Building up the Third Leg of the Stool:
Community-Based Energy and the Reinvigoration of Civic Life
University of St. Thomas
Department of Political Science
2115 Summit Avenue, JRC 432
St. Paul, MN 55105
Steven M. Hoffman
University of St. Thomas
Department of Political Science
2115 Summit Avenue, JRC 432
St. Paul, MN 55105
Paper prepared for 2005 Annual Meeting of the Midwest Political Science Association,
Chicago, Illinois, April 7-10.
("<#>" is a link to a footnote found toward the bottom of this page)
According to former United States Senator Bill Bradley, the government and the market are like two legs of a three-legged stool. Without the third leg of civil society, without “a healthy robust civic sector, a space in which the bonds of community can flourish,” the stool is inherently unstable. In the United States, this “third leg” is disproportionately weak in relation to the legs of government and the private sector. Community-based energy initiatives provide one opportunity for citizens to work together to build up and repair this third and weakest leg.
In this paper, we explore the civic potential of community-based energy. Using qualitative and quantitative approaches, we examine three community-based energy initiatives in Minnesota: a group of small-town citizens organized with the goal of installing and operating small-scale wind projects in their community, an urban nongovernmental organization in a low-income, racially diverse community, and a group of various stakeholders organized into regional teams by a coalition of state agencies and non-profit organizations. We conduct content analyses of two of the organization’s communications, including meeting agendas and minutes, newsletters, and information posted on their website. Surveys of participants of one of the community-based initiatives also allow for an examination of stakeholder roles and motivations for joining, remaining with, and exiting an organization. We examine what types of selective incentives citizens receive for working within a community-based energy initiative, and which incentives are likely to prove most powerful over the long term.
Speaking before the National Press Club, former United States Senator Bill Bradley (D - New Jersey) 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.
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 building a new kind of civic culture is synonymous with the repair of this third and weakest leg. For many political 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. 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 <1>.
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).
At the other end of the spectrum from Hibbing and Theiss-Morse’s (2002) stealth democracy
lies 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. 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. 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.
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.
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. Today, 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. At this point, we see two possible paths for the energy system in the United States. One path would be 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. Another path would involve the linking of local generation and local consumption, which 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 decision-making. 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).
To a great extent, then, community-based energy advocates 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, we examine three Minnesota-based community-based energy projects: RENew Northfield, the Phillips Community Energy Cooperative (PCEC), and the Clean Energy Resource Team (CERTs) initiative. In each case, the analysis is framed around the question of motivation for participation. In addition to compiling extensive case histories, this research, which is a work in progress, includes both qualitative and quantitative approaches. In this paper, data consist of a content analysis of RENew Northfield’s internally and externally directed documents, a content analysis of PCEC’s internally and externally directed documents, and an analysis of 59 surveys of CERTs participants.
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 in March 2001, 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.” RENew Northfield’s initial focus has been on electricity generation – specifically, wind energy. 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. RENew Northfield anticipates that their community will become a model for other communities working toward energy self-sufficiency.
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.” More informal indicators of RENew Northfield’s emphasis on community participation appear in minutes of the organizations’ meetings. Examples include such statements as:
The 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. . . . The fact that the public needs a better understanding of carbon sinks was then discussed.
One more example of an informal indicator is in this memo from RENew Northfield’s president to its members: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).
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. This emphasis on process began with an open invitation to all Northfield area residents interested in attending a public meeting, and continued with meetings that began with round-robins, so that everyone in attendance had a chance to make their voice heard. 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. Our content analysis allows us to interpret the motivations of RENew Northfield’s members’ participation: social gratification, civic gratification, and the desire to influence policy outcomes. 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 example will illustrate.
None of this is to say that community-based 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 (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 middle 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 limited-liability corporation, 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 Energy. 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. This displacement of goals seems more significant when considering a message in one of the first e-mails from the founder and president of RENew Northfield to the members. “I know that it may seem early to be discussing a specific proposal that we, as a group, want to advocate, and that, further, what I am about to propose may seem overly ambitious, but … I am not interested in timid steps. I think we have an opportunity to really go for a significant project, and should think big. If future events force us to scale back, so be it, but I would like to lay out what I think is an achievable plan for the Northfield area.”
Phillips Community Energy Project (PCEC)
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 community-based energy 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 <2>.
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.” Similar to RENew Northfield, PCEC hopes to set an example for other communities to follow.
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.
Participation in PCEC can be as a board member, or as a community member or associate member. Phillips community residents can join PCEC for $1. Doing so entitles them to a free “energy efficiency” kit which includes two compact fluorescent light bulbs, one low-flow shower head, and a 5-pack interior window insulation kit. PCEC also offers assistance to residents who are interested in organizing their block to increase energy conservation in their neighborhood and to form “buying groups” that can work with local distributors whom have an array of energy efficient appliances, light bulbs, and weatherization materials. Associate members are those who live outside of the Phillips community, and they must pay an annual fee of $20 and have more restricted voting privileges. We will discuss the motivations for involvement in PCEC at each level in turn.
