Community Based Energy and Technological Change
by INTRODUCTION: A CRISIS IN THE SYSTEM?
Steven M. Hoffman, Ph.D.
Department of Political Science
University of St. Thomas
Angela High-Pippert, Ph.D.
Department of Political Science
University of St. Thomas
Presented at the Annual Meetings of the
Minnesota Political Science Association
Gustavus Adolphus College
St. Peter, MN
November 8, 2003
The blackout of August 14, 2003 created a virtual tsunami of concern about the reliability of the nation’s electricity system and in particular, the transmission system. From the U.S. Secretary of Energy on down, all parties seemed to agree that the loss of electricity to millions of business and residential consumers signaled the need for a major overhaul of the power lines that crisscross the country. Some commentators, however, offered a radically different analysis of the electricity problem. According to David Morris, for instance, “[I]nstead of spending tens of billions of dollars to expand the transportation of electricity we should spend that money to expand the distributed generation of electricity. The technology to accomplish this is here. But to make this transition we need to develop rules that would decentralize rather than centralize electricity generation and delivery (Star Tribune, August 25, 2003, P. 11A). Arthur J. O’Donnell offered a similar line of argument, saying that ”[I]t's time to rethink and reinvent our electric grid . . . Distributed generation and direct use of solar panels reduce the need for extended transmission lines and will simplify the network in the long run” (San Diego Union-Tribune, August 24, 2003, P. G1).
By this analysis, the problem is not an under-investment in the grid but a failure to invest in emerging new generation technology that holds the potential to make the grid largely irrelevant. Commonly termed distributed generation (DG) technologies or distributed energy resources (DER), these machines refer “to a variety of small, modular power-generating technologies that can be combined with energy management and storage systems and used to improve the operation of the electricity delivery system” (retrieved at www.eere.energy.gov/der).
A sampling of the nation’s editorial pages and pundits showed clear evidence that the DG option no longer sits on the fringe of the energy debate. According to the Chicago Sun Times, for instance (August 29, 2003):
Distributed generation has become a vital alternative, as increased energy demands put a greater strain on the grid. It is already playing a larger role in Chicago, which has initiated progressive measures including distributed generation and renewable sources to provide a considerable part of its energy consumption. Distributed generation offers consumers greater choice, including whether to purchase their power from renewable sources like a small wind farm or solar panels. Even businesses realize significant cost savings by capturing the heat produced from making electricity to warm their buildings and water.
The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette expressed similar sentiments (August 24, 2003):
There is another way. For example, in parts of the Netherlands, small generators, powered by engines that burn clean natural gas, are located in office or apartment buildings to generate 10 percent of the total power. Rather than needing expensive cooling towers, they use the “waste” energy to heat water and buildings and, with fancier technology, cool the buildings. Thus, in addition to adding reliability, these systems are more energy efficient than the combination of large central generators and individual furnaces and air conditioners in every building. As costs come down, more advanced technologies, such as microturbines and fuels cells, may make distributed generation still more efficient and cleaner.
Such views were not limited to the United States. Paul Samyn, writing in the Winnipeg Free Press in response to suggestions that Manitoba should invest some billions in developing new grid-connected transmission capacity, questioned whether (September 2, 2003: B4):
Building a new electrical super highway to allow the province to export gigawatt after gigawatt to Ontario and beyond also put Manitoba at risk of importing the kind of power problems witnessed Aug. 14? And with an aging power infrastructure in need of billions of dollars of upgrades to help it meet the demands of the 21st century, should electrical mega projects give way to smaller, more localized power solutions?
Even Australia, perhaps as far removed from the U.S. as geographically possible, suggested that the solution lay not in trying to prop up the grid but in failing to recognize the potential in “distributed generation architecture: placing smaller, modular, diverse and redundant electrical devices across the grid close to the loads they serve. Energy sources such as fuel cells, combined heat and power systems, solar panels and micro-turbines can provide power at lower cost and greater reliability than the centralized power grid” (The Age, Melbourne, Australia, August 28, 2003).
