I. THE PROBLEM OF CIVIC CULTURE
According to Theda Skocpol (2003), America’s civic culture has undergone a radical transformation over the last 40 years. Prior to the first half of the 20th century, associational life consisted of a conglomeration of large, membership-driven organizations. Far from a mass of local, apolitical organizations defined by a naïve sort of communitarianism, these organizations were explicitly political in their activities and were attractive to members precisely because they represented something much larger than the local confines experienced in everyday life. Most of the organizations followed the federalist model offered by the nation’s political structure, that is, a national office that offered an overarching sense of purpose and administrative competency that could not be realized by purely local organizations. Simultaneously, however, the YMCA, the Grange, the Woodmen, and a myriad of others were deeply embedded in the life of the communities from which their members were drawn. Thus, these organizations were both social and political in character, striving to realize a specific political agenda and influence legislatures at both the national and state level. They also served as a valuable training ground for democratic citizenship, offering members the opportunity to experience democratic debate and the rules by which this debate was to take place in a somewhat egalitarian environment.
Like much of American life, however, the associational life of the nation bears increasingly little resemblance to that which came before it. Fostered by a variety of well-known circumstances ranging from the technological to the social, the nation’s web of non-state organizations now emphasize a sort of “management ethic” that Skocpol argues has severely diminished the character of democratic citizenship. Organizations now do things for people rather than doing things with people. In lieu of the messy, time-consuming act of building an infrastructure one member at a time, the modern citizen-based organization prefers to ask people for money to build an expert staff capable of countering the arguments and policy papers offered by an opposing set of experts (Bosso, 2003, 408). In doing so, the opportunities for democratic participation have significantly diminished and, along with it, the possibilities of maintaining a robust form of democracy.
Skocpol does admit to some exceptions. She acknowledges, for instance, the success of grass-roots organizations such as the Christian Coalition, supported by a host of think tanks such as the Heritage Foundation and the American Enterprise Institute. Other religious organizations, including the mega-churches so popular in the mushrooming communities of suburban America, as well as the myriad of self-help organizations modeled along the lines of Alcoholics Anonymous, are also thriving (2003, 160-170).
Recent trends in the environmental movement also offer some encouragement. In contrast to the so-called Gang of 10 organizations that are at the center of Skocpol’s analysis, for instance, Philip Shabecoff’s environmental community is full of “grassroots organizations [that] sprang up spontaneously to confront local problems. Unlike the national groups, whose staffs are mostly white, well-educated, relatively affluent middle-class professionals, the membership at the grass roots cuts across class, racial, political, and educational lines . . . And unlike the mainstream organizations, the local anti-pollution fighters are more often than not led by women” (1993, 233). Shabecoff admits that there are no reliable data on how many such grass-roots organizations there are or how many Americans belong to them, but, he says, it is apparent that “communities across the country have organized to save themselves from environmental horror in dozens of ways” (1993, 233).
One important manifestation of grass-roots environmentalism is the environmental justice movement. Indeed, it was a reaction to the overt maldistribution of benefits and costs surrounding the placement of the most toxic of society’s residues that led directly to the formation of many of the local organizations spoken to by Shabecoff (see also Robert Bullard, 1990 and James Lester, 2001) <1> . While there is substantial debate over the scope and nature of these toxic impacts (see Cole and Foster, 2001, 56) there is no doubt regarding the perception that low-income and/or minority communities are being targeted because of their inability to put up an effective resistance. As a result, says Daniel Faber (1998: 1):
According to Faber, the key to preventing injustice is the adoption of what he calls “the principles of ecological democracy,” the most important of which is that “communities of people suffering ecological injustices must be afforded greater participation in the decision making processes of capitalist industries and the state (at all levels), as well as the environmental movement itself” (1990, 1). Given this emphasis on community participation, it is no surprise that the environmental justice movement has managed to spur the creation of the new type of environmental organization alluded to by Shabecoff.
Skocpol offers a hesitant agreement with this assessment. Thus, she says that the environmental movement, which includes “a mix of partially competing, but mostly cooperating groups ranging from think tanks and advocacy organizations to chapter-based membership federations and small groups situated in particular communities or workplaces,” offers some degree of success (2004, 168). Most important, however, is the historical connection found with the traditional structure of American civic culture (2003, 168):
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.
Yet Skocpol remains unconvinced that any of these movements offers serious resistance to the hollowing out of American civic culture. While Shabecoff may be representative of most advocates in his lack of concern with the numbers, the fact that data supporting the long-term vitality of many recently emergent movements is “sketchy to the extreme” undermines any claim regarding the movement’s enduring or structural importance (2003, 166). The evidence that is available points not to a vast sea of free-standing organizations with long-term and substantive histories but to temporary and short-lived associations that wither once an immediate sense of crisis is resolved. Those that do survive tend to be part of a larger generally religious organization (2003, 168-9). The stories favored by both the left and the right are not unimportant, says Skocpol, and “because exceptions matter as much as master story lines in social analysis” they should not be ignored. “Exceptions, however, are not the rule” (2003, 172).
