Bulletin of Science, Technology and Society
Submitted March, 2005
Published December 2005
A SOCIAL ARCHITECTURE FOR
AN ALTERNATIVE ENERGY FUTURE
Steven M. Hoffman, Ph.D.
University of St. Thomas
2115 Summit Avenue
St. Paul, MN 55105
Angela High-Pippert, Ph.D.
University of St. Thomas
2115 Summit Avenue
St. Paul, MN 55105
("<#>" is a link to a footnote found toward the bottom of this page)ABSTRACT
Community energy based on a mix of distributed technologies offers a serious alternative to the current energy system. The nature of community energy and the role that such initiatives might play in the general fabric of civic life is not, however, well understood. Community energy initiatives might involve only those citizens who prefer to be actively and continuously involved in intense, democratic debate. A more robust conceptualization of community energy might, on the other hand, be guided by Benjamin’s Barber’s notion of “strong democracy” where community energy initiatives would draw upon a much broader citizen base, involving people from many walks of life and from quarters not generally presumed to be part of a sustained democratic process. The history of community energy is explored and a number of case studies are presented in order to illustrate the problems, prospects and limitations of a socially and technologically decentralized energy system.
Keywords: energy; community energy; distributed generation; civic culture; community participation I. THE PROBLEM OF CIVIC CULTURE
According to Theda Skocpol, America’s civic culture has undergone a radical transformation over the last 40 years (2003). Prior to the first half of the 20th century, associational life consisted of a conglomeration of large, membership-driven organizations. Far from a mass of local, apolitical organizations defined by a naïve sort of communitarianism, these organizations were explicitly political in their activities and were attractive to members precisely because they represented something much larger than the local confines experienced in everyday life. Most of the organizations followed the federalist model offered by the nation’s political structure, that is, a national office that offered an overarching sense of purpose and administrative competency that could not be realized by purely local organizations. Simultaneously, however, the YMCA, the Grange, the Woodmen, and a myriad of others were deeply embedded in the life of the communities from which their members were drawn. Thus, these organizations were both social and political in character, striving to realize a specific political agenda and influence legislatures at both the national and state level. They also served as a valuable training ground for democratic citizenship, offering members the opportunity to experience democratic debate and the rules by which this debate was to take place in a somewhat egalitarian environment.
Like much of American culture, however, the associational life of the nation bears increasingly little resemblance to that which came before it. Fostered by a variety of well-known circumstances ranging from the technological to the social, the nation’s web of non-state organizations now emphasize a sort of “management ethic” that Skocpol argues has severely diminished the character of democratic citizenship. Organizations now do things for
people rather than doing things with
people. In lieu of the messy, time-consuming act of building an infrastructure one member at a time, the modern citizen-based organization prefers to ask people for money to build an expert staff capable of countering the arguments and policy papers offered by an opposing set of experts (Bosso, 2003, 408). In doing so, the opportunities for civic engagement have significantly diminished and, along with it, the possibilities of maintaining a robust form of democracy.
Skocpol does admit to some exceptions, acknowledging, for instance, the success of grass-roots organizations such as the Christian Coalition, supported by a host of think tanks such as the Heritage Foundation and the American Enterprise Institute. Other religious organizations, including the mega-churches so popular in the mushrooming communities of suburban America, as well as the myriad of self-help organizations modeled along the lines of Alcoholics Anonymous, are also thriving (2003, 160-170).
Recent trends in the environmental movement also offer some encouragement. In contrast to the so-called Group of 10 organizations that are at the center of Skocpol’s analysis, for instance, Philip Shabecoff’s environmental community is full of “grassroots organizations [that] sprang up spontaneously to confront local problems. Unlike the national groups, whose staffs are mostly white, well-educated, relatively affluent middle-class professionals, the membership at the grass roots cuts across class, racial, political, and educational lines . . . And unlike the mainstream organizations, the local anti-pollution fighters are more often than not led by women” (1993, 233). Shabecoff admits that there are no reliable data on the numbers of such grass-roots organizations nor on how many Americans belong to them, but, he says, it is apparent that “communities across the country have organized to save themselves from environmental horror in dozens of ways” (1993, 233).
Skocpol offers a hesitant agreement with this assessment. The environmental movement, for instance, which includes “a mix of partially competing, but mostly cooperating groups ranging from think tanks and advocacy organizations to chapter-based membership federations and small groups situated in particular communities or workplaces,” does provide an avenue for a degree of political participation (2004, 168). Indeed, says Skocpol, the environmental movement is historically rooted in the traditional structure of American civic culture, arguing that “although environmentalism is not embedded in one big, nation-spanning, chapter-based membership federation, interactions among the full range of organizations and constituencies that make up the movement as a whole in some sense represent the functional equivalent of classic forms of civic associationalism, with a similar blend of national, local, political and social undertaking” (2003, 168).
Yet Skocpol remains unconvinced that any of these movements offers serious resistance to the hollowing out of American civic culture. While Shabecoff may be representative of most advocates in his lack of concern with the numbers, the fact that data supporting the long-term vitality of many recently emergent movements is “sketchy to the extreme” undermines any claim regarding the movement’s enduring or structural importance (2003, 166). The evidence that is available points not to a vast sea of free-standing organizations with long-term and substantive histories but to temporary and short-lived associations that wither once an immediate sense of crisis is resolved; those that do survive tend to be part of a larger generally religious organization (2003, 168-9). The stories favored by both the left and the right are not unimportant, says Skocpol, and “because exceptions matter as much as master story lines in social analysis” they should not be ignored. “Exceptions, however, are not the rule” (2003, 172). II. RENERGIZING CIVIC CULTURE
If Skocpol is correct in her analysis, there is a compelling need to understand whether and how a new kind of civic culture capable of offering a counterweight to democratic sclerosis might be created. United States Senator Bill Bradley (D - New Jersey) has characterized the problem as one of finding an appropriate balance among the complementary elements of a given society. Speaking before the National Press Club, Bradley described American society as a three-legged stool (1995, 3):What both Democrats and Republicans fail to see is that the government and the market are not enough to make a civilization. There must be a healthy robust civic sector, a space in which the bonds of community can flourish. Government and the market are similar to two legs on a three-legged stool. Without the third leg of civil society, the stool is not stable and cannot provide support for a vital America <1> .
