capacities of an active and engaged citizenry?
Methods and Cases
To help address these questions, a number of community energy initiatives have been studied in detail. These cases vary along a number of important dimensions, including the geographic location, sponsorship, the preferred technology, and organizational structure. The two most important of these initiatives include:
the Clean Energy Resource Team (CERTs) initiative. Begun in 2003, the CERTs project is a collaborative of the Minnesota Department of Commerce, the University of Minnesota, and the Minnesota Project, a nongovernmental organization. Six regional CERTs teams have been created, with each team bringing together people from various cities and counties, farmers and other landowners, industry, utilities, colleges, universities and local governments. The initial outcome of the project was a strategic vision and a renewable and energy conservation energy plan for each region; and
Linden Hills Power & Light (LHP&L), a community-based organization located in the lakes area of the city of Minneapolis. LHP&L is defined entirely by specific neighborhood boundaries whose work includes a variety of energy-related and waste reduction activities, including the development of a neighborhood anaerobic digester.
Several other initiatives will also be discussed, though with considerably less detail than either CERTs or LHP&L. These include:
All of these cases have been the subject of fairly intense analyses over a number of years. Analysis of the CERTs program began in May 2005 with a survey of program participants who attended regional meetings. The survey used an in-person paper instrument that encompassed a variety of issues, including motivations for participation, recruitment, stakeholders involved in the organization, and knowledge of participants. This was followed by a January 2007 online survey. While the 2005 evaluation surveyed those in attendance at various regional CERTs meetings (n = 59 respondents), the online survey was e-mailed to all those identified by CERTs staff as having a prior or on-going relationship with a CERTs team and whose contact information was maintained on an electronic distribution list (n = 117 respondents). The third phase of the research design consisted of structured interviews with CERTs team members from each of the six regions (Central, Northeast, Northwest, Southeast, Southwest, and West Central) conducted between December 2006 and June 2007. As with all of the case studies, the sample sizes are a reflection of the size of the population being studied.
Analysis of LHP&L began in 2008 with a structured interview of the program staff. This was followed by an on-line survey of what the organization refers to as Compost Captains (n = 50 respondents) and structured interviews with members of the board. A content analysis of the website and meeting minutes was also conducted.
Analysis of both RENew Northfield and PCEC was based on content analysis of websites, meeting minutes, and staff interviews. The analysis of Greenstar Cities was limited to a review of several grant proposals and a content analysis of minutes kept for several dozen meetings throughout 2007 and 2008. Finally, analysis of Metro CERTs was also limited to staff interviews and a content analysis of the organization’s website.
Building a Community Energy Initiative
Building initiatives that maximize rather than marginalize civic engagement requires attention to two mutually dependent issues: first, recruiting community members, and second, sustaining their participation.
Recruiting Community Members
A deeply-rooted grassroots initiative requires that participants be recruited beyond what is usually a small group of initial enthusiasts. An important contribution to untangling the difficult question of how community residents might be transformed into engaged citizens has been supplied by Verba, Schlozman, and Brady’s Citizen Participation Project (1995). While the project primarily centered around explicitly political activities such as voting, campaign work, and other familiar activities, Verba, Schlozman, and Brady also considered things such “running the PTA fund drive or managing the church soup kitchen” as quasi-political in character (1995, 141), mainly because of the transformational process whereby non-political acts lay the foundation for explicitly political acts at some point in the future. The same point is made by Theda Skocpol, who argues that civic organizations often times serve as a valuable training ground for democratic citizenship, offering members the opportunity to experience democratic debate and the rules by which this debate is to take place in a somewhat egalitarian environment (2003).
While community activities may lead to explicitly political activities, the former nonetheless remain distinguishable by their recruitment channels. That is, while most forms of political activity can be motivated by secondary connections or impersonal communications, potential participants for community activities are especially motivated by an act of neighborliness, i.e., being asked by someone you know personally, shared participation in an existing organization or project, information-sharing through community newsletters or circulars and so on (Verba, Schlozman, and Brady 1995).
