Working Towards Locally-Owned Energy Production

flag-turbine.jpgBy Lisa Bingham

Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful committed people can change the world; indeed, it is the only thing that ever has. – Margaret Mead

I’ve used this quote in my email signature for years, but being at the BALLE conference in Denver last week was the first time I think I’ve fully appreciated the impact of that statement. The people I met there are passionate about creating change from the bottom up, and there were some truly inspiring stories that demonstrated the success this approach can have. Friday night’s keynote speakers are great examples of this.
The first speaker of the evening was Lisa Daniels of Windustry, a non-profit organization in Minnesota that promotes local ownership of commercial-scale wind energy projects. This is not a new concept – Denmark has been doing this for years. In the U.S., however, most wind projects are developed by large companies or utilities, which means that most of the profits leave the communities in which they are build to line the pockets of big business. Windustry is working to reverse the ownership model and make locally-owned projects more prominent.

One way they do this is to work directly not just with local governments, but with local landowners. Indeed, two of the five-member board of directors are farmers themselves, so they have a good understanding of the issues faced by local residents. This helps local landowners to understand what will be expected of them, as well what a fair rate of compensation is for leasing their land to support these projects. Windustry also helps to identify the wind technology that is a best fit for the community – bigger is not always better. They are working with the Department of Energy to reinvest in smaller turbines to provide more options.
Following up on Lisa Daniels’ talk was Bob Gough of the Intertribal Council on Utility Policy (COUP), an intertribal form for energy policy and development. Gough is one of those people who always seem to pop up at renewable energy events, a down-to-earth guy whose passion about local wind is obvious as soon as you start talking to him. He is a dynamic speaker with witticisms such as “There is no silver bullet, but there is golden buckshot.” The Intertribal COUP has developed some interesting strategies, such as refurbishing older turbines, providing an opportunity for local jobs and job training, but also reducing the impact of creating new turbines. They extend this interest in minimizing the use of resources beyond the production of energy to include the use of energy. Their Sustainable Affordable Efficient (SAFE) homes program focuses on building homes that are built to suit the climate, use local materials, and are energy efficient – also providing job opportunities and training. What I found most interesting in Gough’s talk was the focus on building on the experience and strengths that Native American people can bring to the table to help not only their own communities, but all future generations.
The final speaker of the evening was a woman who needs no introduction – Hunter Lovins. Her rapid-fire delivery of facts and information on building a sustainable economy was fascinating. I wasn’t able to jot everything down, but I was able to capture some of the highlights. We need to develop goals for the world we would like to see and then figure out how to get there. We should expect change to happen first in the business community rather than government because government takes too long to accomplish anything and its goals are too short-term. We need to fundamentally rethink how we do capitalism – the market system was never intended to take care of our grandchildren.
I was very attracted by the idea of locally-owned energy production. This seems a natural progression for smaller utilities, such as coops and municipal utilities that already have a component of local ownership. What I missed from the discussion was a discussion on how these projects are funded. While I’m sure we can all agree on the benefits that accrue to local economies, there is still a very large cost to creating utility-scale energy projects, whether they be wind, solar, hydro, or some other technology yet to be developed. There are also infrastructure requirements – such as connecting to the existing grid – that were glossed over. I think that these projects have strong potential, but I think the fact that of the existing wind projects in the U.S. only 1% are community owned is quite telling of the difficulty in making these projects happen.
Lovins concluded her talk with a reference to The Lord of Rings. In the book, it is the little people who save the world, demonstrating extraordinary courage by ordinary people. This ties in quite nicely with the quote I used at the beginning of this piece. Despite the many challenges we face in our quest to save the world, we must persevere and applaud the efforts of those individuals who are taking the first difficult steps.
Lisa Bingham recently graduated from the University of Colorado with an MBA and an MS Environmental Studies, focusing on sustainable real estate and environmental sociology. She is pursuing a career in sustainable community development. You can contact her at

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