Both Skocpol and Bradley would agree that, at least in the United States, the “third leg of civil society” is disproportionately weak in relation to the legs of government and the private sector and that building a new kind of civic culture is synonymous with the repair of this third and weakest leg. For many social scientists, the most important tool in the repair kit would be an increase in social capital, a concept initially introduced by Coleman (1988) and popularized by Putnam (1993). According to Putnam, social capital refers to the social networks, norms, and trust that enable citizens to work together for shared objectives (1995). Whereas political participation involves a citizen’s relationship with political institutions, social capital involves a citizen’s relationship with other citizens. In an imaginative illustration of his argument, Putman points out that while more Americans than ever are bowling, more are “bowling alone” rather than as part of a league, a fact symbolic of their declining rates of memberships in other organizations such as labor unions, parent-teacher associations, and political parties. If Americans are not bowling together or working to improve their children’s schools together, says Putnam, then they are not developing bonds of social trust that are necessary to a democratic society. The solution to America’s declining “stock of social capital” is to get citizens more involved with each other, preferably as active members of voluntary associations (Putnam, 1995, 5).
However, not all political scientists believe that increased levels of political involvement will translate into increased social capital or a stronger civil society. In recent and somewhat controversial research, for instance, Hibbing and Theiss-Morse argue that American citizens are not the populists that they are often perceived to be (2002). Neither are they terribly interested in participating in politics. Although the “standard elite interpretation” of citizens’ political behavior is that they would participate more if they had more opportunities to do so, or if barriers to their participation were lifted, Hibbing and Theiss-Morse’s research fails to support this argument (2002, 1). They conclude instead that (2002, 1-2): The last thing people want is to be more involved in political decision-making. They do not want to make political decisions themselves; they do not want to provide much input to those who are assigned to make those decisions; and they would rather not know all the details of the decision-making process. Most people have strong feelings on few if any of the issues the government needs to address and would much prefer to spend their time in nonpolitical pursuits.
Rather than participatory democracy, citizens would prefer what Hibbing and Theiss-Morse call “stealth democracy,” described as wanting “democratic procedures to exist but not to be visible on a routine basis” (2002, 2). Citizens want to know that they will have the opportunity to participate if they should ever be motivated to do so and they want to know that the power of their elected representatives could be checked by their own political power. This last point is key, as it helps explain how it may appear as though
citizens desire political influence and involvement. “Although the people dislike a political system built on sustained political involvement, there is something they dislike even more: a political system in which decision makers – for no reason other than the fact that they are in a position to make decisions – accrue benefits at the expense of non-decision makers” (Hibbing and Theiss-Morse 2002, 2).
The idea of a civic culture in which a minimal level of participation is rather strongly valued troubles many democratic theorists, prompting some to speculate on the means by which democratic discourse might be sustained. Jurgen Habermas, for instance, proposes an interrelated social and political system composed of several parts: civil society, a public sphere, an organized political system, and the constitutional state (1962). According to Jane Grant, the core of civil society comprises a network of associations that institutionalizes problem-solving discourses on questions of general interest inside the framework of organized public spheres. This stands in contrast to the public sphere, which in her formulation, is the arena in which discussions based on the “public use of reason” emerge and in which the opinions emerging from civil society are further distilled and refined. Consequently, the public sphere is open and reflexive and “is viewed democratically as the creation of procedures whereby those affected by general social norms and collective political decisions can have a say in their formulation, stipulation, and adoption” (Grant, 2003, 9). Within this sphere the process of “opinion formation” occurs; hence, it is largely a place of communication and information exchange and includes a vast, integrated, and globalized network of communications: television, radio, newspapers, the Internet, books, films, music, theater, and sports. It also includes public forums and “a level of discussion, participation, and deliberation distinct from the formal government sector” (Grant, 2003, 26).
According to Grant, there is a need to create more places in the public sphere where policy recommendations can be transferred to official and accountable institutions of government for further discussion, deliberation, and implementation (2003, 26). Grant recommends at least two such places: James Fishkin’s deliberative polling
process and so-called citizens juries <2>
. In the case of the former, some 150 to 200 representative citizens are gathered for perhaps 48 hours to study and deliberate on a given subject. Participants are asked their opinion of policy options prior to the start of the event. Following this preliminary assessment, participants are provided technical information regarding the issue, after which they are again queried as to the opinions on the issue before them. The intent of the process is to determine if and how opinions change in the face of new information (Fishkin, 1995).
The citizens jury process is a much more intense process involving many fewer participants <3>
. The process begins with the selection of anywhere from 16 to 24 citizens who are representative of the community along a series of attributes, i.e., age, race, and so on. Over the course of four to five days, the participants hear from a wide variety of experts on the given subject matter. At the end of the process, the jury is expected to offer a detailed set of recommendations to policy makers (Hoffman and Matisone, 1997).
Both of these techniques, while making potentially useful contributions to the reinvigoration of America’s civic culture, also suffer from severe limitations. In the first place, the recommendations they make are mere suggestions that may or may not be taken up by a higher, decisionmaking body. They are also temporary and episodic, in existence only long enough to study a problem in a fairly shallow way. Neither process makes any claims about creating citizen experts, instead presuming to create well-informed citizens who might be capable of at least evaluating the claims of experts (Grant, 2003, 34). Neither requires sustained, on-going engagement in identifying, much less implementing, preferences regarding the issue at hand. As a result, they fail to create the sort of engagement that at least Skocpol claims is at the core of the American civic tradition.
