Argument

The Public Can Solve Climate Change if We Let It

The most efficient way of spreading renewable energy? Getting local communities involved.

A cattle farmer and director of the local wind farm talks with a regional historian on Aug. 8, 2013, on Pellworm Island, northern Germany, where a shift toward a zero-carbon future has been driven by locals, not energy companies.
A cattle farmer and director of the local wind farm talks with a regional historian on Aug. 8, 2013, on Pellworm Island, northern Germany, where a shift toward a zero-carbon future has been driven by locals, not energy companies. FRANK ZELLER/AFP/Getty Images

The world’s most powerful politicians concur that clean sources of energy are imperative to save the planet from catastrophic climate change—it’s just that few have mustered the courage to break with the carbon-belching status quo. The obstacle isn’t technology so much as it is politics. Soaring wind turbines, farm-based bioenergy plants, and state-of-the-art solar panels have already proved their ability to produce clean energy on a mass scale. Moreover, their costs are plummeting. But enormous challenges persist, such as persuading sceptics to accept the initial costs—not just economic (investment costs are high) but also psychological and aesthetic.

Among the most formidable hindrances is NIMBY, the “not in my backyard” phenomenon. As democratic countries double and triple their stocks of renewables, they’re bumping up against loud, determined, on-the-ground opposition to gawking transmission masts and wind turbines taller than the Statue of Liberty. The protesters range from local residents bitter about disfigured landscapes to naturalists concerned about bird populations to fishermen claiming wind farms drive away fish populations. In the southern German region of Bavaria, a small but tenacious anti-wind-farm campaign has brought wind power expansion—a cornerstone of Germany’s climate policy—to a standstill.

Democratic opposition isn’t a problem that democracies can easily solve. But a group of scruffy protesters from three decades ago may have conjured up a recipe for overcoming it. It’s often forgotten that Europe’s earliest renewable-energy initiatives came in the form of a genuine bottom-up revolution. In the 1980s, a combination of concerned local citizens, political activists, and industrious techies in a quiet pocket of Germany’s Black Forest set out to replace nuclear power and fossil fuels with renewable sources of energy.

A key to their success was a commitment to what has become known as “community energy.” They didn’t just want renewable energy—they strove to be independent of the monopolistic utilities, and manage the generation and distribution of that energy themselves. Eventually, they did just that by gaining control over their local distribution grids after outbidding the regional utility.

This democratic approach to renewable energy has persisted ever since, flourishing in parallel to more traditional private sector strategies. Citizen-energy projects—in which energy ownership has been shifted from corporations to communities—exist around the world in disparate forms and sizes: from a Kenyan farmer with a $250 solar panel fastened on his abode to the sprawling German onshore wind parks along the North Sea coast. Although the United States is not a bastion of the community energy movement, towns in 43 states feature community solar projects.

The common denominator of all community energy projects is the investment of residents in local solar and wind parks, rural bioenergy plants, distribution grids, hydroelectric generators, and energy-producing homes, schools, and city halls. The smallest unit of citizen energy would be a single individual with one photovoltaic panel either generating power for self-consumption or feeding electricity into the grid—as about 1.7 million German households do, most with collectors blanketing their roofs. Clean-energy cooperatives and collectives can have hundreds or even tens of thousands of active co-owners, while municipally owned utilities with options for public participation count as community energy, too.

Many experts say community energy on a mass scale is the fastest way to roll out renewable energy across the globe and thus meet the carbon reduction targets needed to stall climate change. When local citizens are invested, as they are for example in northern Germany’s Bürgerwindparks (citizen wind parks), they earn dividends by selling the energy produced in their locales. The same is true for community energy projects in Scotland, Italy, Sweden, Denmark, Belgium, and elsewhere.

In stark contrast, when the energy projects belong to private developers who hail from out of town, the only locals who profit are the ones who lease them their land. The lion’s share of the substantial tax subsidies exit the municipality, too. “What do we get out of it?” asked Heiko Stark, an entrepreneur from the village of Waabs on Germany’s Baltic Sea coast, about the six new turbines that private investors will erect in his rural community, which makes much of its living from tourists bicycling through the scenic, rolling landscape.