No less a bastion of tradition than the Financial Times of London offered that “advanced generation and transmission technology needs to be fully exploited, such as distributed generation, combined heat and power, fuel cells and "smart grid” technology (September, 5, 2003).
The debate over transmission versus DG investments comes at propitious moment in the history of the electricity system. For much of the last century, this system seemed capable of growing to a scale without limits, the result being massive generating stations, enormous transmission towers, and a complex system of poles and wires distributing the electricity into countless homes and businesses. Today, however, the economic structure of the electricity industry is changing as improvements and innovation in a variety of technologies, including wind turbines (Gipe, 1995), solar panels, and fuel cells, have resulted in significantly lower costs for smaller-scale systems. Yet, to a great extent, these technologies are often seen as complements to the existing grid system. Indeed, in some cases, the technologies are conceived of in such a manner as to require the continued operation of the grid. The development of utility-scale wind farms or massive banks of solar panels, for instance, do not envision a new kind of electricity system so much as they simply replace one form of generation for another. THE SOCIAL MEANING OF DISTRIBUTED GENERATION
An emphasis on the technology of distributed generation and its complementarity to existing grid operations overlooks the social implications embedded in a distributed generation system. The California Energy Commission, for instance, emphasizes the connection between local generation and local consumption in its definition of DG (2001):
DG is electric generation connected to the distribution level of the transmission and distribution grid usually located at or near the intended place of use . . .[D]istributed generation can be used as a primary source of electricity, essentially reducing or even eliminating reliance on the utility for electric service.
Until recently, the opportunity for the self-reliance represented by DER has been restricted to a select class of uses, such as consumers distant from the grid, stand-alone devices such as road signs or weather stations, or as back-up power in the event of a power grid failure. The more important significance of DG, however, is its potential to facilitate the creation of community-based energy (CBE) systems that would reverse the roles of DG and the grid. Rather than augmenting the existing grid, community-based energy predicated on a variety of DER technologies could become the dominant provider; the grid would serve as a back-up source of electricity available whenever locally-produced and owned energy might be momentarily unavailable.
In addition to the changing economics of generation alternatives, the decade-long effort to restructure the electricity system has also driven the development of CBE initiatives (Fox-Penner, 1997). While slowed by the Enron scandal, the debacle in California, and perhaps the recent 2003 blackout, the debate has nonetheless stimulated a good deal of discussion about “taking back the energy system” in order to fashion a more locally robust electricity system. Morris, for instance, argues 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 offers a similar perspective on the advantages of locally-controlled, if not necessarily owned, power systems. According to Ridley, locally-based 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).
From this perspective, technological choice is an important but hardly dominant issue. Instead, the question of how to power society is primarily about social norms and values, rooted in issues of democratic governance and community empowerment. To exclude or even minimize public participation is to prevent individuals and communities from having a role in shaping the environment in which they must live.
For local power advocates, community-based energy is also 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.
Even in those instances where power is purchased rather than self-generated, most CBE advocates assume that people will choose wind power over nuclear plants, fuel cells over diesel generators, efficiency over coal plants, and so on. Two factors explain this choice. First are issues of scale and complexity. Conventionally fired resources, coal and nuclear in particular, cannot be produced at a community scale, except for very large or densely populated places. By the same token, even if modular-scale reactors prove viable, it is hard to imagine communities possessing the necessary technical process to own or operate nuclear technology. Thus, if people wish to exercise meaningful control, it is unlikely that they will choose alternatives that they cannot understand or that require control be taken away from them.
Second, and perhaps more fundamentally, local power advocates believe that people want to choose those technologies that do less harm to themselves, their families, and their communities; renewable technologies win out on these grounds. As a result, CBE advocates believe that the primary challenge 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. Once this is accomplished, the ‘right’ choice will inevitably follow. RESEARCH QUESTIONS
The careful examination of community-based energy offers a unique opportunity to explore a number of related issues revolving around questions of civic participation, institutional structure, and technological choice. Understanding the interplay among these factors will give us a much better idea of the most effective means of bringing about the transition to a sustainable energy system.
Among the more important questions that may be explored are:
- What meanings might be attached to the idea of “community” and under what conditions have community-level energy projects developed? That is, who are the key actors, how have they interacted with existing institutions, and so on?
