Right now as you’re reading this sentence, huge furnaces that run on oil, gas and coal are releasing plumes of carbon-laced smoke into the atmosphere. These fires burn continuously; every hour of the day, every day of the year. It takes a lot of money—your money—and dangerous, polluting extraction processes to provide the fuels that keep these fires burning. Their smoke is powerful enough to make us sick, change the chemical make-up of rain and alter the global climate. So why don’t we put these fires out?
For almost two centuries, fossil fuel burning power plants have provided most of the electricity for society. Industry supporters would have you believe that there is no more reliable, less expensive alternative to fossil fuels. If this were true, humankind would be in trouble: top climate scientists agree that globally we must cut carbon emissions by 80% by 2050 to avoid catastrophic climate change.
Fortunately for us, there is a safer, cleaner and ultimately far less expensive alternative to fossil fuel generated electricity: renewable energy. The technology is here today, and communities all over the world are using it to meet 100% of their energy needs.
What is 100% Renewable Energy?
To understand the concept of 100% renewable energy, let’s look at residential solar electricity use. It is a common misconception that when folks get solar panels installed, they disconnect from the electricity grid. If this were true, these folks would only have electricity when the sun was shining. On a cloudy day or at night they would live by candlelight, drying clothes on tree limbs and staring at the fireplace for entertainment. Living like this could be fun for a day or two, but it would grow old soon after.
The truth is that folks with solar panels get the electricity they need when they need it because they’re still connected to the grid. The only difference between solar customers and everybody else is that when the sun is shining, solar customers generate a percentage of electricity for everyone in their service area—and get paid for it. Without their solar panels, local fossil fuel burning power plants would have to work even harder to meet our electricity needs. This is key to understanding what it means for a community to go 100% renewable.
If a household’s solar array is large enough—and cited, installed and metered correctly—the amount of electricity it generates over the course of one year could equal (or surpass) the amount of electricity consumed by that household. In such a case, it could be said that the household is 100% renewable energy powered. At any given time, the house may need more electricity than its solar panels can make. But at the end of one year, those panels will have generated as much or more electricity than the house consumed. Now, apply the same line of thinking to an entire community.
One Electricity Customer + 100% Renewable Energy = Small Amount of CO2 Emissions Cut
Entire Community + 100% Renewable Energy = Large Amount of CO2 Emissions Cut
In the “equation” above, any renewable energy type—solar, wind, geothermal, biogas, water power, energy efficiency or a mix of all of them—will produce the same solution. What’s most important to note is that the concept of 100% renewable energy is scalable: a single household can do it; the entire planet can do it.
From our perspective, the 100% renewable energy community model offers the quickest, smoothest transition to a carbon-neutral—and eventually carbon-free—society. The model’s strength is that it takes place on the community level, which means 1) we can start making a difference today in lieu of national or international carbon policy, 2) we can start making a difference today within our current energy infrastructure, and 3) we can start making a difference today in ways that inspire other communities to do the same. We’re not waiting for anyone to save us from the climate crisis. We’re doing it ourselves.
How Do We Get to 100% Renewable?
Enough solar energy blares down on the earth for one hour of one day to meet the energy needs of the entire world for a year. Furthermore, earth’s wind resources have the potential to provide all of humankind’s energy needs ten times over. With these figures we glimpse the incredible untapped potential of naturally replenishing, carbon-free energy. It is conceivable that some community that wants to go 100% renewable will not have the renewable energy resources available to meet their goal. However, among the 8 countries, 46 cities, 51 regions, 8 utilities and 21 organizations worldwide that have either gone 100% renewable or made commitments to do so in the coming decades, none seem to be hindered by lack of resources. More often, it is the politics of energy that gets in the way of achieving 100% renewable. We at Renewable Energy Long Island have been studying the 100% movement and have discovered that three conditions make it possible for a community to reach the goal. They are listed below in order of importance.
1. Community Initiative
This is by far the most important element needed for renewable energy transformation. In fact, it could be said that if a community truly wants to go 100%, they will find a way to get there. Governments and electricity utilities exist to serve the people. If the people want something and they make it known, it will happen. (More on this in the next section)
2. Investor Interest
Renewable energy is the future. Smart investors know this, and will provide the capital needed to build large-scale renewable energy projects (offshore wind parks, solar farms, etc.) so long as the utility company will offer to buy electricity generated by those projects. Power utility LIPA/PSEG-Long Island has awarded solar firm Sun Edison a contract that will enable them to construct a 32-megawatt capacity solar farm in the Town of East Hampton, New York. LIPA/PSEG-Long Island is also close to awarding wind developer Deepwater Wind a power purchase agreement on a 210-megawatt capacity offshore wind park 30 miles from Montauk Point.
Large-scale wind and solar developers aren’t the only ones who can help make 100% renewable energy possible for a community. Community members themselves as well as local businesses can participate in or initiate their own investment opportunities. One such example of this is the “solarize” model, which operates like a solar groupon of sorts, where homeowners or business-owners come together to get a price break on solar energy systems. Customers get a low price on great new solar systems, the lowest-bidding solar installer gets a big job and a community’s dependence on fossil fuels is reduced. Everybody wins!
