Putting the Community in Energy
By Kate Galbo, Programs Manager
No one is as familiar with sense of community as a small business. Vibrant local business communities have also been shown to lead to healthier, walkable neighborhoods and unique character. Up to 90% of small businesses get the majority of their business from within two miles of their front doors. Local businesses are known to have a multiplier effect on their communities – the idea that every dollar spent at a local, independently-owned business can stay in the community and generate economic value in the form of jobs and income. There’s no magic to it, it’s just basic economics.
What if this sense of community could be applied to how we produce, distribute and consume energy in our homes and businesses? This may seem far fetched now; when we turn on our light switch we aren’t always inclined to think of where that energy is coming from. A more decentralized energy system, though, isn’t that revolutionary an idea. Electricity was originally generated with hydroelectric dams or coal in the city centers, delivering electricity only to nearby buildings.
As populations increased in size, coal plants faced pressure to locate their plants further from saturated population centers due to the associated pollution, thus leading to a large centralized electricity grid. But meeting the world’s growing demand for electricity with central generation has been shown to severely tax capital and energy markets. Over time, and as the energy industry has scaled, the centralized model has ossified, rather than seeking improved service and efficiency. Competition has fallen over the past 50 years, leading to weakened economic growth and a depressed labor market.
But inefficiencies in the marketplace often lead to innovative and inclusive solutions. Climate Action Business Association recently developed a series of reports, Local Emerging Market Reports (LEMR), to highlight a collection of quickly growing local industries from throughout Massachusetts that are transforming the business-as-usual. The energy access sector in particular is changing the game.
With technological and economic progress in distributed energy resources, integrated community energy systems are emerging fast. Local ownership of clean energy can increase support for renewables as well as provide economic and social benefits to the community. Community energy models enable small businesses or homes to integrate local renewable energy without the need to deal with or install the technology themselves. Along with the cost savings, the user gets a certain protection against grid failure and insecurity of supply from relying on few large and remote power stations. In contrast to the majority of centralized utility grids that are very old and rigid, local community systems might provide some much-needed flexibility in the transition to an energy system that works for everyone.
Proven, deployable, and now cost-competitive, local renewable projects create more of an economic opportunity than conventional, larger projects owned by companies with limited local ties. Community energy systems come with added benefits to communities as local resources will be utilized, efficiency can be maximized, and revenue and employment will be created locally. Community energy projects can also help stabilize energy prices.. In areas like Massachusetts, where importing fuel results in high electricity prices, price stabilization is a no brainer. To have community residents, businesses, and local municipalities act as the innovators, planners, and decision makers in how they use and create energy would make for a truly democratic energy system.
About the author: Kate Galbo joined CABA in September of 2015 after receiving a degree in Environmental Policy and Analysis from Boston University. Previously, she conducted research for Policy Studies Institute to help bridge the gap between sustainable development research and society. Kate has previously interned for other Massachusetts non-profit organizations. As Programs Manager, Kate focuses on engaging with our member businesses to take targeted policy action, achieve meaningful emissions reductions, and foster a sense of community.