All of these “personalized recruitment” strategies were evident in the community energy initiatives studied here. During CERTs’ start-up phase, for instance, participants were recruited “via letters of invitation, e-mail meeting notices, on-going press releases, announcements by the Sierra Club in their newsletters, on the CERTs website and via word-of-mouth. Individuals who attended and signed in at meetings were added to the CERTs mailing list and/or listserv” (Pawlisch, personal correspondence 2008). Individuals active in prior energy-related activities were also heavily recruited. For instance, “one of the sponsoring entities, the Regional Partnerships, had helped organize a 2001 conference entitled, ‘Sharing the Load’ that focused on distributed energy issues. When CERTs began we issued paper invitations to that list of conference participants in addition to electronic (e-mail) invitations to those people for whom we had e-mail addresses.” Finally, CERTs staff identified organizations composed of people with high “participation potential,” that is, those individuals who not only have the resources to participate but who are also likely to say “yes” (Brady, Schlozman and Verba 1999).
CERTs participants were clearly aware of the importance of personal appeals in the initial recruitment process. Nearly 60 percent of the 2005 survey respondents, for instance, cited a specific individual or organization in answer to a question about how they became aware of CERTs. At the same time, while some participants recalled being recruited into the project by a particular individual such as a school board member, a boss, or a university professor, others were recruited via another organization in which they were involved or through personal connections related to their interest in energy issues generally. As noted by one participant, “[T]here were a couple of initiatives that a number of us were working on anyway and this CERTs thing came along, and to me it looked like a good opportunity to further the partnerships that were started on some other projects.”
Even more direct “neighborly appeals” were used by both RENew Northfield and the LHP&L initiative. The RENew Northfield project, for instance, began with a letter to the editor in a local newspaper urging interested citizens to attend a meeting meant “to foster the transition of the Northfield area from dependence on nonrenewable sources of energy to sustainability based on the efficient use of locally-owned renewable energy resources.” Twenty-three area residents attended the initial meeting.
The origins of the LHP&L initiative can be traced to even more personal invitation by a local resident that he and a few friends, all of whom lived within walking distance, sit down and discuss what they could do about global warming besides change their light bulbs. Within a few meetings, a bike-to-school event attended by 150 people had been organized, a success which convinced the group that a degree of support existed in the neighborhood for something more substantial. While the initial discussions centered around the construction of a neighborhood-level anaerobic digester, organizers eventually settled on a source separated organic materials pilot program within the neighborhood, in collaboration with the city of Minneapolis’ Solid Waste and Recycling Services department. The pilot program is meant to determine the feasibility of an organic composting program for the city as a whole, and as such, will evaluate a variety of important issues for both the city and the neighborhood, including the willingness of residents to separate organic materials from their garbage, optimal collection frequency and seasonal variations in waste and efficiency, and the development of effective education methods and materials.
Recruiting neighborhood participants into the pilot project was largely the responsibility of the so-called Compost Captains, who were charged with directly contacting neighbors, answering questions, and serving as the liaison between LHP&L and neighborhood residents. Although the executive director of LHP&L initially feared that “no one would show up to talk to their neighbors about garbage,” the calls for Compost Captains were remarkably successful <1> . The online survey of Compost Captains reveals a clear pattern in terms of recruitment to this position. When asked an open-ended question about how they were recruited to be a Compost Captain, the vast majority of respondents wrote, simply, that they volunteered after reading about the program in the e-newsletter, on the website, or in a local newspaper article. A few people mentioned that they knew some of the LHP&L board members, but for most of the Compost Captains, it was as simple as this response: “They asked for volunteers. I said yes.”
The ease with which people could be persuaded to “talk to their neighbors about garbage” is notable, and is, no doubt, strongly influenced by the nature of the neighborhood itself. As pointed out by board members, Linden Hills has a strong identity as a neighborhood that precedes the development of their organization. Indeed, board members routinely described Linden Hills as “a small town in the middle of Minneapolis,” noting that residents could walk to a bookstore, a butcher, a grocery store. Another board member described the presence of front porches and the absence of fences, along with on-street parking, as contributing to the “personality” of the neighborhood, because people see and talk to their neighbors. They have book clubs, holiday parties, and frequent gatherings. The existence of such high levels of casual interaction makes the idea of residents coming together to talk to their neighbors about garbage and how organics separation might reduce their carbon footprint seem natural and comfortable.