Equally problematic is the lack of a connection to a particular place or to an on-going sense of community. Indeed, both deliberative polling and the citizen jury process presume that participants will be strangers, randomly drawn together for this occasion. Both are conducted apart from the community, meaning that the give and take so vital to a well-functioning democracy is lacking. The jury process is perhaps a more contentious affair than the deliberative polling scheme, as it involves a degree of deliberation that requires compromise and the creation of group-based preferences. Yet even here, the process occurs over a short period of time and without the input of a larger community of supporters, opponents or even disinterested parties, all of which are instrumental parts of a democratic struggle. Indeed, this monastic quality is highly prized, in that that it is understood to protect the participants from the unwholesome taint of nettlesome special interests. Once the process is completed, the participants are assumed to resume their normal life as strangers in an anonymous place.
The case for more robust forms of citizen participation than that offered by either deliberative polling or the citizens jury process has been taken up by numerous authors (see Williamson, 1997 for a compilation of several dozen schemes for the revision of democratic systems, including a number that include features of strong democracy). One of the most coherent arguments 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, as an all-consuming job, game and avocation. But it does mean politics (citizenship) as a way of living: a fact of one’s life, an expected element of it, a prominent and natural role in the same manner as that of parent or worker” (Prugh, Costanza, and Daly, 2000, 112). Most importantly, Barber presumes the practical possibility of a system of public participation defined by an on-going process of political talk
where the necessary tasks of communicating interests and bargaining, agenda setting, affiliation, witness and self-expression can occur. Barber is hopeful that a set of interlocking institutions of “civic participation and self-government,” ranging from neighborhood assemblies and “a civic communications cooperative” 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. Unlike the examples considered above, strong democratic governance would seem to require sustained attention to issues so as to create 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. As Robert K. Merton says, this type of participation helps provide the “latent function of social life” (quoted in Grant, 2003, 28).
Sustained participation in a group-based endeavor also provides the opportunity for a robust form of deliberation, which Grant defines as a conscious attempt to move beyond the simply apparent to that which may lie beneath (2003, 28). Effective deliberation has a number of prerequisites, including access to relevant information and expertise, a rough equality of power and skills, and/or a measure of respect and trust among participants (Grant, 2003, 29). Beyond the informational and procedural benefits of effective deliberative, theorists such Habermas put particular emphasize on its transformative quality: a conception, an understanding, a resolution of an issue may emerge from disparate elements whose connection may not have been obvious before (1972).
The creation of processes that offer sustained engagement and robust deliberative possibilities as well as the clear ability to affect policy outcomes is a demanding task. One place where this might occur is in the reshaping of America’s energy system.III. A SOCIAL ARCHITECTURE FOR NEW TECHNOLOGY
The evolution of the industrialized world’s electrical system represents one of the great technological achievements of the 20th century. The articulation of a grid-based system of electrical generation, transmission and consumption required ground-breaking technical accomplishments in electronics, metallurgy, engineering, and myriad other scientific fields, as well as the development of complex organizational and managerial systems. The grid also required a good deal back from society, including a social structure that paralleled the technical requirements of the system. The greatest of these demands was an autonomous decision making system run by technical elites largely free from the world of democratic citizenship. As pointed out by Lovins almost 30 years ago, the so-called ‘hard-path’ required a major “social commitment under centralized management . . . and compulsory diversion [of resources] from whatever priorities are backed by the weakest constituencies” (1977, 54).
Within the last twenty years, however, technologies have emerged that present the opportunity for a distinctly new type of electricity system based on a range of distributed
technologies that were largely uneconomic experiments at the time Lovins first proposed his so-called soft path. Today, however, wind energy is a competitive alternative rapidly maturing to the point of becoming a viable baseload option, solar technologies are rapidly declining in cost, and fuel cells continue to be a promising alternative (Sawin, 2004).
The maturation of these technologies has sparked a good deal of conversation about a radically decentralized energy system that would embody an equally distinct sort of democratic social apparatus. There are, however, important caveats that need to be explored as to whether the development of distributed technologies necessarily
presages a fundamental and parallel shift in the social organization of the electricity system. That is, while distributed technologies are undoubtedly much more environmentally benign than coal, nuclear and large-scale hydro facilities, there is little proof that a distributed system even implies a more benign or fundamentally distinct type of social order. In this respect, the idea of community energy
, a term of choice for those seeking to further the development of distributed technologies, oftentimes represents more of a rhetorical appeal than a call for a substantive change in the on-operation of the grid.
Mark Bolinger’s examination of state supported programs for community wind power development illustrates this issue (2004). Based on what can be referred to as a grid-integration
model of distributed generation, Bolinger offers several criteria that might define a community wind project, including project size, purpose, ownership, and interconnection. He ultimately settles on community wind as being “locally owned utility-scale wind development on either side of the customer or utility side of the meter” (2004, 3). He then identifies organizational structures typical of wind development, including a few “owned by multiple local investors.” More common, however, are projects owned by traditional commercial investors, wealthy private investors, or tax-motivated corporate investors that ultimately “flip” the project back to a local investor after realizing the available tax benefits. Notably absent from Bolinger’s analysis is the consideration of citizenship, governance, democratic participation, or any other notion commonly associated with the identification, development or social construction of communities. At best, community is conflated with local ownership, though local is defined to include only those projects capable of being grid-connected.
Makhijani’s case study of a hypothetical wind project in New Mexico is similar to Bolinger’s (2004). Wind’s modest record of success is attributed to a variety of grid interconnection issues, including “lack of adequate transmission infrastructure, skewed rules for transmission and for integration of wind power into the electricity market, and the imperfect pricing structure for wind electricity” (2004, 2). According to Makhijani, “[W]ind capacity additions can be made . . . only if there is a well-developed transmission structure that connects high wind areas where the wind power plants need to be built with a regional grid. This grid should have enough capacity to carry large amounts of power. The transmission constraint is often a crucial one” (2004, 4). Like Bolinger, Makhijani’s analysis is silent on the issue of community participation, ownership, governance or any other issue that might bear upon the social implications of distributed generation.
