In 2007, the Oxford American Dictionary named "locavore" the word of the year. As most High Country News readers know, locavores are people who choose to consume food that is locally grown, harvested, or produced, usually within 100 miles of the purchase point. The locavore movement came into being after a small group of people realized that the food they ate wasn't just sustenance, but a political, social and ecological choice and statement. They realized that eating food grown and produced close to home builds local economies, fosters accountability from producers, reduces fossil fuel dependence and carbon output and usually results in healthier and more environmentally sound food. As with many good ideas, the idea of eating locally grew, slowly at first, and then rapidly, until just four years after the movement started, "locavore" received official imprimatur as part of the popular lexicon.
I think it's time to start a locavore movement for energy generation and distribution. Call it the "logen" (local + generation) or "lenergy" (local + energy) movement. Whatever you call it, it would follow the same principles of the locavore movement. People would use energy sources available to them locally. Local energy generation and distribution would result in cleaner, greener energy consumption. Since most places in the U.S. aren't located near fossil fuel or uranium deposits, the majority of energy sources would be renewable. Even if there are locally available fossil fuel or uranium sources, the capital costs of extracting, processing and generating electricity from these sources are usually prohibitive except for huge multinational corporations. As more communities generate and consume their own energy, less carbon will be emitted into the atmosphere and fewer communities will suffer the ecological destruction that is inherent in energy resource extraction.
Local energy generation and distribution would also be a strong political statement. Communities would be rejecting the centralized corporate model of energy generation and distribution that is currently the norm in the U.S. Communities would instead embrace a decentralized, distributed, and fundamentally democratic model.
Community-based solar, wind, geothermal, biodiesel, or micro-hydro power are likely within reach for most communities. A community's pooled resources could be the seed money for a collectively owned and operated power supply. Every community member would have a stake in how energy is generated and decisions about energy sources and distribution would be made democratically. This cooperative model is not just practical in theory, it's practical in reality. Co-op Power, in New England and New York, is a consumer owned electric utility whose members drive co-op policy and foster innovative projects for community generated power. The aptly named Pioneer Valley, Massachusetts, co-op membership has raised the capital for and is building a biodiesel power plant that would provide energy to the community by burning waste vegetable oil.
Alternatively, each residence or business could install its own power generation infrastructure - most likely solar panels or wind turbines - and after satisfying their own energy needs, could feed energy back into a localized grid. Although this model would require some changes to the power grid, that investment would be a small fraction of the money that is currently being proposed in the U.S. Senate's energy bill to subsidize the fossil fuel and nuclear industries. The Climate Energy Policy Institute at the University of California at Berkley has already published a roadmap [PDF] for a localized energy grid, based on an analogy to the Internet.
These models shouldn't be seen as academic exercises or purely theoretical. In places like Grants, New Mexico, Jeffrey City, Wyoming, and Uravan, Colorado, whose economic fortunes have been tepid since the last uranium boom went bust, locally generated and distributed power could be the way out of an untenable situation. Those towns are now faced with the stark choice of having to submit again to the environmental destruction of the uranium mining companies in exchange for short-term, modest economic development or continue in the economic doldrums. These communities deserve a better choice. They deserve to be able to generate their own clean, sustainable power and reap the economic rewards that come with doing so. They deserve to be able to determine their own energy and economic future rather than grovel and scrape before out of state mining companies and utilities. In short, they deserve what every community deserves – a real and meaningful choice about how their community is run. Local energy generation is the first step in a truly self-sufficient and democratic society. Let's start the locavore energy movement now.