All of the initiatives discussed above point to a similar conclusion, namely, that recruitment into community energy programs depends upon an infrastructure of personal contacts and neighborly relations. For many, of course, such “neighborly communities” (Dewey, quoted in Boyte 1989, 130) are aberrations amongst a sea of rootless, privatized, and temporary social interactions. It is clear, however, that any number of “personable” strategies are available to organizers of successful bottom-up, energy-related initiatives. LHP&L, for instance, relied upon what they perceived to be a common community value, namely reducing the community’s carbon footprint through a highly visible, if potentially controversial, anaerobic digester. While this was subsequently reconfigured into a lesser but still very significant program of household-level compost collection, the appeal to a broadly shared notion of “making the neighborhood a better place” through carbon reduction strategies remained.
Other initiatives have succeeded by linking their efforts to shared community assets. The Iowa Policy Project, for instance, reports on a significant number of schools throughout the state that have installed wind turbines connected directly to public educational facilities. Those responsible for the installations report that while the primary motivation is to save money, “in every case, the school’s turbine(s) became a source of community pride. Further, they have presented an educational opportunity, provided security for schools threatened with consolidation, helped schools reduce their environmental impact thereby leading to a better future, and allowed schools to be model members of their community” (Galluzzo and Osterberg 2006, 30).
A CERTs-assisted partner, Park Rapids School District #309, offers a similar experience. As was the case with LHP&L, the idea for an educational wind turbine began with a few community members which eventually grew into a group of 10–15 that met every few weeks. According the lead member of this group, the common attribute of the team members was a desire to improve their community: “[M]embers of the wind committee come from all walks of life, but we share a common interest--to educate area students about clean energy as a viable option for their future . . . When this project is done, we’ll have a 135 foot spinning reminder for the students and the entire community.” Many other community members volunteered their talents to the project, including a local electrician who pledged $2,500 in labor and expertise to help install the turbine (Lahd 2007).
Existing social institutions can also be used as the foundation for personable recruiting efforts (Verba, Scholtzman and Brady 1995; Burns, Schlozman, and Verba 2001). For instance, churches, building upon themes of stewardship and care of creation, are increasingly being understood as vehicles though which neighbors and other acquaintances can tap into commonly-held values and beliefs capable of inspiring the otherwise marginally engaged residents towards common actions (Hoffman 2007b). In the case of climate change, for instance, members of various faith communities are being called upon to undertake personal actions that extend well beyond formal lobbying or appeals for letters to elected representatives. Thus, parishioners and their neighbors are asked to take affirmative, daily steps to curb global warming, including those directly related to their energy consumption habits, i.e., using mass transit, reducing electricity consumption, and/or buying green power (Office for Social Justice 2007).
Successfully recruiting an extended network of participants for a community energy initiative is not predicated upon any particular geographic context, i.e., the rural locations favored by most community wind projects, but upon a proper recognition of the recruiting space appropriate to that context. In the case of a metropolitan-based program such as Metro CERTs, the appropriate organizing space is not the totality of the urban landscape but its building blocks, namely, the neighborhood or even the block or the cul-de-sac.
Securing and Sustaining Participation
If recruitment into community energy activities is predicated on an infrastructure of personal contacts and neighborly relations, continued participation is nurtured and sustained by a commitment to community values. Carolyn Funk, for instance, found that a “societal interest value orientation” is “significantly related to a greater likelihood of working on community problems” and that “a value commitment placing societal needs over personal needs influences participation in community affairs” (1998, 604, 608). To some extent, this conclusion runs contrary to much of the participation literature which tends to emphasize an individualized incentive structure grounded in a rational choice approach. As Funk points out, however, there is no necessary choice between the two, arguing that what drives participation is neither pure altruism nor calculating self-interest, but rather “a mix of desires to benefit the self and others” (1998, 604).
Working along similar lines, Verba, Schlozman, and Brady (1995) concluded that there are four kinds of motivations that might sustain political or quasi-political activity. Three of the four motivations are selective benefits, that is, benefits that citizens could accrue only if they actually participated in the activity. The first of these benefits is material and accrues directly to the individual, i.e., jobs, career advancement, or help with a personal problem. Less tangible are the nonmaterial benefits that derive from a relationship to a larger community, or what Verba, et al., refer to as social and civic gratification. With social gratification, a citizen receives the enjoyment of working with others, and the excitement of politics as a reward for participation. Civic gratification, or feeling a sense of duty or fulfilling a desire to contribute to the welfare of one’s community, which might be construed as Funk’s “societal interest value orientation”, is another example of a benefit related to the act of participation itself. A final motivating force is the desire to influence policy outcomes, described as feelings of gratification that come from the implementation of desired policies.