Even authors who acknowledge the role of the public in the development of distributed generation oftentime do so in a very marginal fashion. Sawin’s recent analysis of how to mainstream renewable energy is representative of this tendency (2004). Relevant to her scheme are five major categories of policy drivers: market access and obligations, financial incentives, education and information dissemination, stakeholder involvement, and industry standards, permitting and building codes. Sawin also acknowledges that public participation in policymaking, project development, and ownership increases the odds of success and that policies need to be put into place that encourage individual and/or cooperative ownership of renewable energy projects (2004, 34-44, 47). Little is said, however, regarding the extent of public participation, the various forms it make take, the difficulties of educating a passive public, or any of the myriad other issues that might serve to limit public involvement.
Ignoring the social aspects of distributed generation is unfortunate, given the significant impact that unreceptive community pressures might have on the development of the technology. The well-known Cape Cod project, proposed for development just off the Nantucket shoreline, illustrates the problem. While the EIS released by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers show that the project will produce “compelling public benefits with positive environmental and economic impacts . . . for those who oppose that development and others because they don’t like the viewshed changes, no report showing protection of habitat and wildlife will ever meet their standards” (E-Cubed
). According to Penn Future, such opposition derives from a number of factors, including the use of inadequate, poorly presented and/or incomplete information, the failure to recognize local costs, and the failure to counter the NIMBY argument (E-Cubed
Despite such hazards, the current literature, as well as most of the work being undertaken by the policy and advocacy community, is largely centered around a grid-connection model that emphasizes distinctly technocratic issues, i.e., the problem of interconnection, the need to produce larger machines that can be more easily integrated into the grid, the development of financial mechanisms that assure profitability to local landowners, and so on. It is, in other words, a model of distributed generation that largely maintains the essentials of a grid-based system of electricity generation and consumption, the only difference being the type of electricity-generating machine, while steadfastly ignoring the societal implications, and possibilities, of the technology.
The idea that a distinctive type of social architecture could accompany a decentralized system of energy production is not new. More than 30 years ago, Lovins argued that a soft path premised upon renewable and small scale technologies would mean that “everyone can get into the act, unimpeded by centralized bureaucracies, and can compete for a market share through ingenuity and local adaptation” (1977, 50). Duedney and Flavin offered a similar possibility for a radically localized system of energy production and consumption, claiming that a decentralized system of distributed technologies necessarily implied that “localities will be much more . . . dominant . . . Heat for buildings in North America will come from the rooftops, not from the Middle East . . . Energy production will thus reinforce rather than undermine local economies and local autonomy” (1983, 306-7). The “increased cost and decreased availability of raw materials . . . the extraordinarily rapid development of new technologies . . . [and] the electronics revolution” would, in David Morris’ words, allow cities to become ‘self-reliant’ (1982, 220).
More recently, Morris has maintained that “customer-owned utilities are more democratic, located closer to customer-citizens and therefore more responsive to their values.” What is needed, says Morris, are new “power rules [that] not only nurture the capacity for self-reliance but for citizenship” (2001, 7). Scott Ridley has offered a similar perspective on the advantages of locally-controlled, if not necessarily locally-owned, power systems. According to Ridley, community energy systems are likely to be “publicly accountable, non-discriminatory, non-profit, subject to open meeting and ethics laws, and oriented toward advancing economic development and the public” (1998). This view is echoed by the American Public Power Association, which argues that “community ownership and democratic governance provide wide latitude to make decisions that best suit local needs and values, as well as changing market conditions” (www.appanet.org).
Community-based energy is also seen by many advocates as a major step in bringing about a necessary transition to a more environmentally-benign electricity system. Paul Fenn, author of the Massachusetts “community choice” legislation, for instance, has suggested that local control is the sole means of making the switch to the clean and reliable forms of energy required to solve the nation’s energy dilemma (1999). California Public Utilities Commissioner Carl Wood has claimed that a “people’s energy movement,” built on the back of decentralized and environmentally benign resources such as wind and solar technologies, will be needed to fix the coming energy crisis.
A central element in the realization of this radically decentralized idea of distributed generation is the establishment of a clear link between local generation and local consumption. The California Energy Commission, for instance, argues that a distributed generation system
must be understood as “electric generation connected to the distribution level of the . . . grid usually located at or near the intended place of use” (2001). Under this scenario, attention would be focused on building an integrated community energy system featuring a multiplicity of technologies, i.e., some wind, some solar, some fuel cells, etc., that would provide redundancy and a high degree of energy security. The aim of the local power manager would be to create a system scaled to the needs of local users; maximizing revenues to the owners of the generating units, whether local or distant, would be a secondary concern. The grid would serve as back-up in the event of catastrophic interruptions or as a place to sell excess capacity through a net metering regime. Again, the California Energy Commission is clear on this point when it argues that “distributed generation can be used as a primary source of electricity, essentially reducing or even eliminating reliance on the utility for electric service” (2001).
In sum, local power advocates believe that “most people want to understand their own systems and feel responsible for their own destinies, not be mere economic cogs” (Lovins, 1977, 91). Further, not only do people want to participate in such decisions, they are, according to Lovins “qualified and responsible to make these and other energy choices through the democratic political process” (1977, 99). Finally, advocates argue that more environmentally benign choices will almost certainly flow from enhanced public participation in that people will want to make choices that do the least harm to themselves, their families and their communities.
This model of distributed generation differs in fundamental and important ways from the grid-integration model. Establishing a linkage between local generation and local consumption, for instance, turns decisions about the structure of the energy system into a social process rather than a series of individual or entrepreneurial actions, thus making the ultimate success of distributed energy at least partially dependent on issues of civic culture and society’s capacity to support or nurture community-based decisionmaking. Seen in this light, how to motivate citizens to participate in community-based energy projects, how that motivation can be sustained and cultivated, how citizens might use community-based energy projects to expand the meaning and boundaries of democratic citizenship, and what institutional forms might best serve the goal of democratic participation are questions that rival the importance of interconnection and financial profitability. As Lovins noted, “the most important, difficult, and neglected questions of energy strategy are not mainly technical or economic but rather social and ethical. They will pose a supreme challenge to the adaptability of democratic institutions and to the vitality of our spiritual life” (1977, 59) <4>
. IV. WHAT DO THE PEOPLE REALLY WANT?