- How important is governance and community involvement? If local involvement is limited to a few landowners receiving lease payments can we still consider this a local or community-based project?
- How does CBE help us conceive of and/or operationalize “citizenship”? How much does citizenship require of community members?
- Are the norms of CBE satisfied by so-called “green pricing” programs, the effect of which is to limit citizen participation to that of being a consumer? Examples of such program might include “community-based green marketing programs” and “community-based energy-efficiency” programs as practiced to date under many restructuring –induced “aggregation” programs.
- How do the various institutional options, i.e., co-operative or municipal utilities, counties, IOUs, grassroots organizations, etc., structure citizen participation?
- Of the many institutional options available, which ones would be most successful in bringing about a technological shift?
- How effectively do various types of CBE initiatives communicate scientifically complex ideas to involved publics?
- Is scale important? Must we have small, individual applications (i.e., fuel cells, microhydro systems, small turbines, and rooftop solar systems) owned and operated by individual residents or businesses to label something as CBE? Or can we have large machines (i.e., 1.2 MW wind machines assembled as a so-called ‘wind farm’) and still call it CBE?
- How important is the link between local generation and local consumption?
- How are potential conflicts between the goals of citizen participation, local ownership and technological change resolved?
- What is the effect of a “top-down” versus “bottom-up” approach? For example, the Minnesota-based Regional Sustainable Development Partnerships program argues that the program must be generated from the community and is attempting to create a structure that acts on community initiatives rather than imposing programs in communities. This is in contrast to the United Kingdom’s Community Renewables Initiative, organized under the auspices of the Countryside Agency and the Department of Trade and Industry, the aim of which is to create “community enterprise structures.”
One approach that is well-suited to an examination of these issues is content analysis, an approach that involves the systematic counting, assessing, and interpreting of the form and substance of communication (CITATION NEEDED). Since content analysis allows for careful examination of the communication patterns associated with various CBE initiatives we are interested in, it is a very effective way to explore the social, political, and technological aspects of our research questions. By analyzing different forms of communication produced by each CBE initiative, we can examine the way in which the messages vary, in content as well as in emphasis. Through content analysis, we can assess how such relevant concepts as community, public participation, the environment, and energy are portrayed by each CBE initiative.
Two examples of community-based energy drawn form the state of Minnesota illustrate two, competing if not contradictory, motivations that inspire CBE, namely, community empowerment and/or citizenship and economic development. The first of these cases is a collaborative between Great River Energy and TIMONT, LLC (Limited Liability Corporation). TRIMONT is a partnership of some 40 local landowners that is negotiating a contract with Great River Energy, the state’s largest G&T cooperative utility that supplies electricity to 28 distribution cooperatives. In a brief press release announcing Great River Energy’s selection of TRIMONT for its 100 megawatt wind energy project, dated August 2003, there are five uses of the word “local”, two in the first paragraph, and then one in each of the following paragraphs, for a total of five uses of “local” in a seven paragraph press release. TRIMONT is described as a “coalition of local interests,” as well as “local landowners” and “local citizens” and the part of the reason TRIMONT was selected by Great River Energy was that the developer is “locally owned.” Also mentioned is the belief that this will be the “largest, locally-owned wind project in the nation.”
A second case is that of RENew Northfield, a grassroots organization created by a local activist attempting to install and operate a number of small-scale wind projects in the community. The origins of the organization can be traced to a March 2001, editorial that appeared in the community newspaper. The piece was written by a local activist, articulating his vision of Northfield as a clean-energy community, and inviting other interested citizens to join him for a public discussion of these ideas. Contextual analysis of this and other documents, including the organization’s strategic plan, minutes of meetings, e-mail communication between members (there are 100 subscribers on their listserv), 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, for instance, 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.”
RENew Northfield’s strategic plan states that the organization is guided by the values of environment, community, and social justice. The value of community is further defined as “Economic benefits from the production and use of energy should accrue primarily to the local community. The community should determine, and share responsibility for, how its energy is produced and consumed.” 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, as well as co-hosting forums with other local groups such as the League of Women Voters. RENew Northfield hosted a community wind conference, 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.” More than 200 people attended that conference in April 2002.