The CERTs project offers a particularly successful example of sustained civic participation based upon nonmaterial benefits rooted in the obligations of citizenship as understood by CERTs participants <2> . While individuals carried multiple identities into the process, including being a member of an environmental organization, community leader, farmer, small business owner, elected official, government staff, utility staff, and academic, all of these identities fared poorly relative to that of citizen. Equally important, CERTs participants defined a ‘good citizen’ as one who creates positive opportunities for members of their community, in this case by bringing to the community the benefits of renewable and/or alternative energy technology through the sharing of CERTs-related information. Thus, ‘the development of strong communities’, ‘the importance of constructing community-owned energy technology’, ‘enhancing opportunities for local employment’, and ‘creating opportunities for community participation in determining the nature of energy system’ were all identified as important reasons for joining and then sustaining participation in CERTs (High-Pippert and Hoffman 2007). When asked an open-ended question about why they have remained involved with CERTs, respondents again emphasized community-related factors, i.e., that they enjoy working with like-minded people, networking, making contacts, and creating friendships. As one respondent wrote, “CERTs allows people to feel like they are not acting or working alone on issues, but are actually a part of a large, and more powerful, group of people.”
Participants in LHP&L are also strongly motivated by social and civic gratifications. Board members, for instance, when asked to describe LHP&L, tend to begin with terms such as “neighborhood organization” and “community group” before discussing the mission of reducing carbon footprints. Similarly, Compost Captains, nearly 70 percent of whom have lived in Linden Hills for more than a decade, overwhelmingly rank such factors as “reducing the carbon footprint of the neighborhood”, “reducing the amount of trash going to landfills,” and “making the neighborhood a better place to live” as critical factors in sustaining their participation in the project. As with CERTs, whether or not they will receive personal, material benefits such as a lower bill is largely irrelevant.
This high level of commitment to the neighborhood persists despite differences over the importance of specific projects. Thus, while a majority of the board members report that building the anaerobic digester acts as strong motivator regarding their continued participation, Compost Captains, and presumably, the rest of the neighborhood, tend to underplay the importance of the digester. Indeed, approximately half of the Compost Captains report knowing very little about the facility while a mere ten percent report knowing a great deal about the project. Most importantly, 98 percent of the Compost Captains would continue to serve in that capacity even if the digester were not considered viable. Instead, they see their involvement with the compost collection as part of a larger effort towards community-building based upon energy-saving activities that can be undertaken by their neighbors. Despite these differences, both the board and the Compost Captains are, at root, highly motivated by the social and civic gratification derived from their actions <3> . Whatever differences exist are over tactics, or those approaches best suited to create the maximum level of benefit to their shared interest, namely, the neighborhood in which they live and to which they are intensely dedicated.
Failing to acknowledge the important role played by the nonmaterial benefits of social gratification and civic gratification can create significant difficulties. In the case of the Phillips Community Energy Project (PCEC), for instance, seven cooperative principles guided the work of the project: voluntary and open membership, democratic member control, member economic participation, autonomy and independence, education, training, and information, cooperation among cooperatives, and concern for community. The organization consistently sought to reach out to all members of the diverse community, whether through translation of materials into languages widely spoken in the neighborhood, including Spanish and Somali, putting technical information into language that the public could understand, or through contact with faith-based initiatives.
An analysis of meeting agendas, minutes, and website materials clearly illustrated the motivations of PCEC board members, namely, social and civic gratification and the desire to influence behavioral outcomes of both PCEC members and nonmember households in the Phillips community. As with RENew Northfield, citizens joined the PCEC board because they enjoyed working with like-minded people on a project that served the community in which they live or work and which would model their preferred energy policy for other communities. However, PCEC experienced significant difficulties with sustaining the involvement of board members, mainly because of what was perceived of as a lack of “community connectedness,” or social gratification, on the part of key board members who did not actually attend meetings or become very involved with the organization. Unfortunately, that seems to have set the tone for lower levels of social gratification and connectedness, which in turn led to lower levels of involvement in the organization on the part of other board members (Hoffman and High-Pippert 2005).