To a great extent, then, community energy advocates in the Lovins, et al. tradition believe that the primary problem obstructing the full development of distributed generation is not the development of economically and environmentally superior technology but the institutionalization of strategies and methods that can effectively engage and then communicate the reality of energy choices to fully functional citizens. Yet, as pointed out above, the assumption that most people want to and are fully qualified to make fundamental energy choices through a democratic political process is hardly indisputable (Hibbing and Theiss-Morse, 2002).
In order to better understand this issue, three Minnesota-based community energy projects were examined: RENew Northfield, the Phillips Community Energy Cooperative (PCEC), and the Clean Energy Resource Team (CERTs) initiative. In each case, the analysis was framed around the question of motivation for participation. In addition to compiling extensive case histories, the research included both qualitative and quantitative approaches, such as content analysis and participant surveys.
The framework for interpreting motivations for participation in community-based energy initiatives is based on those identified by Wilson’s (1973) typology of incentives provided by political organizations, and modified by Verba, Schlozman, and Brady (1995) for their Citizen Participation Project. According to Verba, Schlozman, and Brady (1995), there are four kinds of motivations for 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 such benefit of a selective nature is material benefits
, such as jobs, career advancement, or help with a personal problem. This benefit of participation is more tangible than the other two selective benefits of social gratification
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, feeling a sense of duty or fulfilling a desire to contribute to the welfare of one’s community, is another example of a benefit related to the act of participation itself. The final motivation identified by Verba, Schlozman, and Brady (1995) is the desire to influence policy outcomes
, described as feelings of gratification that come from the implementation of desired policies.
RENew Northfield is an example of a community energy project that illustrates both how and why individuals participate and how difficult it is to maintain and implement a consistent vision. A true grassroots organization created by a local activist, RENew Northfield’s goal was to install and operate a number of small-scale wind projects in the community in order “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.” Their larger vision was the creation of an energy self-sufficient community that produces its own energy by using a variety of methods that are environmentally friendly, of benefit to the local economy, and socially just.
A contextual reading of the organization’s strategic plan, minutes of meetings, e-mail communication between members (there are 100 subscribers on their listserve), presentations to other organizations, and RENew Northfield’s website indicates a clear emphasis on community participation in decisions about how Northfield should develop sustainability in the area of energy policy. In the “About RENew Northfield” section of the website, the organization is self-described as “an ad-hoc grass roots organization comprised of local citizens interested in exploring the options available to promote local development of renewable energy resources.” The broad community support for the concepts advanced by RENew Northfield is noted, as is the fact that the initial organizational meeting was attended by “23 area residents from all walks of life” and that the board of directors “reflects the diversity of our community.”
An examination of other documents shows that RENew Northfield’s emphasis on community participation extends beyond the words of their strategic plan to their deeds. The organization has engaged in local public education efforts such as making presentations to schools and civic and religious groups and co-hosting forums with other local groups such as the League of Women Voters. In April 2002, RENew Northfield hosted a community wind conference for some 200 people, with the purpose of “providing citizens and public officials with the information necessary to feel comfortable in making the decision to invest in wind energy.”
An emphasis on process
as well as outcome indicates that RENew Northfield’s goals include more than technological change or a narrow economic benefit to individual landowners. Early in the organization’s development, RENew Northfield identified a goal of creating a “community dialogue about the institutional options available as alternatives to the existing electric utility institutions in moving toward community control of energy decisions.” Process remained significant as the members of RENew Northfield envisioned the future of the organization, discussing “how we want to develop as an organization: do we want to remain strictly a grass-roots, volunteer organization, or pursue funding for a staff position; are we interested in becoming an IRS-sanctioned non-profit; what level of collaboration are we comfortable with such groups as the Minnesota Project, etc.” Once the members decided to incorporate and seek 501(c)(3) status, the president acknowledged, “[T]his is obviously no small matter, and can only happen if there is enough commitment in the group to supporting what we are up to for the long haul.”
As the quote above demonstrates, there is a conceptual and practical link between citizens’ commitment to the organization and its sustainability. In the case of RENew Northfield, citizens join and continue in the work of the organization because they enjoy working with like-minded people on a project that will benefit their community and model their preferred energy policy for other communities. The importance of the first element, social gratification, cannot be overstated. As the president notes in the minutes of the first meeting, “I was overwhelmed with the turnout for the meeting! Your numbers and the energy, idealism coupled with pragmatism, and collective ‘community connectedness’ of the group far exceeded my expectations.” The “community connectedness” angle is a critical part of keeping citizens involved with the organization, as the apparent lack of such connectedness within the PCEC case study will illustrate.
None of this is to say that community energy organizations such as RENew Northfield remain static. Indeed, RENew Northfield has undergone an interesting series of shifts in the group’s attitudes and practices. The organization now fully embraces utility-scale machines, i.e., 1.6 MW, and they no longer see a necessary link between local generation and local consumption. Thus, the original project that would have gone a long way in establishing this link, the local high school turbine project, is no longer likely to be installed. The idea of a community nonprofit that would benefit from a stream of revenues has also been displaced by the establishment of an LLC, with another likely to follow, in order to take advantage of federal and state tax credits and subsidies and insure profitability to a local family seeking a profitable, but green, investment option.
Finally, RENew Northfield has become a seller to the grid, having negotiated power purchase agreements with Xcel for RENew Wind I. In other words, the link between local generation and local consumption that originally animated the group has been displaced by the idea of local generation available for sale to the grid. In the minds of the organizers, however, they are still faithful to their original goal in that while they not be directly consuming the wind-based electrons, they are at least off-setting the generation of fossil-fuel generated electrons that would otherwise be required to satisfy their own electrical needs.
