The Energy Futurist

All energy and climate solutions are local

All energy and climate solutions are local

Posting in Cities

Energy columnist Chris Nelder outlines how local communities can move ahead on climate solutions and true energy independence now that global climate policy efforts have failed.

The climate movement isn't dead; it's just gone underground.

The United Nations climate summit in Rio de Janeiro ended with participants gnashing their teeth and issuing a long string of condemnations, calling the final report the "longest suicide note in history," "a failure of epic proportions," and "a colossal failure of leadership and vision from diplomats." The inability of world governments to come to any binding agreements after two decades of negotiations, wrote Mark McDonald for the New York Times, "shined the spotlight on global timidity."

Color me unsurprised.

I have long maintained that creating policy around emissions gets the problem backward, by focusing on what comes out of the tailpipe instead of what goes into the engine. We should be incentivizing solutions, not penalizing emissions, because carrots harness human desire and ingenuity, while sticks merely arouse resistance. Further, it makes no sense to simply clamp down on fossil-fuel emissions without replacing the displaced energy. This is why I have advocated a feed-in tariff as the best policy approach, over alternatives like cap-and-trade.

Now that some 50,000 people have flown home in disgust (generating an estimated 300 tons of CO2 in the process) after the Rio summit, perhaps we can put an end to this futile search to get a world of 6.8 billion people to agree on a single target. Perhaps we can finally start focusing our attentions on solutions that work, right now, at home.

The Lancaster example

One story that crossed my desk last week stood out as an excellent example of what we should be doing. Writing for The Fiscal Times, Adam Skolnick described how, under the leadership of mayor R. Rex Parris, the Mojave desert town of Lancaster, California—home of turkey farmers, Frank Zappa, Edwards Air Force Base, and about 157,000 red-blooded suburban middle-class right-wing Americans—is moving toward being the first city in the nation to produce zero net carbon emissions and to be 100 percent powered by renewables.

Their strategy is straightforward.

They started by hosting a few demonstration-scale solar farms, like a five megawatt project by eSolar. Then they contracted with third-party financier SolarCity to install solar systems on several large city buildings, including the city hall and a stadium, a move that will save the city $150,000 a year with no out-of-pocket expenses.

Then they went on to launch the Solar Lancaster program, to offer affordable financing and technical guidance. They also created a city utility so they could sell power directly, and floated a $27 million bond backed by the city sewer system and funded by private equity. Those funds were used to install solar on 26 schools, which now buy their power from the city at fixed rate about 35 percent lower what they used to pay to the regional utility, Southern California Edison.

With the first bond expected to yield $16.8 million over its life, Lancaster is now contemplating a second bond offering to fund a 50 megawatt solar farm on city property, and sell some of the energy to other local municipal utilities.

The solar projects are credited with helping to shave two percent off the city's 17 percent unemployment rate and pulling the city back from the brink of ruin in a punishing recession that has hit that part of California particularly hard.

To enable the explosion of solar and wind farms in the Mojave, another key piece of the infrastructure puzzle is being created through a public-private partnership between Kern County, the cities of Lancaster and Pittsburg, and Critical Path Transmission, a power line provider. The joint High Desert Power Authority intends to build a 40-mile, high voltage underground transmission cable across the Antelope Valley from Edwards AFB to a nearby transmission line. When commissioned in January 2017, the connector will be able to carry 2,000 megawatts of power to residents on the eastern fringe of the Los Angeles megalopolis and pave the way for more renewable power generation in the desert.

To be sure, these projects probably wouldn't be happening without the $0.15 per kWh PBI California state incentive for government projects, and the 30 percent federal investment tax credit for privately-owned projects. But they do show what communities can do, with their own resources, to transition to renewables. And the success of communities like Lancaster may make GOP representatives think twice about party-line opposition to federally subsidized renewable power.

Bottom-up solutions

Lancaster's approach is precisely the sort of bottom-up, community approach to transition that I have advocated previously (see "The revolution will be bottom-up" and "Crowdsourcing the energy revolution"). At some point, the city will be able to back new bond offerings with its installed solar capacity. In this way, solar capacity can become self-funding and self-building over time—something that will never be possible with fossil fuels.

