Making Clean Local Energy Accessible Now (Part 1)

by: Posted on: March 25, 2012

Photo: Oregonians for Renewable Energy Policy

By Judy Barnes, Co-Founder, Oregonians for Renewable Energy Policy (OREP)

Editor’s Note: If local citizens produce more energy than they use they should get paid, right? Such a simple policy change will give citizens and entrepreneurs incentive to produce clean energy. Read below to learn about this tangible, simple solution that we can implement NOW. It’s time we decentralize and democratize how we produce our energy!


Part 1 – Sustainable Local Food:  Why Not Sustainable Local Energy?

By now the benefits of local food production are well known.  If a vegetable is grown at a local farm, it takes less energy and packaging to get it to our table. As food purchasers we have learned to make food choices, not based solely on taste and convenience, but also on what went into its production and arrival on our plate.  We ask:

Was this food produced with as little impact on my environment as possible?  Did it travel from a distant location or was it harvested nearby?  Was its production economically beneficial to my local community or did I send my food dollars out of my state, my region, or my country?

Applying the same approach to our energy “diet” reveals many parallels between where and how we produce our food and where and how we produce our energy. What are some of those parallels? Both food and energy power our lives, will be consumed for the rest of our lives, can be produced near where we live, and can support local production, sale, and distribution. Both food and energy choices are ways to improve our own health and the health of the planet.

Over the last century electricity consumption has grown steadily.  Access to fossil fuels is diminishing, and extraction of remaining reserves takes an ever more extreme toll on our fragile land, water, and air.  Our energy habits of the past are not sustainable.  As we consider options for a new energy future, we should also ask:

Will this energy be produced with as little impact on my environment as possible?  Will it travel from a distant location or will it be harvested nearby?  Will its production be economically beneficial to my local community or will I send my energy dollars out of my state, my region, or my country?

Let’s examine some more parallels that pertain to local sustainable food and local sustainable energy alike:

Environmental Impact

Factory farms and the intensive use of pesticides and herbicides by agribusiness destroy the soil, pollute the water and air, and introduce persistent chemicals into the food chain.  Local family farms work with nature to support healthy soils, plants, and animals with minimal use of dangerous chemicals, antibiotics, hormones, and fossil fuels.

Large, centralized coal, diesel, and natural gas power plants generate electricity from fossil fuels that pollute our groundwater, soil, and air.  The continuous extraction of coal and gas to feed these power plants damages local ecosystems, and the burning of fossil fuels spews greenhouse gases and toxic chemicals into the environment.  Local, decentralized renewable energy systems, such as solar, wind, micro-hydro, biogas and geothermal, work directly with the cycles of nature, reducing surface and air pollution.  While some resource extraction is required to build clean energy infrastructure, clean energy’s fuel sources (water, wind, and sunlight) are free, non-polluting and require no ongoing extraction.

Transportation and Distribution

Local food production means lower transportation, packaging, and distribution costs, both in dollars and in energy spent moving and refrigerating the goods.

Locally produced energy is more efficient because the energy is generated near where it is consumed, and less energy is lost across long transmission and distribution lines.  The more clean energy we can produce in and near population centers, the fewer new transmission lines will be sited and built to transport energy long distances. The U.S. Department of Energy’s National Renewable Energy Laboratories (NREL) estimates Oregon rooftops alone could generate 7,000 MW of electricity from solar photovoltaic. As an added bonus, energy reliability of intermittent renewable resources such as solar and wind is enormously improved by drawing power from a large number of small or medium-sized generators distributed over a region.  Compared to the large, centralized production model for renewables, a distributed renewable energy network experiences fewer power “surges” or power “dead zones” due to regional weather conditions, such as strong winds or loss of solar exposure from cloud cover.

Local Economic and Social Benefits

Purchasing food from a local farmer circulates food dollars in the community.  The farmer pays local suppliers; they pay their local employees; those employees spend their paychecks locally, multiplying the effect in the local economy.  Purchasing food from a distant factory farm sends more of the profits out of state to large corporations and investors.

Likewise, when energy is produced and sold by large corporate investors and commercial developers, our energy dollars are often shipped out of state.  Governor Kitzhaber estimates that 85% of Oregon’s energy dollars now leave the state. That is more money than we spend on K-12, community college, and higher education combined!  When local farmers, small businesses, citizens and communities own, produce, sell, and purchase electricity from clean local sources, the economic benefits remain within our local region. As we develop Oregon’s abundant renewable resources, many new local jobs will be created around the new local clean energy infrastructure.

So what’s next?  How do we make local clean energy happen?

We are at a watershed moment in Oregon’s energy history.  If we create a new clean energy infrastructure based solely on the old, centralized model, energy dollars will continue to leave our communities.

Now is the time to build a movement for Local Sustainable Energy in parallel with the thriving Local Sustainable Food movement. Why pollute the environment when there are sustainable local options?  Instead of buying and shipping fuel across the globe, let’s tap the abundant renewable resources in our own backyard! Rather than send our hard earned energy dollars out of state, we can buy clean, local energy from local producers.