A second Minnesota-based project, the Phillips Community Energy Project (PCEC), illustrates other equally important issues. A project of the Green Institute, a Minneapolis-based nongovernmental organization set in the midst of low-income, largely minority community, PCEC is somewhat unique in that while most CBE initiatives are located either in rural areas or in small towns away from large urban centers, PCEC is located squarely in the middle of a large metropolitan area <5>
There are two important and complementary programs at the core of PCEC’s work: a cooperative that effectively delivers energy-related services and conservation; and a renewable biomass cogeneration facility designed to produce district heating and renewable electricity in the Phillips neighborhood. According to the organization’s website, PCEC’s vision is to create a local model and provide national leadership for community residences and businesses in their efforts to exercise control and economic power over the cost and conservation of energy. PCEC is predicated on seven cooperative principles: voluntary and open membership, democratic member control, member economic participation, autonomy and independence, education, training, and information, cooperation among cooperatives, and concern for community. More specifically, PCEC is a “vehicle for delivering conservation awareness and programs to the underserved, low-income, renter, non-English speaking residents of the Phillips community.”
Other similarities with RENew Northfield include an emphasis on community and local interests, including economic interests. Minutes from board meetings reveal a consistent theme of reaching out to all members of the diverse community, whether through translation of materials into Spanish and Somali, putting technical information into language that the public can understand, or through contact with faith-based initiatives. At one board meeting, a discussion of possible logo designs led into a discussion of the importance of considering the community in all of its diverse aspects. In terms of local economic interests, the board spent time at more than one meeting discussing the need to make sure that their use of Energy Star certified appliances would not take away business from local vendors.
A contextual reading of meeting agendas, minutes, and website materials clearly illustrates the motivations of PCEC board members’ participation, 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 enjoy working with like-minded people on a project that serves the community in which they live or work, and models their preferred energy policy for other communities. However, PCEC has experienced more difficulties with sustaining the involvement of board members than RENew Northfield, and it appears as though a lack of “community connectedness,” or social gratification, may be part of the problem for the PCEC board. Ironically, PCEC, an organization that uses face-to-face canvassing of the Phillips community as part of its energy conservation mission, began sending out approvals for by-laws by e-mail. Indeed, at various times board members actually used the term lack of connectedness
to describe the PCEC board and requested that the staff ask other board members not only if another scheduled date and time would help increase attendance, but if they are also experiencing this lack of connectedness.
While social gratification again is a strong motivation for citizen involvement, the original composition of PCEC’s board included people 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 is strongly correlated with lower levels of involvement in the organization. As for community members, their motivations also included material benefits and civic gratifications, the former ranging from free (with $1 membership) energy efficiency kit to discounts on energy efficient products to free energy audits to free solar panels.
A third project encompasses not a particular city or part of a city but the entire state. The Clean Energy Resource Teams (CERTs) project is a collaborative of the Minnesota Department of Commerce, the University of Minnesota’s Regional Sustainable Development Partnerships program, Rural Minnesota Energy Task Force, the Metro County Energy Task Force, and the Minnesota Project, a nongovernmental organization that works on agricultural issues. CERTs teams have been created for six regions in the state, with each team bringing together people from various cities and counties, farmers and other landowners, industry, utilities, colleges, universities and local governments. The outcome of the project will be a strategic vision and a renewable and energy conservation energy plan for each region, reflecting a mix of energy sources, including biomass, wind, solar, and hydrogen. The plan is intended to lay the groundwork for funding and implementing renewable energy projects that meet regional needs.
Unlike the other two cases, members of the CERTs teams were individually surveyed using an instrument that encompassed a variety of issues, including motivations for participation, recruitment, stakeholders involved in the organization, and knowledge of participants (se Appendix 1). Nearly 60 percent of survey respondents cited a specific organization or individual in answer to a question about how they became aware of CERTs, demonstrating the importance of recruitment through established networks or personal connections. As Verba, Schlozman, and Brady (1995) found in their analysis of the Citizen Participation Project, individuals are much more likely to participate in a political activity if they are recruited by someone they know. Other paths of recruitment include place of employment while two respondents read about the organization’s development in the local newspaper and decided to join the efforts. When asked why they joined CERTs, more than half of the respondents cited an interest in renewable energy and sustainability, while more than one-quarter of the respondents mentioned that had joined because of the nature of their employment. Nearly three-fourths of CERTs participants report that their participation is “work-related,” a factor that seems to be highly significant in terms of sustaining participation.
Both RENew Northfield and CERTs are experiencing fewer problems with attrition than PCEC within their organizations, due in part to the nature of the benefits that citizens receive from participating in each. In RENew Northfield, social gratifications are strong, and in CERTs material benefits such as career advancement are strong. PCEC’s example of the board being plagued from the start by low attendance at meetings provides a meaningful contrast to the motivations for involvement emphasized by RENew Northfield (social gratifications) and CERTs (material benefits). For CERTs, the combination of high levels of interest in renewable energy and connections to employment has led to continued participation by citizens.
As far as the nature of participation in CERTs, there were only a few survey respondents for whom the meeting in which they completed the survey was their first or second meeting. Most of the participants had been involved for at least six months to a year, and many since the organization first began. Most individuals participated in CERTs by attending their quarterly meetings (85 percent), while approximately half of the participants also attended small group meetings, steering committees, or task force meetings. Electronic participation is also a factor, with over 60 percent of respondents reporting that they engaged in that form as well. The importance of face-to-face meetings is a common theme shared with RENew Northfield, as the meetings allow for social gratifications to be met and may keep members motivated to continue their involvement. Electronic participation seems to be an acceptable supplement to “real meetings,” but as the PCEC example shows, when e-mailing becomes the primary means of communication among an organization’s members, a “lack of connectedness” and a loss of social gratification (and therefore motivation to continue involvement) is risked.