Based on our content analysis of meeting agendas, minutes, and website materials, we are able to interpret the motivations of PCEC board members’ participation: social gratification, civic gratification, and the desire to influence not necessarily policy outcomes, but 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. We examined the minutes of 18 board meetings, and there was an absence of a quorum in 7 of those meetings. Decisions about structure and process were postponed for months, as members waited for greater attendance. On a larger scale, the date of the second annual membership meeting was pushed back three times, and was actually held a year later than planned. PCEC, an organization that implements 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. Earlier this year, there was a proposal to strike the names of founding board members who have not attended meetings. At a recent meeting, board members actually used the phrase “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. Again, social gratification is a strong motivation for citizen involvement, and the original composition of PCEC’s board included people who did not actually attend meetings or become very involved with the organization. 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 included material benefits and civic gratifications. There was the potential for social gratification at the annual membership meetings, but we are unable to discern how much potential for interaction there might have been between members. Material benefits ranged from the free (with $1 membership) energy efficiency kit to discounts on energy efficient products to free energy audits to free solar panels. These are examples of tangible benefits, available only to members. Associate members did not receive all of these tangible benefits available to Phillips community residents, but they did receive PCEC newsletters and energy conservation education, which are tangible items. In terms of civic gratification, PCEC staff used particular language designed to cultivate a sense of pride and the organization and its purpose: “Don’t miss this opportunity to become a founding member of this exciting and innovative organization!” Associate members could also take that message to heart, along with the prospect of receiving assistance from PCEC in forming such an organization in their own community.
Clean Energy Resource Teams (CERTs)
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.
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 <3>
. Beginning with demographic characteristics of CERTs participants, ages ranged from 30 to 91 years. Out of 59 respondents, only 9, or 15 percent, were women. This point was not lost on CERTs participants, as many of them mentioned “women” when prompted about stakeholders who were not well-represented on CERTs teams.
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) find in their Citizen Participation Project data, citizens 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 three 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. More than 60 percent of CERTs participants report that their participation is “work-related,” a factor which seems 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 (83 percent), while more than half of the participants also attended small group meetings, steering committees, or task force meetings. Electronic participation is also a factor, with nearly 60 percent of respondents reporting that they engaged in that form of participation 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 animate participation in community energy projects. Our survey asked respondents about the roles that they played in CERTs, and participants could check more than one answer. CERTs participants overwhelmingly identified themselves as playing the role of citizen (64 percent). Other roles, including being a member of environmental organization (29 percent), community leader (22 percent), farmer (19 percent), small business owner (22 percent), as well as elected official (12 percent), government staff (14 percent), utility staff (12 percent), academic (14 percent), while important, fell far behind that of citizen. Nearly 65 percent of CERTs participants considered other stakeholders to be well-represented in CERTs, and those who did not 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.”
<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> 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. Return to Reading
<3> Our numerous attempts to administer surveys to members of RENew Northfield and PCEC resulted in 3 and 13 completed surveys, respectively. Since those numbers are too few to analyze, we include only the analysis of CERTs survey data in this paper. Return to Reading
Table 1 about here
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. Our 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 (41 percent, 31 percent, and 24 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-six percent responded affirmatively, 9 percent negatively, and the remaining 5 percent responded with uncertainty.
Table 2 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, such as financial gain, to very altruistic motives, such as building strong communities.
As shown in Table 3, 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.
Table 3 about here
As with the technical knowledge issue, it could be that the perception of shared priorities is as important as the actual priority positions. When asked whether others shared their priorities, 66 percent of CERTs survey respondents answered affirmatively, 20 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 participants’ responses.
Overall, these three examples highlight the variety of motivations that might animate a community-based energy initiative. While both RENew Northfield and PCEC share the motivations of social gratification, civic gratification, and the desire to influence policy and/or behavioral outcomes, RENew Northfield has a stronger emphasis on social gratification 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 examples demonstrate the value of social gratification, civic gratification, 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).
The nature of community-based 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-based energy initiatives might, for instance, perform the intermediate role envisioned by so-called “stealth democratic 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). Participation within the community-based energy initiative 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 (“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-based energy might be guided by Barber’s notion of “strong democracy” (1984). As Barber warns, democratic participation cannot become a full-time job. Yet, programs based upon this model would draw upon a much broader citizen base, involving people from many walks of life. 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.
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-based 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 (Hirschman, 1970), 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 challenges for those who seriously think about community-based energy as a viable systemic alternative.
Table 1: Self-identified Roles Among CERTs Participants
(Question Asks: What role(s) do you play in CERTs (check all that apply)?)
Citizen 64 % 34 %
Farmer 19 % 80 %
Small Business Owner 22 % 76 %
Elected Official 12 % 86 %
Local Government Staff 14 % 85 %
Federal / State Agency Staff 12 % 86 %
Utility Staff 12 % 86 %
Academic 14 % 85 %
Community Leader 22 % 76 %
Community Worker 7 % 92 %
Member of Environmental Organization 29 % 70 %
Other 12 % 86 %
Table 2: 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 80 % 19 %
…wind technology 88 % 10 %
…solar panels 74 % 24 %
…biogas / anaerobic digesters 68 % 31 %
…biomass for electricity / heat 78 % 19 %
…ethanol / biodiesel 78 % 20 %
…fuel cells 58 % 41 %
…energy efficiency / conservation 89 % 10 %
…environmental impacts of energy use 88 % 10 %
Table 3: Priorities of CERTs Participants
(In terms of your CERTs participation, how important are the following factors to you?)
Very / Somewhat Not Very
Construction of clean energy technology 93 % 3 %
Construction of energy projects owned by local individuals 87 % 10 %
Construction of small-scale energy technology 88 % 9 %
Construction of community-owned energy technology 95 % 2 %
Opportunity for community participation over nature of energy system 93 % 5 %
Personal involvement in community affairs 90 % 9 %
Lower electricity costs 61 % 36 %
Opportunity for personal financial gain 30 % 66 %
Opportunity to build my own renewable energy project 52 % 44 %
Development of strong communities 100 %
Local employment 90 % 7 %
Independence from energy grid 57 % 37 %
Security of energy supply 100 %
Reducing threat caused by global climate change 90 % 9 %
Making society identify all costs of energy production 93 % 5 %
Changing public policy 90 % 9 %
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