Can Local Energy Save Us? Ideas from 'Deep Economy'

Bill McKibben makes the case for reviving community

Environmental activist and author Bill McKibben borrowed from the expression "deep ecology" — describing out-of-the-box ways of thinking about the environment — to title this provocative book that challenges our "hyper-individualized" American lifestyle. He makes the case for reviving community in ways that venture beyond eating local, such as shifting toward community-generated power that's more efficient and less vulnerable to crippling blackouts and terrorist attacks.

So far, the renewed local economy exists as a series of points: a farmers’ market here, a mercantile cooperative there, a radio station over there. If it’s going to amount to anything substantial — if it’s going to help reduce the atmospheric concentration of carbon dioxide or shift the trajectory of human satisfaction — it will need to sink significant roots.

Besides food, the most important commodity in our lives is energy, and at first blush it seems almost impossible to localize. Americans are the energy-use champions of all time, requiring twice as much fossil-fuel to power each of our lives as even the citizens of the affluent countries of western Europe. How could local-scale power generation ever meet this kind of demand?

It probably couldn’t. But that’s okay, because the first task in any attempt to deal with our energy situation is to radically cut demand, simply by using the best technology we already have available.

We can reduce our energy appetite

Consider the compact fluorescent lightbulb. It provides the same amount of light as an incandescent bulb (I know this is true because almost every bulb in my home uses the technology) while using only 25 percent of the electricity. And it lasts ten times as long.

There are plenty of other things that we already know how to do: We can build vehicles out of lightweight composite materials; we can insulate homes with shredded newspaper injected into the walls under high pressure. Some of these things can be done locally, and some can’t, but if we do them all we’ll save so much energy that local supplies will start to make more sense.

How much energy are we talking about? The British government has estimated that if every household in the United Kingdom double-glazed its windows, insulated its attic, and used the most efficient appliances, total domestic energy use would fall by 40 percent; even if homeowners employed contractors to do the work instead of performing it themselves, they’d get an 8 percent return on their investment.

Still, no matter how thrifty you are, you need to generate some power.

We can get off our power grids

For decades, our model for generating power has been highly centralized: We produce electricity in a few huge centralized power plants and then ship it around the country via a network of wires. As long as you don’t worry about the side effects, such as carbon emissions, and as long as you have abundant fuel to run it on, then you can provide relatively cheap electricity, and the few people who own the plants can make a great deal of money.

And — partly because of the lobbying power of these big players — most attempts to “fix” the energy sector to deal with global warming or peak oil involve marginally improving these giant, centralized plants: For instance, subsidizing utilities to explore “clean coal” plants that might someday capture carbon emissions and pump them into old mines for storage. The federal government also underwrites loads of research on nuclear power, because reactors, despite their ruinous expense, fit neatly into the familiar centralized scheme.

We may need some such technologies in the years ahead; the fight to slow carbon emissions is so desperate that it’s wrong to rule anything out, especially as a bridge toward some better future.

But that future’s more exciting possibilities lie elsewhere, in smaller community-scale power systems.

We can generate local power more efficiently

We’re used to thinking of solar power as a set of panels up on the roof and a set of batteries down in the basement, supporting a grinning, graying hippie happy in his off-the-grid paradise. But there’s something too individualistic about this model: It’s the hippie’s power, for him.

The result isn’t like a farmers’ market; it’s like your own vegetable garden, from which you can’t even share the extra zucchini with your own neighbors. In some places it makes sense, and the people who have pioneered it deserve great credit for leading the way.

But for most of America, some intermediate scale — something in between the individual cell powering the individual home, and the one great power station feeding the whole state — seems a better match.

Imagine all the south-facing roofs in your suburb sporting solar panels. Imagine a building code that requires all new construction to come with solar roof tiles and solar shutters. Imagine windmills scattered around town in the gustier spots and heat pumps for extracting energy from the earth. Imagine all these pieces linked in a local grid.

Such a vision makes sense in part because our current way of doing things is extraordinarily wasteful. When power plants burn coal, an enormous amount of the energy is wasted as heat that simply goes up into the air; one recent British study indicated that 61 percent of the energy value of the coal just disappears. Another 4 percent vanished in the transmission process, and another 13 perfect was wasted because people were using inefficient refrigerators and dryers and other appliances in their homes.

We can generate local power more reliably

If you depend on a massive central power station to deliver your electricity, you really need another one standing by in case the first one fails. But if you’re relying on dozens of smaller sources, the chances that they’ll all go out at once are small to vanishing.

So imagine that the energy grid worked more like the Internet — decentralized, and operating in both directions. You get power out, but you can also put power in.

On a sunny day I can walk down to the electric meter under my porch and watch it spin the wrong way. As long as the sun stays out, the solar panels on my roof make me a utility. It’s a sweet feeling, knowing that my neighbor’s refrigerator is running off the panels above my head.

In England, a pilot project in the town of Woking used sixty different local generators — arrays — to power, heat, and cool municipal buildings and the town’s housing projects, as well as many of the downtown businesses. Carbon emissions fell 77 percent; in the event of a nationwide blackout, the town could be isolated from the main grid and go on working. (There wasn’t even much potential for terrorists to attack.) Woking was able to pay for the pioneering system through energy savings, and pension funds across Europe now invest in such schemes because they like the steady low-risk returns they offer.

We can tap the power of community

To really make localized power generation work, you need a community.

Ask yourself why Japan leads the world in building a decentralized solar-panel energy economy. Because it has so much sun (it doesn’t), or because it has so much fellowship? Because it’s equatorial (it’s not), or because people feel both an obligation to one another and an ability to trust one another?

In a hyper-individualized world, by contrast, cost is all that matters. I’ll get the cheapest possible electricity and not worry about its effects; if you want to tax me to help jump-start other technology, I’ll vote for someone else; come back when photovoltaics are cheaper than coal.

Randy Udall, who runs a non-profit organization that builds solar energy systems in Pitkin County, Colorado, expresses his frustration with the hyper-individualized mind-set. “If I heard it once, I heard it a dozen times: ‘What’s the payback?’”

An average solar system, he notes, costs $10,000.” Americans routinely pay $3,000 for a four-pound laptop, and $40,00 for a sport utility vehicle that loses thousands of dollars the moment it leaves the dealer’s lot. In no other realm does the ‘What’s the payback?’ mentality prevail.”

The average cost increase for using solar energy, he adds, works out to $1.44 a day. “Any family that can afford cable television could probably afford to get some power from the sun.”

It’s true, though, that solar and wind power sources come with big up-front costs. The sun may be free, but for the panels you have to write a check — unless there are enough people in your community willing to make it possible in other ways.

“[Power generation] should be owned by communities, individuals, businesses and cooperatives” instead of giant utilities, says Bill Becker, who builds ten-foot-tall turbines that look 'like DNA helixes whirling around a vertical shaft.'

"Distributed power," Becker says, "builds the model of local self-sufficiency, control, power. People feel they control their lives.”

From the Book DEEP ECONOMY: The Wealth of Communities and The Durable Future by Bill McKibben.  Copyright © 2007 by Bill McKibben.  Reprinted by arrangement with Times Books, an Imprint of Henry Holt and Company, LLC.

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