The widely dispersed nature of renewable energy resources lends itself to decentralized energy production and presents Oregonians with new opportunities for broad participation in the production and sale of electricity and widespread economic development. This shift in the way we produce energy in Oregon calls for a new energy policy that reflects this shift.

Oregon’s Ten Year Energy Plan, now in development, is our opportunity to demand sustainable, local energy that supports citizens and communities throughout our state. We can create a smarter, more equitable energy system, but only if we demand fair energy opportunity through a policy that enables average citizens to become clean energy entrepreneurs.

Sustainable local energy need not be a dream.  A renewable energy feed-in tariff (FIT) policy has proven to be the most successful policy to rapidly spur sustainable local energy and put power production in the hands of citizens! In less than a decade, Germany’s feed-in tariff program has created 17,000MW of solar energy, of which farmers and citizens own over 60%.

In the coming months, Oregonians can actively shape our state’s energy future by engaging in the development of Governor Kitzhaber’s Ten Year Energy Plan.  In late April 2012 written comments from the public on the Draft Energy Plan will be solicited. Around the end of May, the Plan will be taken “on the road” throughout the state to gather public input through a series of public meetings. To learn when and where to comment, register here.  To join other Oregonians in joint comments, send an email to or learn more from Oregonians for Renewable Energy Policy (OREP) at

In Part 2 of this series, we’ll examine what makes this policy so much more effective and egalitarian than other clean energy approaches.


4 Responses to “Making Clean Local Energy Accessible Now (Part 1)”

  • "Access to fossil fuels is diminishing, and extraction of remaining reserves takes an ever more extreme toll on our fragile land, water, and air." I would like to see a source for this one. I agree that many new extraction methods such as deep-sea drilling and hydraulic fracture are even more environmentally taxing than conventional methods for obtaining fossil fuels; maybe part two can go into more specifics about why this is not just a big issue but one that's becoming more important each year? The claim that access to fossil fuels is diminishing is completely false, though. Yes, they are finite resources, meaning that every barrel out of the ground is one less before we 'run out,' but it's quite evident that economic factors will determine the eventual end of our fossil fuel use - we will not ever extract the last drop of oil or natural gas, nor will we come close.  I enjoyed this article and look forward to the next installment. I am also interested to learn how intermittent energy sources can provide reliable power without being backed up by dispatchable plants - and the sort of smart-grid technology that will be necessary to coordinate this effort in matching real-time supply and demand, avoiding blackouts, variable pricing, etc.  Would Oregon's feed-in tariff value all electricity from renewable, clean sources equally, or would the demand side (i.e. what other form of energy production is being replaced at this specific hour) be taken into account. When renewables can contribute during usage peaks, they are much more valuable than when they are only replacing cheap baseload power, which often comes from hydroelectric dams here in the PNW. I don't mean to suggest that dams aren't harmful, but dams which are standing and connected to transmit energy to the grid can be used with no fuel cost and very minuscule operational and maintenance costs.
    by: Sam Blisson: Tuesday 3rd of April 2012
  • Los Angeles recently passes a new Feed-In Tariff:
    by: Simon Davis-Cohenon: Tuesday 17th of April 2012
  • Sam, I think you bring up some good points that need to be hashed out. We are still waiting on Judy's response.
    by: Simon Davis-Cohenon: Tuesday 17th of April 2012
  • We just received a response from Jon Roschke of OREP: "Sam, Thanks for your interest in renewable energy, and we appreciate hearing your perspective. You make some great points, and we'd be happy to talk more if you'd like. You make an interesting point about diminishing fossil fuel resource. I agree with you that not every last "drop" of fossil fuels will ever disappear, but instead their use will most likely decrease as they become harder to find/extract and the price rises. It does seem reasonable though to say that fossil fuel resources that are readily available and accessible are drying up, and companies that are interested in finding new reserves are spending the money and building the infrastructure to do so. Now if we are going to spend the time and resources developing new energy infrastructure (transmission lines, gas pipelines, wind turbines, oil wells, solar panels, gas-fired power plants, etc.), why not set it up so that once in place, the fuel needed to power our communities comes free? Of course, there are environmental and economic costs due to the installation, operation, and maintenance needs in both renewable energy and fossil fuel energy. However, a pipeline and a gas-fired power plant are arguably more detrimental to the environment than renewable energy, and ultimately you still have to pay for the gas flowing through that pipeline. Once a solar panel is in place, there is no charge for the fuel. The intermittency of renewable energy sources, such as wind and solar, has been studied and we continue to learn more about how to best integrate clean energy onto the grid. Distributed generation seems to provide the most reliable renewable energy performance because you have a greater number of small scale projects spread out over a geographic area. If you copy the centralized power plant model that fossil fuels use, you might end up with power surges or power draughts while weather patterns roll through an area. That is to say, for solar, if it's a partly cloudy day, there will always be a shady and a sunny area of the neighborhood, and thus you always have solar production somewhere if the collectors are distributed evenly. OREP works hard to continue to shed light on these issues and help the state develop a policy that intelligently considers all factors and keeps our children and grandchildren's interest in mind."
    by: Editoron: Thursday 19th of April 2012

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