More informal indicators of RENew Northfield’s emphasis on community participation appear in minutes of the organizations’ meetings. At one meeting, for instance, considerable time was spent coming to an agreement that “[T]he group agrees that if people in Northfield are going to get interested in alternatives and renewables, they need to see something to know what we’re talking about. The Middle School wind tower would be such a ‘demonstration’ project.” Another example of an informal indicator is found in a memo from RENew Northfield’s president to its members, which stated that:
Some of you may like some of what I have proposed, but not other elements of it. Whatever your opinion, if you have one, talk to me! In person, by phone, by e-mail to me individually or to the group as a whole (which is what I would prefer – I think we all have a lot to gain by keeping this discussion and process as open and transparent as possible.”
This emphasis on process as well as outcome indicates that RENew Northfield’s goals include more than technological change.
This very preliminary examination of these two cases clearly illustrates two competing if not contradictory, motivations that inspire CBE, namely community empowerment [and/or] citizenship and economic development. RENew Northfield, for instance, is strongly resistant to projects beyond a certain scale. According to the groups’ leadership, once a project gets beyond a certain, albeit hard to specify size, the project becomes something other than a community-based system, a convinction party rationalized by pointing out that a larger project will more likely be grid-connected. Yet even a single windmill tied into a community asset, e.g., a school, might, if it is net metered, feed into the grid. More likely, what the larger project seems to violate is a norm of community empowerment that is predicated on some sense of community control. That is, a small turbine or a single roof-top solar installation can be understood, monitored and controlled by a competent individual. To understand, much less be in effective control of, a 100 MW wind farms is perceived to be beyond the capacity of most people.
At the same time, the TRIMONT proposal is of interest to Great River Energy because of its link to GRE’s historic relationship to local, democratic systems. Whatever its size, Great River is, after all, a coop. But here we can ask just what does local ownership imply or require? In this case, there is minimal community involvement. That is, while there is a formal board of directors there is NO community involvement outside of the participating landowners. At best there is a community of interest based upon shared economic benefits.
The difficulty of pinning down the exact meaning of community-based energy is further illustrated by a recently announced Community Wind Rebate offered by Minnesota Department of Commerce. The Department is looking to give money to new grid-connected community owned wind energy projects of 750 kW or larger to be installed, interconnected and operating with a MN electric utility by June 30, 2005. Examples of community ownership include educational institutions, non-profit organizations and units of government as well as multiple, non-taxable owners operating multiple turbines. Thus, there are many forms of ownership only some of which may meet the objective of community empowerment and while this is a wind-only proposal, therefore meeting the environmental objective common to many CBE projects, there is no necessary linkage between local ownership and local consumption. Indeed, the requirement that it be grid-connected seems to be directly contrary to what many CBE advocates see at the heart of their thinking about displacing the primacy of the grid.CONCLUSION
The transition to a more sustainable energy future in Minnesota and elsewhere will be long and tedious. Understanding the meaning of community-based energy and the best means to realize its potential, will, we hope, contribute to that transition.REFERENCES
Byrne, John and Steven M. Hoffman. 1986. An Evaluation of a Solar Energy Pumping System.
With John Byrne. 1986. Prepared for the Office of Energy Related Inventions, U.S.
Department of Commerce.
California Energy Commission. 2001. Distributed Generation Strategy.
Printed on-line, April, 2001.
Retrieved at www.energy.ca.gov.
Fenn, Paul. 1999. “Without Community Choice, No Consumer Choice.” Local Power News
Retrieved at www.local.org.
Fox-Penner, Peter. 1997. Electric Utility Restructuring: A Guide to the Competitive Era
. Vienna, VA:
Public Utilities Reports, Inc.
Gipe, Paul. 1995. Wind Energy Comes of Age. New York, NY: Hohn Wiley & Sons.
Morris, David. 2001. Seeing the Light: Regaining Control of Our Electricity System.
MN: Institute for Local Self-Reliance.
Ridley, Scott. 1998. Community Choice and Municipal Aggregation
. Retreived at www.local.org.