Clean energy advocates face a peculiar dilemma: on the one hand, polls show that the majority of people – Democrats, Independents and Republicans – want America to invest in clean energy. According to a Yale survey released in April 2013, 87 percent of people polled think that Congress and the president should make clean energy investment a priority. On the other hand, there is a history of local communities fighting clean energy projects in their town – whether it’s the hill tops of Maine or off the coast of Cape Cod – clean energy development has proven controversial. As a result, NIMBY (not in my backyard) critics have cast a long shadow over the promise of locally-produced clean energy. But recent developments in Los Angeles and other cities and states around the country suggest a shift in attitude.
Over the last four years, we have conducted focus groups across the country, listening to people talk about energy and we noticed a set of new trends emerging. While people always want cheap, reliable electricity, more and more they are looking for local, self-sufficient and sustainable solutions to their energy needs. People value the notion of national energy independence highly, but they are even more excited and supportive about what we now call small “i” independence. The kind of independence that can come from electricity produced locally from solar and wind.
Small “i” energy independence starts at home. It starts with people enthused about the potential to lower their electricity costs by producing their own electricity and the prospect of producing clean energy locally for their community and state. That’s real independence. It is smart, forward-thinking energy production that builds local communities instead of polluting them. Money spent on building clean energy projects in local communities is perceived as producing immediate returns – the initial capital investment creates jobs – and having a real multiplier effect, producing returns over time as money stays in the community circulating through the local economy. It’s an energy daily double for local economies and environments that people believe is smart and forward thinking
This attitudinal shift toward small “i” energy independence corresponds with a larger cultural movement that emphasizes local economies – the move towards local foods, local art and local business. NIMBYism replaced by a clean energy localism that says: “Yes, in my backyard.” And smart policymakers and utilities in areas as diverse as Palo Alto, Long Island, Sacramento, Gainesville, Rhode Island, Vermont and Los Angeles are jumping on the YIMBY bandwagon through a unique financing tool called a CLEAN contract (Clean Local Energy Accessible Now).
Most recently, the city of Los Angeles passed a 100 MW program called CLEAN LA which will help thousands of homeowners and small and large businesses install rooftop solar and get paid by the utility for the energy that they produce.
According to Craig Lewis, the executive director of the CLEAN Coalition: “Local energy means local jobs, rapid renewable project development, private investment opportunities, and efficient power by generating close to where energy is used and avoiding transmission infrastructure.”
CLEAN contracts are a proven tool for driving the adoption of wind, solar, and biomass. Since the institution of a CLEAN contract in 2009 in Gainesville, the amount of electricity produced from solar energy in the city has increased by over 5,300 percent. With the addition of a new biomass plant, the Gainesville Regional Utilities will be 22 percent renewable by 2014, more than any other utility in Florida. On Long Island, CLEAN Contracts have spurred the development of over 100 MW of renewable energy. And in Vermont, CLEAN Contracts helped farmers use anaerobic digesters to capture methane from cows and transform it into electricity. Other businesses, like a local ski resort, have installed wind turbines next to chair lifts. Homeowners are finding creative ways to earn extra income, while at the same time producing clean energy for themselves and their neighbors.
The success of CLEAN programs can be attributed to the convergence of multiple factors. It’s about an attitudinal and cultural shift towards localism and small “i” energy independence that drives energy consumers to become energy producers. It’s about forward-thinking politicians and utilities concerned about how to meet our changing energy needs. And in the next few years, it will be about correcting an energy system that is still overly dependent on coal. The center of this change will come from states that are dependent on coal for power, but have no coal resources. In Nebraska, Wisconsin, and Minnesota – states without coal resources – between 50 percent to 70 percent of the electricity used comes from coal. Money spent to buy coal and coal power in these states is money taken out of the local economy to pay for energy that pollutes the local environment – a backward looking, lose-lose proposition. Recognizing this, Minnesota just adopted the most significant clean energy reforms since 2007 including support for net metering, community solar and energy efficiency programs. In the public power state of Nebraska, people are already asking their locally owned utilities why they aren’t implementing CLEAN programs faster to help them kick the coal habit. President Obama’s announcements Tuesday on controlling carbon will only accelerate this process.
According to Wilson Rickerson, CEO of Meister Consultants Group, “In order to meet increasingly aggressive environmental and economic development goals, US policy makers are looking at new ways to accelerate renewable energy market growth.” CLEAN programs have emerged at the intersection of culture and politics. The results have started to transform the way we generate and consume electricity.
Co-author Matthew MacWilliams founded MacWilliams Sanders Communications (MSC) twenty years ago and has built it into one of the leading strategic media firms for progressive organizations, causes, initiatives, and candidates in the United States. To this day MSC remains a leader in using new and traditional media to win campaigns for advocacy organizations and candidates.
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