From Chapter 8: The Community Solution
It was near the end of September 2005, and as I watched the scenery beside Lake Champlain unfold, I noticed that the foliage outside was late in taking on its bright autumn hues again this year. I was aboard the southbound Adirondack, wending its way along the western lakeshore on the way to Schenectady, New York, where I was to change trains for the Chicagobound Lake Shore Limited. As the late afternoon shadows lengthened, I settled back in my seat and pondered the implications of the climate changes that have begun to have such a pronounced—and noticeable—effect on the seasons in northern New England. These were disquieting thoughts.
I was on my way to attend the Second U.S. Conference on Peak Oil and Community Solutions in Yellow Springs, Ohio. My overnight journey to Toledo, Ohio (as close as I could get to Yellow Springs via train), was an adventure in itself, but I made it to the conference as planned in a rental car for the last 160 miles of the trip from Toledo. My decision to travel via Amtrak was partly motivated by my desire to demonstrate my personal commitment to energy conservation, and partly because I simply enjoy riding on trains. During the course of the conference I learned that I was one of only two people there who had traveled via Amtrak to attend. We do love our cars.
The conference, held at Antioch College, was sponsored by Yellow Springs–based Community Service Inc., which through its Community Solution program encourages the resurgence of small local communities in an era of increasingly scarce and expensive oil.
The conference program was designed to help attendees learn how to prepare at the local level for the coming decline in global oil production. There were more than 350 people from thirty-nine states and five countries along with about 100 area residents at the conference, which at the time, was the largest event of its kind in the world. The first conference held the previous year had attracted about 200 attendees. As it turned out, this was simply one of the most exciting events I have ever attended, and well worth the long journey.
“Peak oil will undoubtedly be tough,” said Pat Murphy, Community Service’s executive director, in his opening remarks. “We can make it tougher by trying to hang on to an out-of-date lifestyle or fighting wars for the last drops of oil.” The large audience assembled in the packed auditorium listened attentively. “Our theme is the journey home,” Murphy continued. “Like the Bible story of the prodigal son who left his community for the lure of the big city, we find ourselves in big trouble. It’s time to return to the community, make amends, clean up the mess, and get back on the right path.”1
Murphy’s remarks set the tone for the speakers who followed, including many key leaders in the fast-growing peak-oil awareness movement. Among them were oil-industry expert Jan Lundberg; energy consultant Steve Andrews, cofounder of the Association for the Study of Peak Oil— USA; Richard Heinberg, author of The Party’s Over and Power Down, who gave the keynote address; and many, many others. All of the presentations were excellent, and they covered a wide range of subjects, from how Cuba had survived peak oil to creating intentional communities, and from local food production to the principles of permaculture. But the highlight, for me at least, was the presentation given by John Ikerd, an economist and author of a recent book, Sustainable Capitalism, who advocated a new economy based on sustainable energy. Some economists tend to come across as a bit dry, but Ikerd’s presentation turned out to be what I can only describe as an electrifying, revivalist sermon, gradually building to an ecstatic crescendo that had the crowd on their feet cheering and applauding. He definitely was preaching to the choir.
During the breaks and especially at mealtimes, there were numerous opportunities to speak with other conference participants and to make connections—and new friends. The diversity of the group was fascinating. There were some slightly shell-shocked individuals who obviously were learning about peak oil for the first time—and who were having some difficulty dealing with it. The more seasoned participants tried to be as supportive as possible; they’d already been through the process and knew how disorienting it can be. There was a large contingent of active community organizers who were attempting to hone their skills or develop new ones. There were even a few rugged individualist/survivalist types talking about stockpiling ammunition and food supplies, who didn’t seem to be getting the message about cooperative community effort. But overall, the discussions were friendly, respectful, stimulating, and extremely helpful. The networking that took place was one of the most valuable aspects of the threeday event.
One thing at the conference that struck me, however, was the lack of any discussion about organized, large-scale, community-supported renewable energy initiatives. There was a good deal of talk about community solutions, but no comprehensive community strategy for renewable energy. While there were references to an occasional micro-hydro system or photovoltaic array for a few intentional communities, most of the renewable energy talk was general or focused on systems installed by individuals on their own homes. This seeming paradox is due to Community Solution’s strong focus on conservation rather than trying to continue to support our current over-consumptive lifestyle. However, if the primary response to peak oil and global warming is going to be community based, then it seems that a more comprehensive, locally supported, community renewable energy initiative would complement these conservation efforts.