II. RENERGIZING CIVIC CULTURE
If Skocpol is correct in her analysis, there is a compelling need to understand whether and how a new kind of civic culture capable of offering a counterweight to democratic sclerosis might be created. United States Senator Bill Bradley (D - New Jersey) has characterized the problem as one of finding an appropriate balance among the complementary elements of a given society. Speaking before the National Press Club, Bradley described American society as a three-legged stool (1995: 3):
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 <2> .
Both Skocpol and Bradley would agree that, at least in the United States, the “third leg of civil society” is disproportionately weak in relation to the legs of government and the private sector and that building a new kind of civic culture is synonymous with the repair of this third and weakest leg. For many 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. In an imaginative illustration of his argument, Putman points out that more Americans than ever are bowling. Yet 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):
[P]olitics 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.
Rather than participatory democracy, citizens would prefer what Hibbing and Theiss-Morse call “stealth democracy,” described as wanting “democratic procedures to exist but not to be visible on a routine basis” (2002: 2). Citizens want to know that they will have the opportunity to participate if they should ever be motivated to do so and they want to know that the power of their elected representatives could be checked by their own political power. This last point is key, as it helps explain how it may appear as though citizens desire political influence and involvement. “Although the people dislike a political system built on sustained political involvement, there is something they dislike even more: a political system in which decision makers – for no reason other than the fact that they are in a position to make decisions – accrue benefits at the expense of non-decision makers” (Hibbing and Theiss-Morse 2002: 2).
The idea of a civic culture in which a minimal level of participation is rather strongly valued troubles many democratic theorists, prompting some to speculate on the means by which democratic discourse might be sustained. Jurgen Habermas, for instance, proposes an interrelated social and political system composed of several parts: civil society, a public sphere, an organized political system, and the constitutional state (Grant, 2003, 9). According to Jane Grant, the core of civil society comprises a network of associations that institutionalizes problem-solving discourses on questions of general interest inside the framework of organized public spheres. This contrasts with the public sphere, which in her formulation, is the arena in which discussions based on the “public use of reason” emerge and in which the opinions emerging from civil society are further distilled and refined. Consequently, the public sphere is open and reflexive and “is viewed democratically as the creation of procedures whereby those affected by general social norms and collective political decisions can have a say in their formulation, stipulation, and adoption” (Grant, 2003, 9). Within this sphere the process of “opinion formation” occurs; hence, it is largely a place of communication and information exchange and includes a vast, integrated, and globalized network of communications: television, radio, newspapers, the Internet, books, films, music, theater, and sports. It also includes public forums and “a level of discussion, participation, and deliberation distinct from the formal government sector” (Grant, 2003, 26).
According to Grant, there is a need to create more places in the public sphere where policy recommendations can be transferred to official and accountable institutions of government for further discussion, deliberation, and implementation (2003, 26). Grant recommends at least two such places: James Fishkin’s deliberative polling process and so-called citizens juries <3> . In the case of the former, some 150 to 200 representative citizens are gathered for perhaps 48 hours to study and deliberate on a given subject. Participants are asked their opinion of policy options prior to the start of the event. Following this preliminary assessment, participants are provided technical information regarding the issue, after which they are again queried as to the opinions on the issue before them. The intent of the process is to determine if and how opinions change in the face of new information (Fishkin, 1995).
The citizens jury process is a much more intense process involving many fewer participants <4>. The process begins with the selection of anywhere from 16 to 24 citizens who are representative of the community along a series of attributes, i.e., age, race, and so on. Over the course of four to five days, the participants hear from a wide variety of experts on the given subject matter. At the end of the process, the jury is expected to offer a detailed set of recommendations to policy makers (Hoffman and Matisone, 1997).
Both of these techniques make potentially useful contributions to the reinvigoration of America’s civic culture. Both, however, also suffer from severe limitations. In the first place, the recommendations they make are mere suggestions that may or may not be taken up by a higher, decision making body. They are also temporary and episodic, in existence only long enough to study a problem in a fairly shallow way. Neither process makes any claims about creating citizen experts, instead presuming to create well-informed citizens who might be capable of at least evaluating the claims of experts (Grant, 2003, 34). As a result, neither requires sustained, on-going engagement in identifying, much less implementing, preferences regarding the issue at hand. As a result, they fail to create the sort of engagement that at least Skocpol claims is at the core of the American civic tradition.
Equally problematic is the lack of a connection to a particular place or to an on-going sense of community. Indeed, both deliberative polling and the citizen jury process presume that participants will be strangers, randomly drawn together for this occasion. Both are conducted apart from the community, meaning that the give and take so vital to a well-functioning democracy is lacking. The jury process is perhaps a more contentious affair than the deliberative polling scheme, as it involves a degree of deliberation that requires compromise and the creation of group-based preferences. Yet even here, the process occurs over a short period of time and without the input of a larger community of supporters, opponents or even disinterested parties, all of which are instrumental parts of a democratic struggle. Indeed, this monastic quality is highly prized, in that that it is understood to protect the participants from the unwholesome taint of nettlesome special interests. Once the process is completed, the participants are assumed to resume their normal life as strangers in an anonymous place.
