The Citizen Powered Energy Handbook: Community Solutions to a Global Crisis

By Paul Gipe

Greg Pahl’s idea of shifting the debate from Not In My Back Yard to Please, In My Back Yard with community ownership is an idea whose time has come. That’s the central theme of his The Citizen Powered Energy Handbook. He has succeeded in exciting even Richard Heinberg, the author of “The Party’s Over” and “Oil Depletion Protocol” into extolling the possibilities of community-owned power in North America.

Pahl’s gathered together viewpoints from leaders of the community renewables movement in North America, from Dan Juhl and Lisa Daniels in Minnesota to Dave Blittersdorf in Vermont, to Deb Doncaster in Ontario. His Citizen Powered Energy Handbook offers a fascinating glimpse into a part of America that most, including myself never knew. That there are 2,000 community-owned electric utilities in the country destroys the myth that Americans can’t use the community development model of wind energy that’s been so successful in Denmark and Germany.

Disclosure: Chelsea Green is the publisher of two of my wind energy books and Pahl uses some of my material in his book. I am also quoted on the back cover of his book.

Pahl describes what could become the next “big thing” in energy: community ownership of renewable power generation. He coins the term “Community Supported Energy” for the local ownership model that’s being developed in Canada and the USA. Of course there’s no better example in North America than the prominent wind turbine on Toronto’s harbor front. “1-1/2 million people see a cooperatively-owned wind turbine every day when they commute into the city of Toronto,” says Stewart Russell of WindShare.

What I like about Pahl’s book is he doesn’t shy away from taboo subjects in the community power field. He opens with a powerful chapter on peak oil and, more worrisome for North Americans, peak natural gas. He also clearly attributes “overpopulation” as one of the driving factors pushing North America toward an energy crisis. But he’s also a pragmatist and realizes that “it is basically impossible to have a sensible discussion” on this topic.

Nor is Pahl afraid to call for “equitable” energy development by enabling community ownership of renewables here in North America. If Germans, Danes, and the French can own their own wind turbines why can’t Americans or Canadians? Indeed, it is time that they do.

Pahl puts his finger on a disturbing phenomenon. While renewable energy offers great promise, the current model of development in North America, especially that of mega wind farms, merely substitutes one form of corporate oligopoly for another. As a result, some communities feel that wind turbines are being imposed on them by outsiders. They come to feel that the local disadvantages outweigh the local benefits and oppose development.

As Pahl says, “local ownership is the key ingredient that transforms what would otherwise be just another corporate energy project into an engine for local economic development. He urges changing the debate about wind energy, for example, by changing the model of development to one of local ownership. The old model is broken, he says, and it’s time for a new one. Why reward those who have resisted the renewable revolution for so long? Instead, enable those who must live with and ultimately use renewable energy to do their share but also receive their share of the rewards.

Like Bill McKibben’s essay on why he supports wind farms, and an increasing number of other environmental activists, Pahl takes issue with those who oppose wind energy simply on aesthetic grounds. “It’s also time to measure these aesthetic concerns against the far more pressing problems of peak oil and global warming, which are a threat to our very survival. Faced with a choice like that, I opt for the wind farms. I think most other rational people would too.”

What Pahl explores in his Citizen Powered Energy Handbook is important. It should be in the hands of every community activist across North America. He calls on us to bring out the best in North America by working together to face the immense energy challenges before us by building community-owned renewables. His book could be the catalyst long needed to move community ownership into the forefront of renewable energy development in North America.

The Citizen Powered Energy Handbook: Community Solutions to a Global Crisis by Greg Pahl, 6 x 9, 376 pages, paper, ISBN: 978-1-933392-12-7, 2007, Chelsea Green Publishing, White River Junction, Vermont, +1 802 295 6300,