Once a town installs a substantial base of renewable power generation, it would be straightforward to run its public transportation on that power. Electric buses, electric light rail, and electric taxis or Zipcars could eventually displace the majority of their liquid fuel consumption at a far lower cost per mile traveled. The vehicles themselves could be likewise funded by a municipal bond, which could be retired fairly quickly, or perhaps by a tax assessment on merchants, like the free Emery Go-Round shuttle service in Emeryville, CA.

In addition to building up local renewable generation capacity, there are many other significant steps that any city can take, with suitable incentives and the cooperation of local businesses, such as:

  • Insulate buildings and replace leaky windows.
  • Replace fans, pumps, A/C units, dryers, and other energy hogs used in commercial buildings with more efficient versions.
  • Replace residential appliances such as refrigerators, washers, and dryers with more efficient ones.
  • Replace (or augment) furnaces and A/C units with ground-loop heat pumps wherever practical.
  • In the Northeast, replace furnaces that burn heating oil with ones that burn natural gas, and ban the installation of new heating oil furnaces.
  • Replace incandescent lamps with LEDs or compact fluorescents.
  • Support ridesharing and carsharing programs.
  • Support local agriculture, small gardening plots on unused city property, and farmers markets.
  • Switch city-owned fleet vehicles to electric or natural gas vehicles.
  • Create municipal utility districts to drive the deployment of locally-generated energy.
  • Develop local financing options for rooftop PV and residential efficiency upgrades through local banks and credit unions.
  • Create biking- and walking-friendly live/work districts in core urban areas, with easy access to public transportation, while tamping down on suburban expansion on the periphery.
  • Streamline building and planning permitting and approval processes for renewable projects and building retrofits, with rock-bottom application fees.

In this way, small American towns could make stepwise progress toward freeing themselves from the shackles of oil, simultaneously eliminating much of their carbon emissions and reaping significant savings—revenues that will remain within their communities, rather than disappearing into the pockets of oil companies or the public coffers of Venezuela and Saudi Arabia.

And most of it can be done without top-down leadership from Capitol Hill. Merely maintaining the existing federal incentives is sufficient, although again, a national feed-in tariff would be even better.

What true energy independence looks like

The photo at top, which I shot in the Mojave about 100 miles to the northeast of Lancaster, illustrates the energy transition that is already under way. In the foreground is the old Route 66, the legendary road that once carried millions of Americans from New York to Los Angeles in the freewheeling, cheap oil days of "Happy Motoring." Now it is mostly abandoned, with remnant bits running through nostalgic small towns and serving as occasional strips of frontage road along interstate highways. In the background are the blades of huge wind turbines being staged for deployment at a new wind farm in the Mojave, which is home to eight large-scale solar installations, with more under review. So there you have it, the past and the future in one tidy photo.

This is what true energy independence looks like: Not drilling another 25,000 to 30,000 tight oil wells and another 500,000 shale gas wells domestically to temporarily displace foreign imports, as the oil and gas industry is trying to persuade us to do, but building solar upon solar, wind upon wind, and eliminating our need for fossil fuels permanently, one town at a time, from the bottom up.

We can do this, partisan politics be damned. If all politics is local, as former Speaker of the House Tip O'Neill famously said, then so are the solutions to our energy and climate challenges. We can kill the carbon monster and create real economic productivity at home using free fuel. And if a beleaguered town like Lancaster can aim to be net zero carbon and fully powered by renewables, any town can. We don't need no stinking timid D.C. politicos to get the job done. All it takes it a little vision and local leadership, and a willingness to let go of the crumbling remnants of the past. So if you're a community leader, get Rex Parris on the horn and find out how you too can git 'er done.

Photo by Chris Nelder

Share this

Chris Nelder

Columnist (Energy)

Chris Nelder is an energy analyst and consultant who has written about energy and investing for more than a decade. He is the author of two books on energy and investing, Profit from the Peak and Investing in Renewable Energy, and has appeared on BBC TV, Fox Business, CNN national radio, Australian Broadcasting Corp., CBS radio and France 24. He is based in California. Follow him on Twitter. Disclosure