The case for more robust forms of citizen participation than that offered by either deliberative polling or the citizens jury process has been taken up by numerous authors (see Williamson, 1997 for a compilation of several dozen schemes for the revision of democratic systems, including a number that include features of strong democracy). One of the most coherent arguments is that advanced by Benjamin Barber in his idea of what he calls “strong democracy,” which he defines as (1984: 132):
DG is electric generation connected to the distribution level of the transmission and distribution grid usually located at or near the intended place of use . . .[D]istributed generation can be used as a primary source of electricity, essentially reducing or even eliminating reliance on the utility for electric service.
According to Barber, the attributes of the political condition, i.e., action, publicness, necessity, choice, reasonableness, conflict, and an absence of an independent ground, require strong democracy, as opposed to the more 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.
Barber’s notion raises a number of important considerations as to how and under what conditions strong democracy can be made to work, including the types of institutions, organizations and/or processes that might effectively engage people in the difficult work of democratic governance. Unlike the examples considered above, democratic governance would seem to require sustained attention to issues so as to create a sense of community that transcends identity based upon a narrow reading of self-interest. While the manifest function of participation in such group-based endeavors may be to complete a set of tasks or projects, these activities also build social ties among individuals whose backgrounds or experiences may be quite different. As Robert K. Merton says, this type of participation helps provide the “latent function of social life” (quoted in Grant, 2003, 28).
Sustained participation in a group-based endeavor also provides the opportunity for a robust form of deliberation, which Grant defines as a conscious attempt to move beyond the simply apparent to that which may lie beneath (2003, 28). Effective deliberation has a number of prerequisites, including access to relevant information and expertise, a rough equality of power and skills, and/or a measure of respect and trust among participants (Grant, 2003, 29). Beyond the informational and procedural benefits of effective deliberative, theorists such as Hannah Arendt and Habermas put particular emphasize on its transformative quality: a conception, an understanding, a resolution of an issue may emerge from disparate elements whose connection may not have been obvious before.
The concept of deliberation as a form of citizen participation in politics has not, of course, gone unchallenged. Just as some question the extent to which Americans desire the reality versus the appearance of democracy, so are there questions regarding the value Americans place on the process of deliberation. Hibbing and Theiss-Morse, for instance, argue that deliberation “only works when it is not needed,” that is, when there is preexisting agreement and homogeneity. Thus they conclude that “deliberation will not work in the real world of politics where people are different and where tough, zero-sum decisions must be made” (2002: 205-206). In this respect, nuance and the capacity to adopt changing views, far from being appreciated, is taken to be a sign of political indecision and weakness. Better to make a point and stick with it than to be seen as retreating from a previously stated position, even if the change in opinion is the result of an informed process of deliberation.
Criticisms such as those offered by Hibbing and Theiss-Morse make it clear that 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 domain in which this might occur is in the reshaping of America’s energy system.
III. COMMUNITY-BASED ENERGY AND CIVIC LIFE
The blackout of August 14, 2003 created a virtual tsunami of concern about the reliability of the nation’s electricity system and in particular, the transmission system. From the U.S. Secretary of Energy on down, all parties seemed to agree that the loss of electricity to millions of business and residential consumers signaled the need for a major overhaul of the power lines that crisscross the country. Some commentators, however, offered a radically different analysis of the electricity problem. According to David Morris, for instance, “[I]nstead of spending tens of billions of dollars to expand the transportation of electricity we should spend that money to expand the distributed generation of electricity. The technology to accomplish this is here. But to make this transition we need to develop rules that would decentralize rather than centralize electricity generation and delivery (Star Tribune, August 25, 2003, P. 11A). Arthur J. O’Donnell offered a similar argument, saying that ”[I]t's time to rethink and reinvent our electric grid . . . Distributed generation and direct use of solar panels reduce the need for extended transmission lines and will simplify the network in the long run” (San Diego Union-Tribune, August 24, 2003, P. G1).
By this analysis, the problem is not an under-investment in the grid but a failure to invest in emerging new generation technology that holds the potential to make the grid largely irrelevant. Commonly termed distributed generation (DG), these technologies refer “to a variety of small, modular power-generating technologies” (retrieved at www.eere.energy.gov/der) that more often than not rely upon renewable and environmentally-friendly fuels such as wind, solar, and biomass, among others <5> . Also, while the existing electrical system is predicated upon central station generation and the long-distance transport of electrons over massive transmission towers to distant load centers, distributed generation at least presents the possibility of eliminating the transmission system. This point is made by the California Energy Commission’s concept of a distributed generation system that emphasizes the connection between local generation and local consumption (2001):
The emergence of distributed generation as a viable technological and economic alternative to the current system coincided with a wide-ranging and fundamental debate over the structure of the electricity system (Fox-Penner, 1997) <6> . While the restructuring fervor has slackened somewhat due to the Enron scandal, the debacle in California, and perhaps the 2003 blackout, it did accomplish the positive impact of stimulating a good deal of discussion about “taking back the energy system” in order to fashion a more locally-oriented electricity system.