The commitment to one or more of the criteria potentially defining a community energy initiative can also run up against the very hard realities of developing such a program. The organizers behind Greenstar Cities, for instance, were initially committed to the development of a program with a significant bottom-up orientation. Over time, however, this was gradually displaced by deference to a variety of institutional actors, primarily cities and counties. The shift in emphasis was dictated by the desire of participants to work with established and well-understood processes and actors as well as by the difficulty of defining and operationalizing the term “community”.
RENew Northfield’s path was characterized by an even more circuitous trajectory of shifting emphases. After a strong and successful grassroots effort and despite a strong commitment to a highly energetic, participatory civic process, the organization was forced to embrace a more conventional series of energy choices, including the installation of a utility-scale machine the output from which would be sold on the grid. The idea of a community-based nonprofit organization that would benefit from a stream of revenues was also displaced by the establishment of a for-profit limited liability corporation that would allow local investors to take advantage of a profitable, but green, investment option (Hoffman and High-Pippert 2005). More recently, however, the initiative has shifted back to a stronger community orientation with the establishment of the Northfield Energy Task Force (NETF). With roots in the original project, this group of eight Northfield area volunteers, with assistance from many other citizens throughout the community, was established by a resolution of the Northfield City Council in May 2007. The resolution directed the “NETF to develop an energy action plan that would address these resources for generations to come” (Northfield MN Energy Task Force Report 2008).
Community Energy and Civic Culture
If participation in community energy initiatives is to involve something more than “citizen as economic actor”, a reasonable and realistic notion of engagement must be secured. One possibility is Benjamin Barber’s notion of strong democracy, which he defines as “politics in the participatory mode where conflict is resolved in the absence of an independent ground through a participatory process of ongoing, proximate self-legislation and the creation of a political community capable of transforming dependent, private individuals into free citizens and partial and private interests into public goods” (1984, 132).
According to Barber, the attributes of the political condition, i.e., action, publicness, necessity, choice, reasonableness, conflict, and an absence of an independent ground, necessitates a movement away from the traditional forms of representative or indirect public participation. This does not mean “politics as a way of life” but rather developing a system of public participation involving the communication of shared interests, bargaining over those interests that are not held in common, agenda setting, and other less explicitly political activities. Barber is hopeful that a set of interlocking institutions of “civic participation and self-government,” ranging from neighborhood assemblies to national requirements for public service will achieve the goal of strong democracy (1984).
Barber’s notion raises a number of important considerations as to how and under what conditions strong democracy can be made to work, including the types of institutions, organizations and/or processes that might effectively engage people in the difficult work of democratic governance. At a minimum, a system of strong self- governance requires sustained attention to issues capable of creating a sense of community that transcends identity based upon a narrow reading of self-interest. While the manifest function of participation in such group-based endeavors may be to complete a set of tasks or projects, these activities also build social ties among individuals whose backgrounds or experiences may be quite different.
Whether or not such activities require or create patterns of trust and reciprocity (Coleman 1990; Edwards, Foley and Diani 2001) sustained or long-term associational behavior of the sort described above might well be an important step towards the creation of a deliberative ‘public sphere’ (Habermas (1962) that, to repeat Lovins’ words, would allow “everyone [to] get into the act, unimpeded by centralized bureaucracies [and make] energy choices through the democratic political process” (1977, 99). In this respect, community energy projects might well serve as an important counter to what some argue to be an era of declining civic engagement precipitated by the erosion of social capital (Putnam, 2000 and 1995; see Hoffman and High-Pippert 2005 for a further elaboration of these themes).
For those looking for a viable, real-world model of strong democracy, initiatives such as CERTs and LHP&L would therefore seem to be cause for celebration. All of the ingredients necessary for a vital civic culture are present: sustained attention to issues, a robust form of deliberation, and the creation of extended social ties though information sharing with other community members, all based on the perception that such actions will ultimately lead to “success” (see survey results at High-Pippert and Hoffman 2007). Yet, the number of people actually participating in both these and the other initiatives presented here is extremely small, perhaps several hundred at best and far fewer if the number of long-term, time-committed participants is counted. And while participants may feel good about what they are doing, the number of initiative-driven projects actually in the ground are few in number.