The conference was a fast paced, almost dizzying array of presentations, panel discussions, and ad hoc group meetings, but by Sunday, things finally began to wind down. Pat Murphy ended the conference by saying, “The most important thing is for all of us to ‘become the change you wish to see in the world.’ If you want a low-energy, caring, community way of living, then become a member of that community—even if you are initially the only member.”2 We were sent home with the clear expectation on the part of the conference organizers that we would all become local advocates for community solutions to peak oil in our own hometowns—a daunting prospect for those with limited experience in such activities. But I suspect that many who attended the conference did not disappoint the organizers, and have risen to the occasion. We’ll return to Yellow Springs in a moment.
THE BIG PICTURE
Up to this point, we have looked at the many individual strategies that are available to help us make the transition to a new renewable-energy-based economy. Now it’s time to assemble those individual strategies into a more unified picture from which we can begin to identify some larger patterns and draw some final conclusions. As we have seen, each of these strategies has its own set of advantages and disadvantages. As we have also seen, there are no perfect solutions. The trick is to weigh all the potential advantages against the disadvantages to try to determine which strategies are appropriate in different locations and circumstances. And what is appropriate will be different in every community for a variety of reasons, according to the National Renewable Energy Laboratory’s Gerald Nix. “Some communities will use geothermal, some will use wind, and some will use biomass,” he says. “The answer to our energy challenge is going to be different in different locations. It’s going to be a combination of economic factors, local resources, and the inclinations of the people in the area that will be the determining factors.” I agree. Let’s look at a brief summary of these many strategies, along with their relative advantages and disadvantages, to help us make those decisions.
As we’ve seen, solar energy can be used in many different ways to provide heat, hot water, lighting, and electricity. It can be harvested passively by properly designed buildings, or actively by a variety of active systems. Although they are visible, in general, active solar systems are not especially intrusive, particularly if they are carefully integrated into a building’s design. Active solar systems are easily scalable, from very small to very large, and are applicable for individual homes or large municipal and commercial installations and everything in between. PV panels quietly produce electricity, do not emit greenhouse gases, and are the cleanest and safest method of generating power at the present time. PV also lends itself to hybrid combinations with wind or hydro systems. Solar energy offers huge potential around the world, but it’s not available at night, and is often obscured by clouds in some locations. Sites that lack good solar exposure may not be viable, and the intermittent nature of solar energy is definitely a disadvantage. There is little organized public opposition to most solar strategies, but a lot of ignorance remains about the potential benefits that solar offers.
Wind power is used primarily to generate electricity. But because wind power is intermittent, it is not well suited to meet constant baseload electricity requirements. Modern wind-turbine technology is highly sophisticated and increasingly competitive with more conventional forms of electrical generation. There is now a wind turbine sized for virtually every use. A good, windy location is best for any wind turbine, and absolutely essential for commercial wind farms. For virtually all wind turbines, regardless of their size, the taller the tower the better. Medium- and larger-sized wind turbines lend themselves well to municipal or cooperative, community ownership, and there are numerous examples around the world. Small wind/PV hybrid systems are especially popular in off-grid locations and are an especially good choice for isolated rural communities. There is organized opposition to large, commercial-scale wind farms (and sometimes even small, individual turbines) in some locations by neighbors, primarily on account of what amounts to aesthetic considerations about visual impact.
Hydropower is mainly used for generating electricity. Because most good sites are capable of producing hydroelectricity around the clock, hydro can be used to meet either constant baseload power or peak-power requirements— a major advantage. Hydropower technology is scalable, from very small, individual residential systems to very large, government-sponsored projects. Large-scale hydropower, however, has fallen out of favor in the United States primarily owing to opposition to their associated dams, and the construction of any additional large projects is unlikely. However, there are substantial opportunities for the development of smaller, low-impact sites, which is a good match with the development of local, small-scale, distributed generation. Small-scale hydro lends itself well to municipal- or community-ownership strategies. The use of existing municipal water systems to generate electricity is an underdeveloped resource with considerable potential. A variety of ocean-energy strategies are currently showing a lot of promise, and the fact that they tend to have a low profile (or are completely submerged in some cases) should minimize opposition based on aesthetic visual concerns. Ocean-energy strategies, however, tend to be somewhat intermittent (although tidal energy is highly predictable).