Numerous benefits are said to flow from decentralized systems of electricity production and consumption. Morris, for instance, argues that “customer-owned utilities are more democratic, located closer to customer-citizens and therefore more responsive to their values.” Scott Ridley offers a similar perspective on the advantages of locally-controlled, if not necessarily locally-owned, power systems. According to Ridley, community-based energy (CBE) 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).
In addition to nurturing “citizenship” (Morris, 2001: 7), community-based energy based on a variety of distributed technologies also offers substantial environmental benefits. Indeed, for CBE advocates, a decentralized system of ownership and control is synonymous with environmental sustainability. 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) <7> . California Public Utilities Commissioner Carl Wood has claimed that a “people’s energy movement,” built on the back of decentralized and environmentally benign resources such as wind and solar technologies, will be needed to fix the coming energy crisis.
Even in those instances where power is purchased rather than self-generated, most local power advocates assume that people will choose wind power over nuclear plants, fuel cells over diesel generators, efficiency over coal plants, and so on. Two factors explain this choice. First are issues of scale and complexity. Conventionally fired resources, coal and nuclear in particular, cannot be produced at a community scale, except for very large or densely populated places. By the same token, even if modular-scale reactors prove viable, it is hard to imagine communities possessing the necessary technical process to own or operate nuclear technology. Thus, if people wish to exercise meaningful control, it is unlikely that they will choose alternatives that they cannot understand or that require control be taken away from them.
Second, and perhaps more fundamentally, local power advocates believe that people want to choose those technologies that do less harm to themselves, their families, and their communities; renewable technologies win out on these grounds. As a result, CBE advocates believe that the primary challenge is not the development of economically and environmentally superior technology but the institutionalization of strategies and methods that can effectively engage and then communicate the reality of energy choices to fully functional citizens. Once this is accomplished, the ‘right’ choice will inevitably follow <8>.
For all these reasons, CBE is seen to have the potential to significantly diminish the role of a grid-based electricity system built upon central-station generation and long-distance transmission networks. Indeed, rather than simply augmenting the existing grid, a role that even detractors of CBE acknowledge as a legitimate possibility <9> , community-based energy could become the dominant electricity provider. In such a system, the grid would serve as a back-up source of electricity available whenever locally-produced and owned energy might be momentarily unavailable. Alternatively, a community-based energy system could use the grid as a “storage battery,” receiving and distributing locally-generated electrons from community-owned and operated generators scattered across the landscape <10>.
Whatever form community-based energy might take, advocates are united by a common belief that technological choice, while important, is hardly the dominant issue. Instead, for CBE advocates, the question of how to power society is understood to be primarily about social norms and values, centered around issues of democratic governance and community empowerment. It is rooted, in other words, in the civic life of society.
Despite its appeal, even the most ardent local power advocate has had difficulty in coming to terms with the meaning of community in CBE. More than twenty years ago, for instance, David Morris called for a wholesale transformation of the central station system. At the center of his “humanly scaled energy system” was the city, which for a myriad of reasons, including the enactment of ordinances, changing land use planning regulations, and granting franchises to district energy companies, was destined to play a leading role in achieving what Morris referred to as “energy self reliance.” Behind the transformation to a self-reliant city would be three fundamental factors: “first, the increased cost and decreased availability of raw materials . . . second, the extraordinarily rapid development of new technologies . . . [and] third, the electronics revolution” (1980, 220). A renewed sense of civic culture appears nowhere on his list of policy drivers.
A more recent illustration of the problem is provided by Mark Bolinger’s examination of the surge in state support for community wind power development (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.
It is fair to say that Bolinger’s account reflects the current state of understanding regarding both the definition of community wind energy and the central issues relevant to its development. Yet like Morris two decades before, 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.
Despite the difficulties displayed by both Morris and Bolinger, it is essential to recognize that community-based energy is fundamentally a social enterprise, as opposed to one rooted in individual or entrepreneurial decision making. If a nation’s civic culture is impoverished or incapable of supporting or nurturing community-based decision making, then the technology upon which CBE is based may also wither. As Bradley notes in his analogy of civil society as a three-legged stool (1995: 3):
[T]oday, the fragile ecology of our social environment is as threatened as that of our natural environment. Like fish floating on the surface of a polluted river, the network of voluntary associations in America seems to be dying.
If the potential represented by CBE is to be realized, an analysis of it must be framed as a series of questions revolving around civic capacity and whether and in what form society has the ability to support those activities required for a robust form of democratic citizenship.
IV. A RESEARCH PROSPECTUS
A research project is underway in the United States and the United Kingdom which examines the civic potential of community-based energy. This section will discuss the methodological approaches being used in the research and the main research questions. Three preliminary case studies are also discussed.
