Our local energy future

Posted Wednesday, April 24, 2013 in Sustainable Maine

Our local energy future

by Paul Kando

The pie charts above present a bleak picture. The price of our petroleum dependency keeps rising 6.8 percent per year on average. A short five years from now our energy bills – for heating, cooking, lighting, transportation – will take a 40% bite out of the average Maine family’s budget. Add in the rising cost of health care and what’s left is about 25% of the family income for everything else. This is not a sustainable future. Today in Maine we collectively spend about $1.6 billion on heating oil alone, money that leaves our economy year after year. Imagine the number of jobs we could support hanging on to even half of those funds!

We do have that option. We can build an economic future based on a combination of energy efficiency, renewable electricity and local self-reliance. We know we can improve the energy efficiency of our homes and buildings by up to 90% and that of our transportation by about 70%. And we can obtain the remaining energy we need from renewable sources.

Here are a few inspiring examples. Feldheim, a village of 37 former East German collective farmers, became energy self-sufficient using local renewable energy sources. It has even established its own electric power grid, and reduced the farmers’ electric bills by a whopping 30%. The villagers of Jühnde get 100% of their energy from organic wastes and biomass. Their combined heat and power plant generates all their electricity and heats all their houses. Residents of Freiburg’s Schlierberg solar neighborhood each receive a year-end check for around € 6,000 ($7,800) for the excess power they sold to the grid throughout the year – that’s net after having paid for heating and cooling their super-energy efficient homes.

But we don’t have to go to Germany for good news. A recent study by the Vote Solar Initiative found that net-metered rooftop solar systems provide more than $92 million in annual benefits to electricity ratepayers of California where two-thirds of residential solar installations occur in low and median income neighborhoods.

A recent New York report found that solar photovoltaic systems deliver 15 to 40 ¢/kWh in direct and indirect benefits to ratepayers and taxpayers. According to a report from Texas, customer benefits of adding solar capacity in that state are worth more than $520 million. And a report commissioned by the Vermont Legislature documents that photovoltaic systems in the 4 kW to 100 kW range provide a 4.3 cent net societal benefit per kWh generated.

The common denominator of all these successes has been feed-in tariff (FiT) laws -- improved policy tools based on net metering, which the European Commission called “by far the most effective support mechanism for renewably generated electricity”. The International Energy Agency and Deutsche Bank, not to mention over 50 countries around the world that adopted these laws, heartily agree.

FiT laws work because, unlike top-down government programs of handouts and token incentives, they empower and build on citizens’ own initiatives and brain power to solve problems locally. Like the citizens of Feldheim and countless others, we do have a choice as we face our energy future. The natural energy resource is diverse and distributed, not centralized. We and our electric utilities can stick to the old model and act based on the short term perspective of the next quarter in hopes that the myths of our old ways are somehow sustainable. We can continue to rely on Wall Street’s savvy in creating derivative “securities” from such fantasies, then grumble when taxpayer bailouts fail to dig us out of deep economic holes like the one of 2008, which we still find ourselves stuck in. Or we can come up with diverse, locally appropriate solutions, relying not just on local energy sources – solar, wind, hydro, biomass, methane from waste – but also on our individual and collective wits. FiTs are ways we assist one-another – where “assist” implies helping those who act to help each other and themselves.  

Our public utilities have a key role to play in our future, but they, too, must make a similar choice: insist on old ways and fail us and themselves or develop the opportunities latent in a new, evolving paradigm of a mix of distributed and central power generation and techniques such as large scale pumped storage, for example. Our choice in common is to work together – or go down the economic tube together.

In the Damariscotta/Newcastle area a group of us is already working on becoming a renewable energy model community. Maine’s new feed-in tariff law could be of great help. Help us pass LD-1085. Ask your state representative and senator to vote for LD-1085, An Act to Establish the renewable Energy Feed-in Tariff.

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