Biomass can be used to generate electricity and make solid fuels such as wood chips or pellets for heating or electrical generation (or both in combined heat and power projects). When sustainably harvested biomass is efficiently combusted, it dramatically reduces CO2 emissions when compared to petroleum, natural gas, and coal. What’s more, as the price of fossil fuels continues to escalate, solid biomass fuels have become substantially less expensive than the fossil competition. Biomass strategies are generally scalable, from the individual home system up to the largest industrial-sized facility, making them well suited to cooperative community or municipal systems of almost any size. Landfill gas, farm-based methane, and similar strategies offer additional possibilities that have not yet been fully exploited. The use of syngas or wood gas to power stationary engines (and even vehicles in an emergency) is an interesting option that merits additional attention.
The main limitation for biomass strategies is the availability of feedstock. As long as a sustainable supply of biomass feedstock is available within a reasonable distance, it’s a viable strategy. There are some concerns, however, about the potential damage to agricultural and forest lands from the “extensive management” required by the large-scale production of feedstock that is now being promoted. There is also potential for competition between land used for biomass and land used for the production of food. In addition, severe weather conditions caused by global warming could seriously compromise future biomass production. Overall, though, biomass offers enormous opportunity if used wisely.
A subcategory of biomass, liquid biofuels are going to play an increasingly significant role in transportation, a key sector not well suited to other renewable energy strategies (except in the case of electricity used by plugin hybrid-electric vehicles for short-distance driving and for electric-pow- ered trains and trolleys). The three primary liquid biofuels—ethanol, biodiesel, and methanol—can be produced from a wide range of plantbased feedstocks, and in the case of biodiesel from animal fats as well (biodiesel can also be used as a heating fuel). The main advantages of using biofuels include their ability to be mixed with (or substituted directly for) fossil fuels, their compatibility with the existing distribution network, and the lower levels of harmful emissions they produce when combusted, compared to their fossil fuel equivalents.
Ethanol and biodiesel can be made fairly easily in small quantities using simple equipment or in large quantities by industrial-scale production facilities. Cellulosic ethanol (based on the whole plant rather than just the seed) and biodiesel made from algae offer considerable potential for far greater yields than are possible from more traditional ethanol and biodiesel production strategies. Biomass-to-liquid technologies also offer quite a lot of potential. The use of straight vegetable oil (either used cooking oil or virgin oil) is another strategy for transportation fuel and heating oil that deserves serious consideration in certain circumstances, especially on the farm. Although there are substantial regulatory issues involved, both ethanol and biodiesel offer considerable opportunities for small-scale, local, cooperative production initiatives, especially at the small family farm or community level.
There are a considerable number of concerns about liquid biofuels, however, including a low energy ratio for corn-based ethanol as well as a recent trend in the construction of coal-fired ethanol plants in the United States (an utterly self-defeating strategy if there ever was one). The explosive growth of the liquid biofuels sector has also accelerated a movement away from local or farmer-owned production facilities toward large, corporatedominated initiatives with little or no local ownership or control. There also have been serious concerns raised about the damage caused to farmland by large-scale, agribusiness corn and soybean production, such as soil erosion, as well as pesticide and fertilizer runoffs that pollute waterways. The recent, growing trend toward “outsourcing” the production of feedstock crops to Third World countries, resulting in deforestation and other negative environmental consequences, raises additional concerns. The growing reliance on genetically modified crops as biofuel feedstocks in some countries is another troubling issue. And, again, potential competition between wealthy car drivers in developed nations and poor Third World people for feedstock used for both biofuels and food could eventually price the Third World residents out of the market. Last but not least, runaway global warming will almost certainly cause serious disruptions to large-scale agribusiness and may render most optimistic biofuels-production forecasts moot.
There are two main types of geothermal heat: high-temperature and lowtemperature. High-temperature resources are used in two main ways: for direct use, and for the generation of electricity. The highest temperatures are generally reserved for electric generation, while more moderate temperatures are utilized for direct-heating strategies. The use of direct geothermal heating for district-heating systems in some towns and cities is a popular strategy in areas that have the right geological conditions available. Geothermal electricity generation is clean, with minimal emissions, requires a very small footprint for the plant, and unlike solar or wind systems, runs constantly, providing baseload electricity. Geo-electric plants are also highly reliable, and there have been some encouraging recent developments in the small-scale geothermal arena providing considerable potential for distributed, local generation. Recent high fossil fuel prices and energy legislation has spurred significant new geothermal development in the United States and elsewhere. On the downside, high-temperature geothermal reservoirs are not located everywhere and can eventually be depleted (and may take up to several hundred years to recover), so they are not as immediately renewable as most other renewable strategies.