Three methodologies are being used in the project: detailed case studies, content analysis, and participant surveys.
a. Case Studies
Case studies allow for the compilation of detailed information on specific organizations and initiatives. Each case provides an overview of the origins of the initiative, a chronology of the relevant events, the objectives of the initiative as understood by the principal partners, and the challenges facing the project’s organizers. In addition, a case study provides an overview of an initiative’s main activities, including a technological profile where appropriate, a detailed financial accounting of the project to date, and the relationship of the initiative to the existing electrical system.
The compilation of multiple case studies allows for a comparison among a variety of factors, including various institutional arrangements, different geographic contexts, and a range of technological options. A potential taxonomy might well include the following factors:
II. Institutional Options
III. Governance and the nature of citizen participation
VI. Geographic location
b. Content Analysis
Content analysis is the systematic counting, assessing, and interpreting of the form and substance of communication. This method allows for careful examination of the communication patterns associated with the various CBE initiatives under study. In this research, two categories of communication will be examined: (1) communication that is internally generated and externally directed, such as newsletters, pamphlets, material on the website, speeches, and (2) communication that is externally generated and externally directed, such as media coverage of an organization, in this case, local print media coverage. In both cases, communication is externally directed to the public, which allows for an analysis of how scientific and technological information is communicated to citizens. Within the first category of communication, the analysis will explore the way in which the messages of each CBE initiative vary, in content as well as in emphasis. What messages are delivered to which target audiences? What words are used to create those messages? How does each CBE initiative speak about such relevant concepts as the environment, energy, and community? Within the second category of communication, local print media coverage of each CBE initiative will be examined. This analysis will reveal the type of discourse that emerges when each CBE initiative is not in complete control of its own message. Researching both categories of communication allows for a greater sense of the public perceptions for each initiative.
c. Participant surveys
Due to the complexity and duration of electrical technology, involvement in determining the fundamental character of electricity systems has long seen as beyond the capacity of “average citizens”. CBE challenges this assumption, arguing instead that communities and individual citizens are capable of making well-informed and competent decisions about the contours of the electricity system. Such decisions might well rest, however, upon the exact makeup of the community members who choose to participate in the deliberative process. Participant surveys can examine the relationships among stakeholder roles, perceptions about the meaning and importance of basic terms, and personal priorities, institutional options, attitudes and preferences among the participants and why participants might join, remain with, or exit an initiative (Hirschman, 1970).
Principal Research Questions
Creating a detailed description of each CBE initiative allows for a careful examination of the relationships existing among the many factors that potentially animate CBE projects and initiatives. For instance, the various institutional options might be assessed along a number of dimensions including which ones would be most successful in bringing about a technological shift; how effectively each of the institutional alternatives communicate scientifically complex ideas to involved publics; how local leadership identified and nurtured; how communities connect with regional and national leadership; and how each creates “assistance networks” that might link technical expertise with local leadership?
There are also an important set of questions regarding governance and the degree and scope of citizen and collective community involvement. What, for instance, are the operational definitions of citizenship and community; under what conditions have community-level energy projects developed, that is, who are the key actors, how have they interacted with existing institutions, and so on; how are various communities organized and identified; how important is wide-spread community involvement, for instance, if local involvement is limited to a few landowners receiving lease payments can we still consider this a local or community-based project; what is the effect of a “top-down” versus “bottom-up” approach? For example, the Minnesota-based Regional Sustainable Development Partnerships program argues that the program must be generated from the community and is attempting to create a structure that acts on community initiatives rather than imposing programs in communities (Pawlisch, 2003). This is in contrast to the United Kingdom’s Community Renewables Initiative, organized under the auspices of the Countryside Agency and the Department of Trade and Industry, the aim of which is to create “community enterprise structures.”
How the various CBE initiatives structure citizen participation is also critical. What are the “rules of the game”; who is allowed to participate and in what manner in the decision making process; what models of community involvement are being utilized, particularly in terms of decision-making power, collective ownership, financial gain and the securing of economic and social benefits; how are projects being managed and organized within partnership and community frameworks; do the different forms of CBE demonstrate systematic differences in their ability to engage and motivate participants?
Similarly complex questions revolve issues of technological choice. Is scale important; must CBE initiatives focus on small, individual applications (i.e., fuel cells, microhydro systems, small turbines, and rooftop solar systems) owned and operated by individual residents or businesses to label something as CBE; or can we have large machines (i.e., 1.6 MW wind machines assembled as a so-called ‘wind farm’) and still call it CBE? how important is the link between local generation and local consumption; how the potentially competing goals of citizen participation, local ownership and technological change are resolved?
Three Preliminary Case Studies
In the United States, and more specifically the state of Minnesota, three preliminary cases are currently under investigation: RENew Northfield, the Clean Energy Resource Team (CERTs) initiative, and the Phillips Community Energy Cooperative (PCEC).
