Community Energy: A Powerful Force

Lori Pottinger
Thursday, August 23, 2012
The 2011 launch of Australia’s first community wind project, the Hepburn Wind Project, was cause for celebration.
The 2011 launch of Australia’s first community wind project, the Hepburn Wind Project, was cause for celebration.

There are very few similarities between Rangkhani, Nepal and Feldheim, Germany. Rangkhani is just one of many struggling rural villages in a remote region in one of the world’s least-developed countries. Feldheim is a thriving modern farming community in one of the world’s richest nations. Yet both have turned to locally owned energy projects to bring light to their homes and local control over a critical resource.

Rangkhani’s fortunes turned a decade ago, when a micro-hydro plant brought the village into the electrified era, bringing light to homes and electricity for small enterprises. Local incomes and educational opportunities have gone up, while health impacts from dirty kerosene lanterns have gone down. The village is one of thousands in Nepal that have been electrified by micro-hydro plants.

Nepal’s community energy boom starting taking off 17 years ago, when the giant Arun III Dam was rejected by the World Bank – in part because local engineers successfully argued that small hydro projects would be more appropriate for meeting Nepal’s energy demands.

Nepal has a very low rate of electrification, an inefficient and limited grid, and one of the largest untapped hydropower resources in the world. Large dams are being proposed mostly for export, and at great cost to Nepal. At the same time, a healthy and growing decentralized renewable energy sector is changing lives. Hundreds of thousands of Nepalis have a better quality of life because of the nation’s expansion of rural micro-hydro projects. The UNDP estimates that each new micro-hydro system creates 40 new businesses. Small companies selling biogas plants and solar home systems are also thriving.

So, too, has life improved for many German communities – though not as dramatically as in Nepal. Like most wealthy nations, Germany has 100% coverage of its electricity grid – mostly supplied by four giant energy companies. Yet it is also home to a large and growing population of small community-owned energy systems.

The village of Feldheim is one example. Its 128 inhabitants now get all their power from 43 wind turbines dotting nearby fields, and a smattering of solar panels.  Building heat comes from a biogas plant that uses manure from local farms. The shift to community-generated energy cut electricity bills by a third.

Another German village, Wildpoldsried, is producing at least 300% more energy than it needs. The rural village is generating US$5.7 million in annual revenue from renewable energy it sells back to the national grid. The village uses solar panels, biogas digesters, windmills, and micro-hydro power plants.

Germany’s federal government encourages community renewable energy projects with policies and incentives, such as feed-in-tariffs (guaranteed payments for small-scale renewables). The clean-energy co-ops are part of a national change of direction toward energy, called the Energiewende (energy transformation) which aims to cut overall energy consumption, increase the percent of renewables, and break the monopoly of the four major energy companies. An annual “100 Percent Congress” brings together community representatives for the growing number of towns and villages trying to get all of their energy from renewables.  According to The Economist, “The number of energy cooperatives has risen sixfold since 2007, to 586 last year.”

Elsewhere around the world, energy co-ops are being set up by forward-thinking communities for a variety of reasons, including building community, more reliable power, creating local jobs, and of course, sustainability. A heavy reliance on dirty energy by their local utility is prompting many communities to adopt cleaner energy at the local scale. Then there are the twin issues of mistrust of large for-profit utilities, and a craving for control over such a vital element in our lives.

In poorer communities, creating a locally owned energy supply is often borne of necessity. The benefits of electricity are not evenly shared. An estimated one in five people on the planet do not have access to electricity. (Articles elsewhere in this issue describe community-driven solar and microhydro in the Global South.)

A strong wind
Community-owned wind is one of the most widespread types of “local power.” In Denmark, the birthplace of community wind, about 80% of installed wind capacity is individually or co-operatively owned; in Germany it’s about 51%, reports Renewable Energy World.
Although it’s been slower to take off in the United States, in the past two years community wind has been the fastest growing segment of the US wind market.

Community wind farms not only bring clean electricity and energy independence, but they can also help diversify rural economies, and keep more money and jobs in the community. A 2009 report from the US National Renewable Energy Laboratory showed that the number of construction and operation jobs created by community wind project are significantly higher than for other kinds of projects.

Community ownership can also help allay local concerns about having turbines in the neighborhood. The green energy blog Clean Technica reports: “The Danish cooperative model involves private persons in the ownership of wind turbines, because you want the project to be accepted, and also to avoid the NIMBY or, ‘Not In My Back Yard’ effect,” said Hans Christian Soerensen, board member of the Middelgrunden Wind Turbine Cooperative. In the Danish model, shareholders buy shares in the wind farm. Of the 20 turbines in the Middelgrunden project, for example, the local utility owns 10 of the turbines and the co-operative owns 10.

Australia’s first community wind project, Hepburn Wind near Daylesford, was in part inspired by a Danish ex-pat named Dane who had seen the power of wind cooperatives in his native land. He helped tap local resistance to a massive wind farm proposed for their area into a community-led effort to build a smaller wind cooperative. The two-turbine wind farm, launched last year, provides electricity for 2,300 homes.

Taryn Lane, the community officer for Hepburn Wind, told Deutche Welles: “I really believe that energy is like the veins that keep everything operating. As non-renewable resources run out, we really need to think about what is the best way that we can still keep pumping our blood and keep existing. Generating our energy, bringing that home so we are connected to where our energy is coming from –– that's an empowering process for communities on so many levels.”

The world still embraces the “big is beautiful” model of long-distance grids tied to massive energy projects. But change is coming, as people “occupy the grid” and bring back this vital service to their communities. For the planet’s 1.5 billion people who have no electricity, most living in communities that may never be connected to a national grid, a locally owned electricity supply is a powerful vision. For communities threatened by large-scale, profit-motivated energy development, locally owned energy is a well-tested and adaptable approach that empowers citizens, rather than displacing them.

Nepal’s appropriately scaled distributed energy projects are bringing electricity to communities faster, and at lower cost, than the Arun III Dam ever would have. But more importantly, Nepal’s micro-energy revolution is building Nepal’s green economy from the ground up.

More information: 

Here are a few resources on setting up community energy systems.