Low-temperature geothermal, however, is available in most locations and is immediately renewable. Relatively low-temperature ground heat near the earth’s surface can be recovered by a heat pump and used to heat buildings in the winter. In the summer, the process can be reversed to provide air-conditioning. Geothermal exchange is the most energy efficient, environmentally clean, and cost-effective space-conditioning system available. Because heat pumps consume less energy overall than conventional homeheating systems, heat-pump use helps to reduce greenhouse gases such as carbon dioxide, sulfur dioxide, and nitrogen oxides. However, the overall environmental impact of heat pumps depends on how the electricity they consume is generated. Geoexchange systems are scalable, from single- family homes to large municipal or commercial installations, and could be used in cooperative situations as well. Variations on the geoexchange strategy such as munithermal for heating and cooling with the use of municipal water systems may offer some additional opportunities in some situations. Because they tend to be virtually invisible and have no major negative environmental impacts, there is no obvious opposition to geoexchange heating and cooling strategies.
There is, however, one major potential problem with all of these renewable energy strategies that is often overlooked by their supporters. While they offer a lot of promise, without strong community support and local ownership, these strategies can simply end up substituting one form of corporate domination for another. This is not much of an improvement, and is at least one reason why some communities oppose large-project proposals. In many cases, community members feel that the project is being imposed upon them by outsiders, and that the local disadvantages outweigh the potential advantages. This may not necessarily be true, but it demonstrates why a direct connection between these projects and the local community is so important. This connection provides the key ingredient that transforms what would otherwise be just another large corporate energy initiative into an engine for local economic development and energy security that directly benefits its owners—the members of the community—rather than a group of absentee investors.
Community-supported energy (CSE) is similar to community-supported agriculture (CSA), except that instead of investing in carrots, tomatoes, or chicken, local residents invest in greater energy security and a cleaner environment. Local ownership and control allows the community to create a project that meets its particular needs while addressing its concerns about size, scale, and location. While community ownership does require local residents to take greater responsibility for their own energy use, it also offers greater returns. Community ownership of renewable energy projects keeps far more money—perhaps three or four times more—circulating in the local economy than absentee ownership.
Don’t get me wrong, given the choice between a large, corporate-owned coal-fired power plant or a large, corporate-owned wind farm, the obvious choice is the wind farm, regardless of who owns it. And since the magnitude of the energy crisis we face is going to require a massive response, there is no question that large companies are going to have a role to play. But that’s no reason to exclude smaller, more dispersed community projects that are far more effective in promoting distributed-generation strategies. All of these responses will be needed if we are even going to come close to meeting the challenge of replacing fossil fuels in the short amount of time we have available. But being a strong supporter of renewables does not imply, or even require, equal support for a large multinational corporate monopoly on these technologies. More and more people are beginning to recognize that it’s the predatory, corporate-dominated, global economic system with its mindless pursuit of short-term profits and “shareholder value” that is devouring the planet, its resources—and ultimately us along with it. Shareholder value. At what cost to everyone else? What “value” is there to a planet that is no longer livable?
Local communities, in contrast, generally tend to be better stewards of their immediate environments because they know that if they are going to continue to thrive they need to conserve those local resources, both physical and human. Yes, there are plenty of examples of communities (or individuals within communities) that are not good stewards, but by and large they tend to be located in impoverished Third World nations that for the most part have been (or are being) decimated by the plundering and indifference of large corporate interests. While the global free-market economy has repeatedly demonstrated that it has no soul or compassion, most communities by contrast are blessed with both. If I had to choose between relying on my community, or some large, faceless, out-of-state corporation for my survival, I’ll put my money on the community. And that is exactly what I am proposing. Literally. Why continue to invest in a system that is literally killing us all? Take your time, energy, money, and resources and invest it in your future, and the future of your children, in your own community. Because, as we have seen throughout this book, there are many opportunities and many good reasons to do so, and community-supported energy provides the vehicle.
1 Author’s notes and The Community Solution, The Second U.S. Conference on Peak Oil and Community Solutions, http://www.communitysolution.org/p2conf1.html.