Case #1 RENew Northfield
RENew Northfield is a true grassroots organization created by a local activist that is attempting to install and operate a number of utility-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. The non-profit’s initial focus has been on electricity generation – specifically, wind energy.
RENew Northfield’s origins can be traced to 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 clean-energy community and inviting other interested citizens to join him for a public discussion of these ideas. A preliminary content analysis of that opinion piece, other opinion pieces written to the local newspaper on behalf of RENew Northfield, 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 reveals a clear emphasis on community development and participation in decisions about how Northfield should develop sustainability in the area of energy policy. In the “About RENew Northfield” section of the website, for instance, the organization is self-described as “an ad-hoc grass roots organization comprised of local citizens interested in exploring the options available to promote local development of renewable energy resources.” The broad community support for the concepts advanced by RENew Northfield is noted as is the fact that the initial organizational meeting was attended by “23 area residents from all walks of life” and that the board of directors “reflects the diversity of our community.” RENew Northfield’s strategic plan reinforces this orientation, stating that the organization is guided by the values of environment, community, and social justice. The value of community is further defined as “economic benefits from the production and use of energy should accrue primarily to the local community. The community should determine, and share responsibility for, how its energy is produced and consumed.”
An examination of other documents shows that RENew Northfield’s emphasis on community participation extends beyond the words of their strategic plan to their deeds. The organization has engaged in local public education efforts such as making presentations to schools and civic and religious groups as well as co-hosting forums with other local groups such as the League of Women Voters. RENew Northfield hosted an April 2000 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 the event.
More informal indicators of RENew Northfield’s emphasis on community participation, or at least on the need to have a reasonably well-informed community education, 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).
This emphasis on process as well as outcome indicates that RENew Northfield’s goals include more than technological change.
Recent discussion with representatives from RENew Northfield indicate an interesting series of shifts in the group’s attitudes and practices. The group 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 established this link, the local high school turbine project, is no longer likely to be installed. Instead a limited liability corporation (LLC), RENew Wind I, of the type spoken to Bolinger has been established in order to take advantage of federal and state tax credits and subsidies and insure an adequate financial return to a local family seeking a profitable, but green, investment option. Finally, RENew Wind I 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 <11> .
While subsequent events have forced RENew Northfield to scale back their first step toward energy self-sufficiency, the high school turbine project, this was not entirely unexpected. As the president wrote in an e-mail message to RENew Northfield members during first few weeks of organizational development, “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.” The president’s e-mail to those founding members also mentioned the concept of “idealism coupled with pragmatism.” It is too soon to tell whether RENew Northfield can sustain itself as an organization with a pragmatic short-term approach and an idealistic long-term approach.
Case #2: The Clean Energy Resource Teams (CERTs) Campaign
The Clean Energy Resource Teams campaign 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 and energy 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.
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. While a content analysis of relevant documents will be prepared for this case study, it is particularly suited to a participant survey that will allow us to examine the motives and perceptions of what is a very diverse set of participants.
The survey begins by asking participants to identify what roles they play in the project, with roles ranging from citizens to utility representatives, the latter almost always being municipal or cooperative utilities, since the focus of the project is on rural Minnesota (Question #6). This is followed by a question that seeks to gain an understanding of the exit process, that is, under what circumstance would the respondent stop participating in the project (Question #7). The survey also seeks to understand how well participants understand some basic ideas and terms common to CBE projects. Thus, they are asked to define the meaning of CBE, distributed generation, locally-owned and renewable energy as well as assess how well they understand various technologies (Questions #15-19).
One subgoal of CERTs is to provide a basic level of technical information to participants. However, as in all CBE initiatives there is an underlying issue of just how much technical information is required or indeed, how much technical capacity ought to be required of citizen-based initiatives such as CERTs. Too high of a technical burden will dissuade many citizens from participating; too little technical competency may delegitimize any recommendations coming out of the project. Questions #20 through 24 are designed to assess how much technical information participants feel is necessary and to see how that information might be shared with other members of the community. If one of the goals of the project is to create a community-wide understanding of alternative, locally-generated energy resources, thee questions become central to the success of the project.
A final set of questions (#25-26) are strongly linked to the stakeholder or role questions asked at the outset of the instrument. Questions #25 concerns the importance of priorities that participants bring into the project and begins to examine a participant’s motivations for joining a CERTs team. This is a particularly interesting issue in that clean energy is a classic example of a collective good, having benefits that are available to every individual, regardless of their participation in CERTs. Since the beneficial outcomes of CERTs activity cannot be denied to individuals who choose not to participate, there is the potential for individuals to be “free-riders” and enjoy the benefits of clean energy without participating in the work of CERTs teams (Walker 1991: 86). In order to overcome this free-rider problem, interest groups and citizen groups offer numerous incentives to join, and make various “selective benefits” available only to members. According to Walker (1991), these benefits can be material, solidarity, informational, or purposive in nature. Material benefits include special services, such as discounts or insurance, or particular goods offered only to members, such as t-shirts and ball caps. Solidarity benefits can be classified as friendship, networking opportunities, or even consciousness-raising. Informational benefits, the most common category of selective benefits, include conferences, training programs, publications, and coordination among organizations. Purposive benefits emphasize the purpose and accomplishments of the organization, and include advocacy and participation in politics and policy decisions.
