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The U.S. is lagging other industrial nations in renewable energy. And it’s not for lack of technology but rather, too much politics. Photo: James Jordan/flickr.

A year ago I would’ve loved the optimistic and can-do tone of Power from the People: How to Organize, Finance, and Launch Local Energy Projects.

While all too many solar panel and wind turbine buffs are Polyannas who promise that America can enjoy decades of economic growth in the future if only we’d dump dirty energy for solar and wind, author Greg Pahl offers a more realistic assessment of the limited potential of clean energy. Pahl is a peak oiler who understands the concentrated power of fossil fuels and knows that no amount of renewables can replace the energy we now get from coal, oil and natural gas.

Power from the People

Power from the People: How to Organize, Finance, and Launch Local Energy Projects by Greg Pahl, foreword by Van Jones, Chelsea Green Publishing, 250 pp, $19.95.

Fortunately, Pahl is also free from the cynicism of many self-appointed “net-energy” experts who, when asked about solar and wind reply, “If it ain’t as powerful as oil, why bother?”

Instead, Pahl is practical enough to see that once the coal and natural gas deplete and get too expensive, if we want any electricity at all in the future it will have to come from renewables.

Before my own descent into the hell of working with a company trying to develop renewables in a conservative southeastern state, I would’ve cheered Pahl on as he called for a switch from today’s centralized power plants to a bright democratic future of distributed generation — a solar panel on every roof.

But now, after my company had to fight off two cease-and-desist letters and an expensive legal battle with the state’s largest electric utility before we were able to complete a solar installation at a university, I bring a wary eye to Pahl’s cheery case studies of cutting-edge community energy projects in such greenie paradises as Oregon, Colorado and Pahl’s own Vermont.

I no longer say, “Wow, that’s impressive. Why don’t we try that here?” Instead, I just find myself getting jealous and resentful.

Damn Vermont, I think to myself, with all their farmers-market-shopping, bicycle-commuting, townhall-meeting, New-York-leaving, clean-energy-installing old hippies.

In my state of Virginia it sometimes feels like we have plenty of NASCAR fans but barely enough old hippies to fill one floor of an assisted living place.

And that’s a big part of why we have to suffer under a Republican governor who pays lip service to “all of the above” energy sources but spends his real effort pushing offshore drilling, and coal and uranium mining all while America’s seventh richest state enjoys about as much clean energy as Rwanda.

In this state, you’ll get coal. And you’ll like it too.

Some parts of the United States offer excellent incentives and support to help level the playing field with grid power and make renewables affordable. And this public policy makes all the difference.

California may be #1 in solar, but un-sunny New Jersey is #2. And that’s not because you need to slather on SPF 60 if you’re visiting Newark or Teaneck.

It’s because the Garden State supports solar power through excellent public policy — a combination of a robust renewable portfolio standard (RPS) and the ability for renewable energy companies to enter into power purchase agreements with their customers, allowing a customer to use solar power without having to invest tens of thousands of dollars upfront in solar panels.

Both policies are key to cutting costs for renewables and getting close to the holy grail of “grid parity,” where clean energy from an alternative source costs about as much as dirty power from the electric company.

But with the exception of California, Colorado and a handful of traditionally liberal states in the Northwest and Northeast that have enacted serious policies to support renewable power, the rest of America remains a clean energy backwater. As California solar developer Al Rosen writes in Renewable Energy World,

There’s no solar gold rush or windfall profit. Most solar developers and their projects are struggling. The failure rate is extraordinarily high. Financing and investment is hard to come by. There are few viable programs and they all have small capacity and difficult requirements and limitations. Interconnection processes are highly complex, costly, uncertain, and time consuming. Land use entitlements, environmental approvals, zoning, planning, building and safety issues all add additional barriers to solar development.

Such barriers, which add extra cost to solar power as they do to all renewables, are the reason why the United States, still the world’s largest economy, is lagging behind such nations as Italy, the U.K. and even Indonesia in the amount of electricity we get from renewables.

And even though California is America’s renewable energy leader, the Golden State is still no great shakes in Rosen’s book. “Germany, with the same sunshine as Anchorage, Alaska, installed far more solar in the fourth quarter of 2012 than California has installed in total.”

Again, don’t blame the sun or the wind. America is falling behind on renewables because of politics.

Don’t let me get you down

After surveying dozens of inspiring small-scale renewable energy projects from solar coops in Colorado to wind turbines in Minnesota to the combined heat and power biomass plant at Middlebury College in Vermont, Pahl gives a nod to the challenges of doing renewables in most parts of the U.S.

From lack of a coherent national energy policy with on-again off-again federal incentives; to resistance from electric utilities; to the complexity of financing community energy projects; to inflexible and outdated government approval processes; to NIMBY opposition from neighbors, most parts of the U.S. present a hostile environment for households and communities wanting to take energy into their own hands.

“Contacting your state and federal representatives and urging them to enact long-term support for renewables is one of the most important things that you can do to promote energy resilience,” writes Pahl.

Of course, Pahl is right. But the way he puts it, makes it sound so…easy.

You say solar, I say Solyndra

Let’s not forget that, as a group, federal and state legislators receive millions of dollars in dirty energy money each election cycle from companies such as Chesapeake Energy, Peabody Coal and Duke Power to ensure that government will help to keep the electric grid humming with electrons from fossil fuels and nukes.

Maybe all that dirty energy money is why so many Republican legislators join Rush Limbaugh in hammering again and again on Solyndra, the California PV manufacturer that went bankrupt after receiving federal incentives and whose name has become shorthand in conservative circles for clean energy bunkum.

If you ever try to contact your state and federal legislators, you may find that, like mine, when you talk about solar, they want to talk about Solyndra.

But, even if you live in California or Vermont and have plenty of old hippies who make themselves heard at the state capital, the major obstacles to getting much clean energy will still be political. In the face of opposition from utility companies and other powerful special interests blocking renewables, it’s easy to get discouraged.

That’s why what we really need now is a book that will inspire ordinary American homeowners who want clean energy to upgrade themselves into clean energy activists.

In the meantime, Power from the People will show you a whole bunch of renewable energy ideas that other people are enjoying today because they’ve somehow figured it out. Maybe you can too?

Slideshow photo by SS&SS.

– Erik Curren, Transition Voice

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