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Opinion

Stop waiting for 'leaders' to act on global warming

Greener energy in your community depends on strong grass roots.

By Peter Asmus / April 22, 2008



Stinson Beach, Calif.

The success of the environmental movement in calling attention to the dangers of global warming has led to an ironic outcome: It's become easier for the public to adopt a passive approach as we wait on world leaders to sign emissions treaties or huge corporations to "go green." This Earth Day, stop waiting! There are new ways for you to fight climate change in your own backyard.

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One of the most promising models is called "Community Choice Aggregation." CCA is the legal term for an innovative way for cities and counties to purchase electricity by votes of local governments.

Previously, the only way for a local government to have a say in where the community's power came from was to establish a municipally owned utility. The CCA process provides an easier way to switch to an earth-friendlier power supply without taking on the burden of managing the power lines, collecting bills, and the divisive politics involved with the expensive process of bringing energy under municipal control.

This type of community energy planning is happening in a big way in California's Marin County, where I live. Granted, this is an area just north of San Francisco that's heavily populated with tree huggers. But other parts of California, from the Central Valley to Los Angeles, are investigating CCA models. (Massachusetts and Ohio have already enacted CCA programs, but the motivation in these states was more for local control and cutting costs, not saving the environment.)

Marin's goal is to obtain 100 percent of the supply from renewable energy sources within the next few years. Since I live as a renter there, I began to investigate how I might help the county reach this ambitious target and play a larger role in greening the regional power supply. In the process, I discovered some concepts with widespread applications across the globe.

The easiest way to green our power supply on-site is solar photovoltaics (PV), small semiconductors that generate electricity directly from sunlight. There is no doubt that solar PV technology is undergoing a worldwide boom, but it is still just a drop in the bucket, generating less than one-half of 1 percent of the world's total electricity.

The prime obstacle to widespread deployment of solar PV has been cost. One way to lower costs is to design community-based programs – highly feasible under a CCA – that involve citizens who have yet to tap solar energy in a big way, such as renters and those who lack rooftops with good exposure to the sun.

For example, why not let renters purchase energy from strategically located "community solar" systems located in the best spots in each neighborhood? Or how about integrating solar into our disaster relief planning, supporting new storage technologies that can help displace dirty (and increasingly expensive) diesel generators?

This is the kind of out-of-the-box thinking that we need to challenge the notion that we are helpless in saving a troubled world. Whether driving your car to and from work – or simply searching the Internet for good deals – consuming energy is at the core of our everyday habits and the climate-change conundrum. And there is plenty we can do at the local level while the special interests duke things out in halls of power around the globe.

Living in Sacramento, Calif., in the 1980s – when the fate of the Rancho Seco nuclear power plant hung in the balance – opened my eyes to the power of people at the grass roots. This was, after all, the only nuclear reactor to be shut down by a local ballot initiative in 1989! The local municipal utility with the unfortunate acronym of SMUD (Sacramento Municipal Utility District) then went on to lead California and the nation on solar, wind, and energy efficiency.

The experience of witnessing first-hand how a community can take its own energy future into its own hands has stuck with me and has forever shaped the way I view the world.

Each and every one of us is obligated to tend to the earth in our homes while reaching out to the greater local community to collaborate on home-grown power, whether it comes from the sun, wind, water, or wastes. Forget about waiting for elections or protesting. Let's plant seeds of change in our very own backyards.

Peter Asmus, a board member of the Marin Conservation League, has been writing about energy issues for more than 20 years. This article is based on his forthcoming book, "Introduction to Energy in California."

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