It is anticipated that informational, purposive, and solidarity benefits will be the most common incentives related to participation in CERTs, and that there will be some strong linkages between the various stakeholders and critical priorities. For example, it is likely that citizens may be most interested in developing strong communities or expanding the range of renewable resources while utility representatives may be more interested in lower electricity costs or in the security of the electricity system. Determining the extent to which 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.
Case #3: 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 low-income, minority residential area of South Minneapolis' Phillips Neighborhood. After 12 years of resistance, neighborhood residents, having succeeded in preventing construction of the large facility, formed the Green Institute in 1993. Program operations began in 1995 with the opening of the ReUse Center, a retail store providing quality salvaged building materials. 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 and relies upon a diverse set of funding sources, including program revenue, local, state, and federal government grants, foundation support, and contributions from private corporations and individuals. The Institute employs 40 staff members and has an annual budget of $3.3 million.
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 7 cooperative principles:
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 currently in the feasibility stage of development.
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. If someone lives outside of the Phillips community, an annual fee of $20 applies. 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. A related energy efficiency effort is the Energy Captain program which teaches members how to use less energy at home and at work. The program provides forums for face-to-face conversations about energy conservation, PCEC programs and member-specific needs.
A major new initiative of the PCEC is 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.
Documents are currently being compiled for the content analysis and a preliminary set of surveys have been administered and are being analyzed.
Additional Case Studies
RENew Northfield, the CERTs campaign, and PCEC are merely a few of the many CBE projects currently underway in Minnesota and the region. The next stage of this research project will be to identify and analyze a much larger set of projects, including projects in other parts of the country as well as in the United Kingdom and South Korea.
Among the Minnesota-based projects that have identified been as appropriate for further study are several in the state’s most densely population area, the Twin Cities of Minneapolis and St. Paul. These include:
While most of the Minnesota’s population resides in or around the Twin Cities, the state’s geographic character makes it possible to develop a range of distributed technologies throughout the state. Western Minnesota’s prairie region, for instance, is home to some of the world’s most abundant wind resources. Indeed, a 1995 study by the Union of Concerned Scientists concluded that the region’s wind resources, along with the adjacent areas in North and South Dakota, could potentially supply all of the region’s electricity needs (1993). The state also has large tracts of land devoted to agriculture and livestock operations, yielding impressive quantities of biomass and manure suitable for direct combustion or for conversion to methane gas. Given these resources, it is not surprising that significant CBE efforts are underway throughout the state. A few such examples include:
The debate over the future shape and character of the nation’s electricity system plays out on a daily basis. For instance, arguing that a crisis is upon us, the Bush Administration has proposed an energy strategy remarkable in its scope and audacity. While much attention has been focused upon the proposal to open up the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, the plan also proposes massive increases in off-shore drilling, a huge expansion of the nation’s use of coal, and an exuberance for nuclear power unseen since the early days of the Atoms for Peace program <13>. The Administration is also trying to suspend air quality standards for new power plants, curtail requirements for Clean Air Act-based New Source Performance Standards on existing power plants, and expand the federal government’s ability to acquire property for the siting of transmission lines. Taxpayer subsidies are abundant for all manner of supply-side options, except, of course, for renewable, non-polluting and sustainable technologies. This is necessary, in part, because, according to Vice President Richard Cheney, conservation, while a laudable private virtue, has no significant role to play in national energy policy <14> .
Community-based energy, using clean and renewable forms of energy, offers a serious alternative to the on-going despoliation of the planet envisioned by the Bush Administration. Yet, the nature of community energy and the role that such initiatives might play in the general fabric of civic life is not well understood. This paper makes it clear that several conceptual models are available. CBE initiatives might, for instance, perform the intermediate role envisioned by the so-called “stealth theorists”, allowing the mass of citizens to avoid the sort of engagement preferred by a select group of citizens actively and continuously involved in intense, democratic debate. In this sense, CBE initiatives can be seen as one type of Habermas’ ‘public space’. For those participating in a CBE initiative the time and effort would be more significant and on-going than participation in either a deliberative polling process or a citizen’s jury. But in all of these instances, intense engagement would be confined to a fairly narrow set of citizens. For a CBE initiative, interaction with the larger community would be limited to message development, i.e., “wind is good/nuclear is bad”, and the mass of citizens would have only limited personal involvement, say, a willingness to participate in a community-sponsored recycling 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. Thus, community-based initiatives could legitimately be limited to “communities of interest” based upon any number of criteria, including individual financial gain.