Despite these reservations, the research presented here also suggest how bottom-up, community-based initiatives might play an important role in how people interact with and, in some senses, shape the energy system. First, it is clear that such programs draw people into their orbit by largely personal appeals. That is, people are recruited or are urged to join by others at the most local of levels. Second, people continue to participate because of benefits they perceive to be flowing back to the community; they do not sustain participation because of benefits they perceive to be flowing back directly to themselves. Even very visible personal benefits such as lower electric bills do not provide the same degree of motivation as do more amorphous community benefits. This is not, of course, to say that all residents, or perhaps even a majority of residents, are motivated by these factors. What it does say, however, is that those people likely to participate in a voluntary, community-based initiative are motivated by an appeal to the notion of community, rather than personal, benefit. The cases presented here also reveal that the likelihood of success increases to the extent that both recruitment strategies and the construction of participation incentives are animated by a connection to and an appreciation of place, whether expressed in a generalized appreciation of a neighborhood or as an attachment to a specific attribute of a place such as a community school.
Community energy organizers must also recognize that they face a political and social reality conditioned by a preference for ‘stealth democracy’ (Hibbing and Theiss-Morse 2002), residents who prefer individualized rather than collective action (Putnam 2000, 1995) and an increasingly scarce amount of ‘civic time’ available to the average citizen (Bennett 1998). In this regard, the problem for the advocacy community is how to alter the behavior of the average, largely unengaged, community member while encouraging at least some well-informed and active citizens to operate in a highly energetic public sphere.
Again, our case studies demonstrate how the activities of individuals who prefer, or need, to bowl alone can be transformed into collective or community action, despite the fact that many, if not most, neighborhood residents do not want to or cannot participate in any on-going sort of community dialogue, much less a program that requires the sort of sustained deliberative process envisioned by Barber. Yet, there are likely to be in any neighborhood or small community a set of people who will commit to an exceptional level of community-oriented activity that can stimulate the ‘marginal’ activity of the majority of people who prefer minimal participation. Critically, these minimal participants do not have to see their efforts as collective in nature. Instead, as in the case of LHP&L, it is the commitment of the few, ‘strong democrats’ that can transform the disparate acts of minimally engaged citizens into an effective community-based program.
A successful community energy program, therefore, must be realistic with regard to the meaning and facts of engagement. Community energy programs cannot be expected to create policy or technical experts (Boyte 2004) nor should organizers be frustrated by the absence of large numbers of Barber-ian activists. Instead, the goal of a robust community energy program should be to find and/or create well-informed citizens, some of whom are willing to invest time and effort in realizing the shared but generally implicit values of the community in which they reside. Recruitment strategies and incentives designed to generate and maximize participation must therefore be hierarchical, radiating outward from the enthusiasm of the initial participants, to those who would volunteer time and energy but within ‘reasonable’ limits, to the mass of community members who can be convinced by their neighbors to participate in energy-related, environmentally beneficial activities.
Ultimately, the success of a community energy program can be measured along any number of dimensions. CERTs participants, for instance, understood the initiative as successful because, among other things, “a growing number of decision-makers know about the organization”; it had been managed to initiate “dialogue between local, state, and federal levels along with schools, businesses, and the energy industry”; the “low drop-out rate” amongst participants; and the existence of projects that would have either not happened or been slow to develop have been completed as a result of CERT contacts and networking” (Hoffman and High-Pippert 2007). Participants in the LHP&L initiative saw success in particular lifestyle changes, namely, a significant increase in composting by neighborhood residents which, in turn, was seen as contributing to a reduction in the neighborhood’s carbon footprint and the volume of waste that end up in the local landfill. More ambiguous, but no less important, success may also include an enhanced or resilient sense of community cohesion or even a feeling of ownership over the contours and characteristics of the energy system.
Finally, the initiatives discussed in this paper call attention to the need for policymakers to carefully define ‘community’ with respect to both governance and economic participation. Indeed, given the marginal notions of both democracy and community that populate both theory and practice, it is perhaps no surprise that wind developers, for instance, are facing increasing resistance by residents of the very same communities that are claimed to the beneficiaries of these projects. Such opposition derives from a number of factors related to an impoverished notion of community, not the least of which is that such projects are increasingly taking on the character of utility-sponsored schemes rather than those that derive from the concerns and values of the places that people inhabit (E-Cubed; Poetter 2007).
Whatever the specific actions or outcomes, bottom-up community energy programs are essential for realizing an energetic civic culture where the majority of citizens are receptive to and willing to engage in those actions necessary to reduce the harmful impacts of the existing energy system. They are, in other words, an essential complement to the institutional approaches that currently define the concept of community energy.
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