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A tiny energy revolution

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billlascher | Oct 01, 2010 11:15 AM

We've come to the point where community gardening is well understood – could community energy be far behind? Just as many people don't know how their food reaches their plate, many aren't plugged into where their power and heating originates.

“We have been completely disconnected as consumers from our sources,” says John Sorenson, the executive director of Portland-based Natural Neighborhood Energy (N2E).

Chatting over coffee last week about the all-volunteer N2E – a non-profit focusing on developing “community energy” projects – Sorenson described a recent conversation he had with an official in a small Oregon city. Asked where natural gas comes from, the offical told Sorensen “the pipe.”

“We have a notion that someone else pays for electricity,” Sorenson said. Changing that notion will require education. Sorenson hopes that once more people better understand that importing power takes money and accountability for environmental impacts out of the community, they'll take more ownership of it.

N2E made headlines last year for proposing a thermal energy utility based at Portland's Sunnyside Environmental School that would use excess heat from the school's boilers to serve its surrounding neighborhood. It has also discussed a thermal energy system for Portland's toney Pearl District powered by waste mash from the city's breweries. Of course, Sunnyside and Pearl aren't exactly economically distressed communities, but the projects are examples of new interest in “community energy.”

Community energy could help the development of so-called “energy democracy,” according to the Center for Social Inclusion, which in June released a white paper on community scale energy projects. The goal, the paper says, is “transforming neglected and isolated communities - often poor, and often communities of color - into energy producers who contribute to the nation’s overall capacity, add clean energy to the grid, enhance their economic and political ties across the region, and supply their own energy needs.”

Hundreds of volunteer groups across the country are working on such projects in communities large and small and defined in myriad ways, not just by geographic, economic and demographic factors.

After my post last week highlighting the job worries preventing many communities from taking more dramatic environmental stances, it's encouraging to see efforts to identify what common resources communities share that they can deploy both for improved economic activity and environmental benefit. Sorenson, who assisted the study, said there isn't a single way to make this happen. Instead, community energy is all about identifying a given community's specific energy demands and the resources within that community that might be able to serve those demands.

The challenge for N2E and other organizations is to figure out what resources and opprotunities communities have in common. In a state like Oregon where it's legal to trade thermal power across property lines, waste heat from a coffee roaster might be a resource. In Mammoth, Calif., abundant geothermal resources have value. Santa Fe is one of many communities experimenting with getting energy from biomass.

"We're not saying we have a silver bullet,” Sorenson said. In fact, in many communities, the “shared resource” might not be a tangible fuel source. Another nonprofit, Seattle-based Northwest Sustainable Energy for Economic Development, promotes weatherization and energy conservation as well as facilitating financing for community solar and wind farms in its own community energy project.

“When we're talking about community energy it's definitely key to keep in mind that we're not just talking about renewable energy production,” says Jessica Raker, a NW SEED project manager. “We're also talking about energy efficiency. That is the key area to hit as far as some of the biggest impact.”

Northwest SEED focuses on education and technical assistance for projects that keep clean energy within communities across the region. One of the group's first projects brought 10 rural landowners together into a wind cooperative that pooled its money to build a wind turbine which, in turn, offset some of their electricity costs. The group – which has helped communities get better financing and grants for projects and worked with Native American tribes in Oregon and Washington to do conservation training – tries not to strictly define “community” and not to focus too much on energy production over conservation.

Instead, self-defined communities approach Northwest SEED for assistance. In turn, the group educates them on the best way to maximize the community's economic interests while increasing awareness about climate impacts from energy choices. Meanwhile, by bringing different stakeholders together, developing community energy has the potential to promote community involvement in general.

“When you look at what's going on in energy right now there are a lot of different scales” Raker said. “Commercial projects are great because they are certainly increasing the ammount of community energy within our mix, but a lot of times most of the economic benefits are going to companies that are not located in the community. We see our niche as working with communities to participate in this sort of clean energy future to keep those benefits within the community.”

Bill Lascher is a Portland, Oregon-based freelancer. He focuses on the environment's intersection with science, business, culture and policy. 

He got the name for his Web site, Lascher at Large, from the legal column his father penned for 20 years before his death. Lascher is currently working on a project with his grandmother to tell the story of her cousin, Melville Jacoby, a foreign correspondent who died in the early days of World War II.

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