In that each CERTs team is composed of a mix of stakeholders, each with potentially competing interests, this case offers a particularly rich opportunity to examine the competing motives that animates participation in community energy projects. Our survey asked respondents about the roles that they played in CERTs; participants could check more than one answer. CERTs participants overwhelmingly identified themselves as playing the roles of citizen (66 percent). Other roles, including being a member of environmental organization (28 percent), community leader (26 percent), farmer (19 percent), small business owner (19 percent), as well as elected official, government staff, utility staff, academic (all at 15 percent), while important fell far behind that of citizen. Nearly 60 percent of CERTs participants considered other stakeholders to be well-represented in CERTs, and the remaining 40 percent had varying reports on who is missing, ranging from women, as previously noted, to homeowners to more utility staff to “not enough citizens who are not employed in the energy industry.”
Another important aspect of citizen participation in community-based energy initiatives involves how much technical knowledge citizens possess or should be expected to possess in order to participate in decisions about energy use. The survey was designed to provide insight into CERTs participants’ self-identified levels of knowledge about various terms used in discussions and debates about energy policy.
Overall, higher percentages of CERTs participants reported a great deal or some level of knowledge about all of the technical issues asked about on the survey. On the other hand, respondents reported having very little knowledge about fuel cells, biogas and/or anaerobic digesters, and solar panels (40 percent, 32 percent, and 28 percent, respectively). It should be noted, however, that across the responses, reports of very little knowledge never fell below 11 percent. The question of how little knowledge is too little knowledge to effectively participate in an organization such as CERTs is a question of critical importance. On one level, the perception
of how much knowledge is required may be just as important as the actual level of knowledge. In a separate question, CERTs participants were asked whether they felt they had sufficient knowledge to effectively participate in CERTs. Eighty-seven percent responded affirmatively, 9 percent negatively, and the remaining 4 percent responded with uncertainty. Table 1 about here
Another factor involved with sustaining participation in community-based energy initiatives would be a consideration of shared priorities among members. Our survey asked a series of questions concerning the importance of priorities that participants bring into the project. These priorities are based upon various motives identified in the political participation literature and range from very personal priorities, i.e., financial gain, to very altruistic motives, i.e., building strong communities.
As shown in Table 2, there are some interesting variations and striking findings. In the cases of two priorities, development of strong communities and security of energy supply, 100 percent of respondents identified those as very important or somewhat important priorities. There was also a great deal of consensus concerning the importance of constructing community-owned energy technology, clean energy technology, energy projects owned by local individuals, and small-scale energy technology. Local employment was a shared priority, as well as having an opportunity for community participation over nature of energy system and making society identify all costs of energy production. In terms of policy-driven priorities, the importance of reducing threats caused by global climate change and changing public policy was also a shared priority. Particularly significant for our continuing research on a grid-integration model, independence from the energy grid was considered of lower importance in terms of priorities. Personal involvement in community affairs, demonstrating civic gratifications for political participation, was considered of high importance, and the material benefit of lower electricity costs was not ranked as highly in terms of importance. As with the technical knowledge issue, it could be that the perception of shared priorities is as important as the actual priority positions. Table 2 about here
When asked whether others shared their priorities, 64 percent of CERTs survey respondents answered affirmatively, 23 percent answered negatively, and the rest with uncertainty. Determining the extent to which CERTs team members hold similar or dissimilar views of these priorities will likely be critical in determining the success or failure of the project. That is, if participants sense that others fail to share in their views the possibility for exit is significantly increased. Given the diversity of interests represented in the teams, dealing with what is likely to be an equally wide-ranging set of priorities will no doubt be one of the primary challenges facing the program’s administrators.
In terms of sustaining the involvement of CERTs participants, the organization has a distinct advantage over both PCEC and RENew Northfield, namely, the opportunity of connecting the variety of motivations for political activity. Thus, all four of these benefit types, material benefits (work-related participation), social gratification (high levels of attendance at quarterly meetings), civic gratification (regional approach allows for contribution to community), and desire to influence (energy) policy outcomes, were clearly evident in the participant’s responses.
Overall, the case studies highlight the variety of motivations that might animate a community energy initiative. While both RENew Northfield and PCEC share the motivations of social gratifications, civic gratifications, and the desire to influence policy and/or behavioral outcomes, RENew Northfield has a stronger emphasis on social gratifications than PCEC, perhaps accounting for the higher levels of continued citizen participation. CERTs has another type of advantage over PCEC, in that its connection to material benefits, such as career advancement, is quite strong. While all three case studies demonstrate the value of social gratifications, civic gratifications, and the desire to influence policy to citizen participation, CERTS is able to incorporate the additional motivation of material benefits to their advantage. Interestingly, the factor that was least responsible for motivating participation was personal financial gain, a finding that runs counter to most of the community energy literature (Bollinger, 2004; Sawin, 2004).VI. CONCLUSION
The nature of community energy and the role that such initiatives might play in the general fabric of civic life is not well understood. This paper makes it clear that several conceptual models are available. Community energy initiatives might, for instance, perform the intermediate role envisioned by so-called “stealth theorists”, allowing the mass of citizens to avoid the sort of engagement preferred by a select group of citizens actively and continuously involved in intense, democratic debate (Hibbing and Theiss-Morse, 2002). For those participating in an initiative the time and effort would be more significant and on-going than participation in other forms of engagement such as a deliberative polling process or a citizen’s jury. But in all instances, intense engagement would be confined to a fairly narrow set of citizens, namely those citizens with the requisite education and knowledge. Interaction with the larger community would be confined to message development, i.e., “wind is good/nuclear is bad”, and the mass of citizens would have only limited personal involvement, say, a willingness to participate in a community-sponsored energy conservation program. Only very rarely would the majority of citizens be expected to aggressively participate in public policy making or in any sort of sustained political process.
