Powering the Energy Revolution
This article originally appeared as a guest article in Enabling City: Enhancing Creative Community Resilience Volume 2. Read the full book here.
In 2012, overlooking the West Bay on beautiful Manitoulin Island in Canada, the community of M’Chigeeng First Nation celebrated the grand opening of their 4 MW wind power project. It was the first 100% First Nation owned wind project built in the Canadian province of Ontario. The community spent many years bringing it to fruition, but the opportunities for local economic development, community job creation, and environmental leadership pulled the project to completion. On a summer’s day in 2012, the community celebrated their success with a traditional sunrise ceremony in the shadow of the pair of wind turbines that are now a part of their community.
In 1997, a windy island in Denmark home to about 4000 people entered a government contest to become a 100% renewable energy powered island. They won. Residents in the community bought into the idea – particularly excited about the prospect for local job creation – and they eventually erected 21 wind turbines on the island. Everyday citizens co-own 20 of them and earn more than $8 million in revenue per year. These days, the residents of the island of Samsø export surplus green energy, they’ve built straw or wood-burning district heating systems, they’ve started producing biofuel, and they have installed solar panels and heat pumps.
These are stories of community energy resilience.
There is an urgent opportunity to remake the energy systems on which our communities depend. Communities’ energy support systems are based on tenuous supply chains that stretch across the globe and pump huge amounts of global warming pollution into the atmosphere. As communities have recognized the unsustainability of this system, some have begun remaking their communities to increase energy resilience, like the M’Chigeeng First Nation and the island of Samsø.
In order to succeed, community energy resilience has to be pursued co-operatively by diverse players. Local governments, community groups, and citizens can all make huge strides for their communities, but it is also critical that they are enabled by regional and national governments.
Energy management at the level of the local government covers a broad scope: from the efficiency of the built environment to transportation to energy generation infrastructure. In Canada, many cities are developing municipal energy, sustainability or environment offices to meet these needs and are creating plans to help drive energy resilience efforts. Some local governments create dedicated Community Energy Plans, like Guelph, Ontario, while others fold energy management policies and targets into larger sustainability initiatives, like Vancouver, British Columbia. So far, Canadian cities are not yet making the strides in greenhouse gas emission reduction that is required to avoid catastrophic climate change, but their are cities across the world that are starting to make progress.
Another big player in the field of community energy resilience is community owned renewable energy (‘community power’ or ‘community energy’), which are renewable energy generation projects that are developed and owned by groups of citizens. In a nutshell, people co-invest in the energy infrastructure that will power their homes and businesses and make a return on their investment. In Germany, over half of the country’s renewable energy capacity is owned by citizens. Many projects are owned by rural co-operatives that have pooled investment of over $1 billion USD in private capital to invest in renewable energy projects.
Regular citizens can contribute to their community’s energy resilience on their own too. Most people know that significant energy savings can be made through efficiency upgrades to homes, but citizens can also be generators of electricity. Solar photovoltaic panels can be installed by farmers who diversify their operations to harvest not just wheat and soybeans, but also energy from the sun itself. Homeowners can take advantage of local natural resources like never before to produce enough power to meet all of their needs.
People in a community can overhaul their energy support system, but they can only go so far on their own. The policies enacted by regional and national governments are critical enablers of action for truly transformative change. Farmers can’t feed renewable solar power into the electricity grid, for example, without policies that pave the way. Policies like feed-in tariffs for renewable energy allow communities to build an electricity generation grid that is decentralized, distributed, renewable and resilient.
A community that acknowledges its energy vulnerability and takes steps to address the glaring chinks in its armor moves towards a more stable and resilient support system. It’s a community with more local economic opportunity. It’s a community that is meeting needs efficiently without squandering resources. It’s a community that is reaching for sustainability.