“Even in densely populated places, where citizens own the wind parks and make decisions about them themselves, these protests rarely happen,” said Volker Quaschning, a professor of renewable energy systems at the University of Applied Sciences in Berlin. “Citizen energy is the key to getting the acceptance necessary to make the energy transition happen.” The stakes couldn’t be greater, he said: “Otherwise the Energiewende [renewables transition] will stall and stop.”

Europe’s experience with community energy has been especially instructive. In the 1990s, a number of laws were passed across the continent—some prompted by an EU directive breaking up the energy monopolies across Europe—to provide newcomers with access to energy markets and policies to induce investment. (Knowing that grid operators had to buy citizen energy at set prices, banks lent freely to the upstarts. The capital came largely from loans, not private investment equity.) Since the big-name utilities remained stubbornly wedded to nuclear power and fossil fuels, it was individuals, start-ups, and communities that pounced on the opportunity to generate green power.

In Germany, for example, renewables shot up from covering just 6 percent of electricity consumption in 2000 to 24 percent in 2012, nearly half of it hailing from decentralized, mostly small-scale, citizen-owned solar, hydro, and wind power, as well as bioenergy and combined heat-and-power plants. By 2016, the number of energy cooperatives and community energy enterprises soared to 1,747 from just 63 in 1995, comprising 42 percent of Germany’s renewable energy production. Another 10 percent hailed from publicly owned municipal utilities. The combined electricity capacity of all of Germany’s community energy projects together ranks it among the biggest 15 energy companies in Europe, which includes the continent’s largest nuclear and coal power utilities.

The municipalities invested in citizen energy rave about it. Financially, the enterprises bring tax revenue, profit for stakeholders—renewable energy production has become an especially important second revenue stream for many farmers—and new jobs. Josef Göppel, a conservative politician from northern Bavaria, says citizen energy has brought much more than revenue streams (to the tune of $450 million a year) to his rural district’s 30,000 producers, who invested heavily in small-scale solar and bioenergy. “Our participation in the energy transition instilled an incredible sense of confidence and autonomy here,” he said of middle Franconia, south of Nuremberg. “There’s a rich feeling of community where people have worked together closely and pulled off something remarkable.”

The EU has doubled down on expanding community energy in order to break the siege of NIMBY by passing trailblazing legislation called the Clean Energy for All Europeans package. Under the renewable energy directive, all 28 member states must design laws that ease the way for community energy producers to generate, consume, store, and sell renewable energy. What’s more, member states must implement regulatory frameworks that make it possible, such as ensuring access to the national grid and measures to cover investment in clean-tech infrastructure. Experts like Quaschning say distributed citizen energy could by 2050 account for at least 45 percent of the continent’s energy supply. According to one study, with technology racing forward as it is, in 30 years 83 percent of Europe’s citizens could participate in the energy sector.

The community energy revolution isn’t just confined to Europe. Over the past five years, Africa and Asia have been producing grassroots renewable energy at a dizzying speed. In sub-Saharan Africa, millions of homes that had previously been disconnected from electricity entirely are now connected to solar panels. This has allowed farmers to charge cell phones that enable them to bank and access microfinance and thus lift themselves out of poverty. One-house solar kits, which include a solar panel, battery, power sockets, LED light bulbs, and a mobile phone adapter, now sell for between $250 and $400 and are repaid by farmers at about $50 a year, which is less than the locals spend on kerosene or diesel fuel. Meanwhile, in Bangladesh, more than 5.2 million households tout small-scale solar home systems; they supply electricity to more than 12 percent of its 160 million people.

Some policymakers in industrial nations have dismissed community energy as outdated in the age of the ever more dramatic climate crisis: a quaint and colorful though ultimately bit-piece factor in the continent’s epic-scale task of converting entire economies away from carbon-emitting energy. The kind of heavy lifting needed to power entire cities or energy-ravenous industrial sectors, they believe, could be pulled off only by corporate utilities with the know-how to administer gargantuan energy parks. What they fail to appreciate is the resistance against corporations concerned only with their own bottom line. It turns out that the grassroots idealists, pushing to produce affordable green energy on their own, were much more realistic all along.

Paul Hockenos is a Berlin-based journalist. His recent book is Berlin Calling: A Story of Anarchy, Music, the Wall and the Birth of the New Berlin (The New Press).

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