A more robust conceptualization of community energy might be guided by Barber’s notion of “strong democracy” (1984). As Barber warns, democratic participation cannot become a fulltime job. Yet, programs based upon this model would draw upon a much broader citizen base, involving people from many walks of life and from quarters not generally presumed to be part of a democratic process based upon sustained engagement. In this case, participants would not operate in a public sphere intermediate between the state and the mass of citizens. Instead, the mass of citizens themselves, communicating directly with policymakers at all levels, would constitute the membership for the initiative. In this respect, community energy might well perform the sort of civic function described by Skocpol, that is, a vehicle that provides a means for political activity on the part of the broad mass of citizens who join not just for social interaction but also to be actively involved in the making of public policy (2003).
Properly conceptualizing community-based energy is not a strictly academic matter. If the grid-integration model of distributed generation becomes the operant version of community energy, then the “stealth” version of democratic participation would seem to be sufficient. A more robust form of community-based energy, however, would seem to demand the development of strong democracy out of which would emerge a host of difficult problems. How citizens might be brought into the process, the incentives they are given to remain, the reason for their loyalty and or exit, the kind of work that is required of them, how best to facilitate an aggressive form of grassroots organizing, crafting long-term and well-structured public education campaigns, communicating complex ideas to a largely non-technical audience, forging the appropriate technical and expert networks, and striking the right balance between the expert and the citizen, will all emerge as central problems for those who seriously think about community energy as a viable systemic alternative.
There is no doubt that as the true costs of the current electricity system become ever-more apparent, community energy using sustainable technologies will become an increasingly attractive option. Yet, before this can happen policy makers must carefully consider the problem of civic culture. The reason for this is quite clear: if communities, however defined and operationalized, are to be given authority over their energy system, that is, if communities can decide whether they prefer wind over nuclear power and then put that decision into effect, decision making authority must rest in the hands of the community and not in the hands of an external body. How to structure the sorts of democratic relationships required under such a scenario is a daunting task.
<1> People who become involved with community-based energy initiatives, however, may not fit this profile, as they presumably would have strong feelings about energy issues and may enjoy such political involvement. Hibbing and Theiss-Morse admit that some citizens do enjoy politics, but they contend that “the number of ‘politicos’ in the general population has been grossly exaggerated” (2002, 11). Return to Reading
<2> These processes sit along a continuum of opinion-gathering techniques that try to strike a balance between numbers and knowledge. On one end sits the well-known telephone survey that presumes little knowledge but large numbers. Deliberative polling sits in the middle of the continuum, with relatively large numbers and more knowledge. The jury process involves very few people but much greater knowledge. See www.thataway.org for an impressive list of public participation methods. Return to Reading
<3> The jury process was initially developed by Ned Crosby at the Jefferson Center for New Democratic Processes in Minneapolis, MN (USA). The Center is, unfortunately, no longer operating. Similar processes have been developed in by Peter Dienel, working out of the Research Institute for Citizen Participation and Planning Methods at the University of Wuppertal and in 1994 the British think tank, IPPR, published a book entitled, Citizens Juries. Since 1996, over 200 projects have been run in Britain. The process has also spread to Australia, Austria, India, Spain, and other nations. Other citizen-based processes include Denmark’s technology consensus conferences and Oregan’s watershed councils, the latter described by Prugh, et al. as an “effort to broaden the stakeholder base and involve stakeholders directly in the resolution of disputes that affect their homes and communities, thereby building trust and reinforcing local commitment” (2000, 148). Participatory processes for urban settings, oftentimes at a neighborhood level, have also been described by Berry, Portney and Thomson (1993). See also Box, 1998 and Sabel, et al., 2000, generally. Return to Reading
<4> One of the few papers that even attempts to evaluate the “social side” of community energy is by Cullingworth and Sparling (1988). The paper considers a number of critical issues and raises a number of important points regarding community energy, including problems of administrative authority and planning, public participation, changing public attitudes, and the difficulty of creating a comprehensive plan (1988, 264-73). Yet, their description of the CEP of the 70s and 80s presents community energy as a top-down process initiated mainly by municipal staffs. Given their focus, i.e., the CEP programs of the period, this is not unexpected. Return to Reading
<5> The Green Institute originated from an environmental justice movement against the siting of a solid waste transfer station in a residential area of South Minneapolis' Phillips Neighborhood. Six years later, the Green Institute employs 40 staff members and has an annual budget of $3.3 million. The Phillips Eco-Enterprise Center opened in Fall 1999, and is now home to many environmental industry firms and several non-profit organizations including the Green Institute. Return to Reading
Table 1: Self-identified Levels of Technical Knowledge Among CERTs Participants
(Question Asks: How Much Do You Know About …)
A great deal / Some Very little
…the current electrical system 81 % 19 %
…wind technology 87 % 13 %
…solar panels 72 % 28 %
…biogas / anaerobic digesters 68 % 32 %
…biomass for electricity / heat 79 % 19 %
…ethanol / biodiesel 81 % 19 %
…fuel cells 60 % 40 %
…energy efficiency / conservation 89 % 11 %
…environmental impacts of energy use 89 % 11 %
Table 2: Priorities of CERTs Participants
(In terms of your CERTs participation, how important are the following factors to you?)
Very / Somewhat Not Very
Development of strong communities 100 %
Security of energy supply 100 %
Construction of community-owned energy technology 95 % 2%
Construction of clean energy technology 94 % 4 %
Opportunity for community participation over nature of energy system 94 % 6 %
Making society identify all costs of energy production 94 % 6 %
Personal involvement in community affairs 91 % 9 %
Local employment 91 % 9 %
Construction of small-scale energy technology 89 % 9 %
Reducing threat caused by global climate change 89 % 11 %
Changing public policy 89 % 11 %
Construction of energy projects owned by local individuals 87 % 11 %
Lower electricity costs 68 % 30 %
Independence from energy grid 62 % 36 %
Opportunity to build my own renewable energy project 53 % 45 %
Opportunity for personal financial gain 25 % 72 %
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