A more robust conceptualization of community energy might be guided by Barber’s notion of “strong democracy.” As Barber warns, democratic participation cannot become a fulltime job. Yet, programs based upon this model would draw upon a much broader citizen base, involving people from many walks of life and from quarters not generally presumed to be part of a democratic process based upon sustained engagement. In this case, CBE 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 of the CBE initiative. In this respect, community-based energy might well perform the sort of civic function described by Skocpol, that is, a vehicle that provides a means for political activity on the part of the broad mass of citizens who join not just for social interaction but also to be actively involved in the making of public policy <15> .
Properly conceptualizing community-based energy is not a strictly academic matter. How citizens are brought into the process, the incentives they are given to remain, the reason for their loyalty and or exit, and the kind of work that is required of them are all likely to be determined by the role they are perceived to be playing. If advocates accept the “stealth” model, for instance, they are likely to be satisfied with Bolinger’s notion of community wind. If, however, strong democracy is the goal, then a host of difficult problems emerge. An aggressive form of grassroots organizing, long-term and well-structured public education campaigns that involve much more than simply crafting the right message, and difficult problems of communicating complex ideas to a largely non-technical audience will emerge as central problems for CBE advocates.
There is no doubt that as the costs of the current electricity system become ever-more apparent, community-based energy will become an increasingly attractive option. The fact that CBE might contribute to a vigorous civic life is not an insignificant side benefit. But first, we must clearly understand how community energy functions and under what conditions it might succeed and fail <16>.
<1>Credit for the first systematic inquiry into this issue is generally given to the United Church of Christ’s Commission for Racial Justice report, Toxic Waste and Race in the United States (1987), which found “that race was the most significant variable in determining the location of commercial hazardous waste facilities” (Cole and Foster, 2001: 55). The study sparked a host of similar efforts, many of which concluded that a discriminatory pattern, sometimes based on income or class and other times on race or ethnicity does in fact characterize the distribution of society’s most unwanted goods (see Appendix A Cole and Foster, 2001 for an extremely useful annotated bibliography of this literature).
<2>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.”
<3>The jury process was initially developed by Ned Crosby at the Jefferson Center for New Democratic Processes in Minneapolis, MN (USA). The Center is, unfortunately, no longer operating. Similar processes have been developed in by Peter Dienel, working out of the Research Institute for Citizen Participation and Planning Methods at the University of Wuppertal and in 1994 the British think tank, IPPR, published a book entitled, Citizens Juries. Since 1996, over 200 projects have been run in Britain. The process has also spread to Australia, Austria, India, Spain, and other nations. Other citizen-based processes include Denmark’s technology consensus conferences and Oregan’s watershed councils, the latter described by Prugh, et al. as an “effort to broaden the stakeholder base and involve stakeholders directly in the resolution of disputes that affect their homes and communities, thereby building trust and reinforcing local commitment” (2000: 148). Participatory processes for urban settings, oftentimes at a neighborhood level, have also been described by Berry, Portney and Thomson (1993). See also Box, 1998 and Sabel, et al., 200, generally.
<4>In essence, these processes sit along a continuum of opinion-gathering techniques that try to strike a balance between numbers and knowledge. On one end sits the well-known telephone survey that presumes little knowledge but large numbers. Deliberative polling sits in the middle of the continuum, with relatively large numbers and more knowledge. The jury process involves very few people but much greater knowledge.
<5>Debate over the precise degree of environmental impact is, of course, contentious. In a hydrogen economy, for instance, the electricity required for electrolysis might well come from coal-fired power plants. And biomass might well create significant harm to the land base.
<7>A recent New York Times article points out a potential flaw in this logic, in that not all self-identified environmentalists are in agreement over the promise of wind energy. “Proponents of wind farms view those who oppose them as heretics, obstructing the promise of clean renewable energy, while opponents decry them as producing insufficient power to warrant their blight on the landscape” (Seelye, 2003).
<11>This notion is 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.
<12>This work is part of a larger PUC-related docket regarding the setting of standards for interconnection proceeding from the 1994 Prairie Island settlement that mandated wind development as part of a tradeoff allowing the storage of nuclear waste adjacent to the Prairie Island nuclear generating station, owned by a subsidiary of Xcel. See www.ME3.org for details of this docket; see Hoffman, 1998 for a brief summary of the Prairie Island debate.
<14>Taking advantage of this business-as-usual strategy, and despite the abundance of wind resources, the state of North Dakota has recently sought U.S. EPA approval to aggressively develop huge new quantities of coal-fired generation in order to take advantage of that state’s enormous coal reserves. Bush administration appointees to the EPA have overruled staff scientists regarding a state-developed emissions model, setting the stage for the development. The nuclear industry is similarly trumpeting its future, arguing that the prospects of climate change and its attendant economic and social disruptions demands the deployment of this most dangerous of all energy sources.
<15>Skocpol points out how mass membership organizations were actively involved in the making of some of the most important of the nation’s public policies, including the Social Security system and the G.I. Bill.
<16>The comparative aspects of this research are particularly important. A CBE model that might do well in the U.S. may well be a spectacular failure in South Korea or Britain due to unique cultural or historical conditions.
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