Another example of community-as-investor can be seen with on the island of Samsoe, Denmark, which achieved 100% renewable energy during the early 2000’s, and today is a net exporter of wind-generated electricity. 20 of the island’s 21 wind turbines were financed in part by the residents themselves; 5 were financed entirely by community members. A bank issued a special loan that made it possible for everyone on the island to buy at least one share in the wind turbines, regardless of income level. Samsoe’s municipality became a major shareholder and now benefits from the stable revenue generated by its sale of excess electricity back to mainland Denmark.
3. Pro-renewable policies
For communities that want to go 100% renewable, engaging your local government is crucial. A local elected official, such as a town supervisor or board member, tends to be accessible to community members and has the authority to push for adoption of policies that will advance the 100% renewable energy goal.
For example, every local municipality has building codes: laws that regulate new construction projects. It is possible to revise these codes to optimize for energy efficiency and solar electricity output in new homes and buildings. The permitting for renewable energy and energy efficiency is also regulated by the local municipality. This process can often by expedited by cutting wait-times on application reviews and eliminating arbitrary steps.
As mentioned in the previous section, electricity utilities are beginning to purchase more renewable energy under agreements such as the feed-in tariff. Under such agreements there will be opportunities for municipalities to lease publicly owned parcels of land to large-scale renewable energy developers. However, local governments must have policies in place to allow for such land use. Citizens can advocate to raise land-use restrictions responsibly to allow for large scale renewable energy projects to be developed.
NOTE: It is always a shame to see encroachments upon wild lands, but it’s important to consider the reality that natural environs are cleared regularly to make way for developments—including fossil fuel burning power plants—that consume resources while making climate change even worse. Once installed, solar and wind projects require no additional natural resources, and create zero emissions, yet provide society with an essential need: electricity. Renewable energy is our best bet in meeting our species’ energy needs while protecting the wellbeing of all ecosystems from collapse due to human-caused climate disruption.
If it doesn’t seem like your electricity utility is interested in issuing solar feed-in tariffs or similar pro-renewable energy proposals any time soon, that’s okay. There are a handful of alternative policies that your local government can enact to get a large-scale renewable energy projects up and running. Click here to review some examples.
Policies enacted on the state and federal government levels have arguably the most power to create the conditions needed for widespread adoption of 100% renewable energy use. Perhaps the single most significant policy by the federal government—yet to be enacted—is the carbon tax with dividend, as proposed by Citizens Climate Lobby. In short, this proposed policy would tax fossil fuels at the first point of sale. Tax revenue would be given directly to the public as a regular “dividend” to protect households from rising costs associated with the tax. Learn more about the carbon tax by visiting citizensclimatelobby.org.
Okay, I Want My Community to Go 100% renewable! Where Do I Start?
1. Learn the facts
If you want your community to join the 100% renewable energy movement, the first step is to learn as much as you can about what’s already happening. One great resource is go100percent.org, which hosts a list of communities around the globe that have either gone 100% renewable or have made a commitment to achieving the goal within a few decades. On the site, you will no doubt encounter at least one community that has similarities to your own, such as population, geography, municipal structure or available resources. Reach out to them! The obvious next step on your own community’s path to 100% renewable energy may be revealed by connecting with similar communities who are further along.
You will also want to learn as much as possible about issues that directly pertain to renewable energy politics. Twice a year, Climate Reality Project offers a terrific, free three-day training led by former Vice President Al Gore, which is designed to give folks a comprehensive understanding of climate change. The training will give you tools to lead presentations on climate change which will raise awareness about the great need for renewable energy transitions. Visit climaterealityproject.org to learn more.
Somewhere along your community’s path to 100% renewable energy, it would benefit you to learn about your local electricity utility. Is it privately or publically owned and operated, or is it a combination of the two? Where does your electricity come from, nearby or distant fossil fuel burning power plants? Does the utility provide clean energy incentives of any kind? Do any platforms exist that you can use to publically address the utility and state your desire for 100% renewable energy? You may find that your utility company is open to working with your community towards achieving renewable energy goals. On the other hand they may resist such change, in which case, there are tried and true methods of community-powered persuasion, such as letter-writing campaigns, town hall meetings and other forms of community action.
2. Know Your Community
Everybody knows the story of The Ugly Duckling: a baby swan waddles around the farm with a flock of ducklings wondering why it looks and moves differently than the rest until it realizes it’s a different species of bird. This is not unlike the experience of renewable energy advocates within certain communities. Don’t be discouraged if you’re the renewable energy “swan” among ducklings who either blindly resist change of any kind, or else deny climate change, opposing any action to address it. The more clearly you understand the political attitudes of elected officials and other leaders in your community, the better equipped your campaign will be to establish realistic short-term goals on the way to achieving 100% renewable energy.
With a little luck, you may find a handful of other folks who are working towards similar renewable energy goals. Does your township have an energy, sustainability or environmental committee? