THE SHAPE OF THE ELECTRICITY SYSTEM: A CONTINUING DEBATE
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 autonomy or a 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 ‘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, 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 proposed his 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 the social agenda embedded in the soft-path. There are, however, important caveats that need to be explored as to whether the development of alternative technologies necessarily presages a fundamental and parallel shift in the social organization of the electricity system.
A GRID-INTEGRATION MODEL OF DISTRIBUTED GENERATION
The economics of distributed generation has given rise to an expectation that a new type of electricity system is just over the horizon, one that will be benevolent to both the atmosphere and the landscapes we rely upon to sate our current appetite for fossil fuels. There is also an expectation, at least for some, that the adoption of these same technologies portends a degree of individual and community empowerment simply unimaginable under the current system. While the former assumption seems largely accurate, the latter is highly debatable. That is, while distributed technologies, at least in the case of wind and solar systems, and possibly fuel cells, are undoubtedly much more benign in terms of environmental impact, there is little proof that a distributed system necessarily implies a more benign social world. 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 operations of the grid.
Mark Bolinger’s examination of state supported programs for community wind power development illustrates what might be called a grid-integration model of distributed generation (2004). In the paper, Bolinger offers several criteria that might possibly define a community wind project, including project size, purpose, ownership, and interconnection. He ultimately settles on community wind as “locally owned utility-scale wind development on either side of the customer or utility side of the meter” (2004, 3). Building on this definition, Bolinger examines the variety of state incentives that are now becoming available to individuals and organizations interested in the development of wind projects. In doing so, he 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 recent 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 (2004, 4):
[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 <1>.
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. 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 community pressures might have on the development of the technology. Community resistance to large-scale projects in parts of Europe, for instance, might well put a halt to further expansion of the technology <2>. Yet 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 <3>. 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 there is no doubt that wind machines are preferable to nuclear power plants, the possibility of this new technological regime to contribute to a revitalized civic culture is largely being overlooked.
A COMMUNITY ENERGY MODEL FOR DISTRIBUTED GENERATION
The idea that a distinctive type of social architecture could well 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’ (1980, 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-based 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 transmission and distribution grid usually located at or near the intended place of use” (2001). Under this scenario, attention is 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, in turn 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>.
TESTING THE ARGUMENT
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, the assumption that most people want to and are fully qualified to make fundamental energy choices through a democratic political process is hardly indisputable. 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 <5>.
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).
A research project is underway in the United States and the United Kingdom that is designed to test the veracity of the arguments made by community energy advocates in the tradition of Lovins et al <6>. In the United States, three preliminary cases are being assessed: 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, the research includes both qualitative and quantitative approaches, such as content analysis and participant surveys. (See appendix for a more detailed discussion of methodology.) 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 47 surveys of CERTs participants.
Our 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.
Case #1 RENew Northfield
This is a true grassroots organization created by a local activist that is attempting to install and operate a number of small-scale wind projects in the community. The mission of RENew Northfield is 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 is for Northfield to become 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. The non-profit’s initial focus has been on electricity generation, specifically, wind energy.
The time frame of our study of RENew Northfield begins in March 2001, when the organization was founded after a local activist wrote an opinion piece to the local newspaper, articulating his vision of Northfield as a clear-energy community, and inviting other interested citizens to join him for a public discussion of these ideas. Our data includes that opinion piece, as well as other opinion pieces written to the local newspaper on behalf of RENew Northfield. Other documents include 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.
So far, a contextual reading of these documents 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.”
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.” The president of RENew Northfield emphasized the potential benefits of local generation in a column in the local newspaper, in which he wrote, “The benefits of such a transformation of our local electrical system would not only entail elimination of the many negative environmental consequences of our current reliance on Xcel Energy’s electricity, but would also include significant local economic benefits. Huge sums of money which we all currently send off to Xcel Energy monthly would instead circulate in the local economy.”
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 organization’s meetings, including statements such 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.” Another useful example of an informal indicator is a memo from RENew Northfield’s president to its members. In the memo, the president pointed out 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 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 every one 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 discussed 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 501(c)3 non-profit; what level of collaboration are we comfortable with with such groups as the Minnesota Project, etc.” Once the members decided to incorporate and seek 501(c)(3) status, the president acknowledged, “This 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. Based on a contextual reading of meeting agendas, minutes, and website materials, we are able to interpret the motivations of RENew Northfield members’ participation: social gratification, civic gratification, and the desire to influence policy outcomes. Citizens join and continue in the work of RENew Northfield 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.
Recent discussion with the president of the organizations indicates an interesting series of shifts in the group’s attitudes and practices. RENew Northfield 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. Indeed, the original project that would establish 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 <7>. This displacement of goals seems more significant when considering a message in one of the first e-mails from the 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 many 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.”
CASE #2: The Phillips Community Energy Cooperative (PCEC)
PCEC is a project of the Green Institute, a Minneapolis-based nongovernmental organization set in the midst of low-income, largely minority community. Given that most CBE initiatives tend to be located either in rural areas or in small towns away from large urban centers, PCEC’s urban location makes it a unique opportunity to examine whether or not community-based energy is even possible within an urban setting.
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. After 12 years of resistance, neighborhood residents succeeded in preventing construction of the large facility. Residents then directed their passion toward a more sustainable vision of community development. In 1993, neighborhood activist Annie Young and others formed the Green Institute. Program operations began in 1995 with the opening of the ReUse Center, a retail store providing quality salvaged building materials. Six years later, the Green Institute employs 40 staff members and has an annual budget of $3.3 million. In 1997, the Institute formed DeConstruction Services a project intended to aggressively procure and market used building materials. Realizing one of the organization's original dreams, the Institute broke ground in 1998 for a major commercial center on the land once slated for the transfer station. 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. The Institute is a 501 (c) (3) organization. Funding sources are diverse, including program revenue, local, state, and federal government grants, foundation support, and contributions from private corporations and individuals.
There are two important and complementary programs at the core of PCEC work: a) a cooperative that effectively delivers energy-related services and conservation; and b) a renewable biomass cogeneration facility designed to produce district heating and renewable electricity in the Phillips neighborhood. The latter is a major new initiative of the PCEC and an effort to turn a nearby garbage transfer station into a biomass-fired power plant that will burn clean waste wood from the Minneapolis’ urban forest and as well as residue collected from the Twin Cities’ construction industries. The plant will be a “combined heat and power” facility, meaning it will have the capacity to produce electricity and district heating and cooling via the waste steam. Under currently regulatory statute, electricity from the plant has to be sold to another utility company and cannot be sold directly to customers in another utility company’s service area. The heating and cooling capacity, however, will be sold to PCEC members. The plant is scheduled to be ready for commercial production by the end of 2006. However, as one board member articulated at a meeting, “the community” could stop the project just as easily as a lack of funding could, and so PCEC was reminded of the importance of keeping residents and businesses up to date on the project.
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. In more specific language, 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.
A contextual reading of meeting agendas, minutes, and website materials clearly illustrates the motivations of PCEC board members’ participation: social gratification, civic gratification, and the desire to influence behavioral outcomes. Just 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 for the second annual membership meeting was pushed back three times, and was actually held a year later than planned. Ironically, 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 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.
Social gratification again 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. 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 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 would 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 the 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 in 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.
CASE #3: The Clean Energy Resource Teams (CERTs) Initiative
The Clean Energy Resource Teams 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.
Survey data of CERTS participants allows for a closer examination of issues such as motivations for participation, recruitment, stakeholders involved in the organization, and knowledge of participants <8>. The ages of CERTs participants ranged from 30 to 91 years with only 8 of the 47, or 17 percent, of the respondents being 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) found 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 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. Thus, 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 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. 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. The results are shown in Table 1.
<2> Conversely, the willingness of community members to actively participate in the use of wind facilities by integrating local generation with local sources of consumption, i.e., large public or commercial users, might well have an immediate economic impact, particularly if whole-cost development (i.e., generation plus transmission) is considered.
<3> Seen in this light, the current emphasis on developing wind farms is sensible since it is easier to solve interconnection problems associated with nests of many large machines than with many units tied to individual buildings or neighborhoods.
<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.
<5> 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 (2002: 11) admit that some citizens do enjoy politics, but they contend that “the number of ‘politicos’ in the general population has been grossly exaggerated.”
<6> The implication for civic culture has been more fully developed in a previous paper, Community-Based Energy and the Reinvigoration of Civic Culture, which was presented at the Annual Meetings of the International Association for People-Society Studies. Vienna, Austria. July 8, 2004.
<7> This notion is, of course, part of a larger debate over green-pricing programs which requires consumers to pay a premium for wind-generated electricity. Of course, consumers are not actually consuming green electrons. Instead they are paying for the development of green resources, the electrons from which are fed into the grid. This stands in sharp contrast to RENew Northfield’s original goal of linking generation directly into local consumption through on-site connections, i.e., a turbine or solar panel feeding power directly into an adjacent building or alternatively, a local area minigrid.
<8> The results to date represent only a portion of the CERTs participants and do not include one of the regions. However, given the overall number of participants the results to date are sufficient to make at least some preliminary assessments.
…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 %
Very / Somewhat Not Very
Development of strong communities 100 %
Security of energy supply 100 %
Construction of community-owned energy technology 95 % 2 %
Construction of cleanenergy 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 projectsowned 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 %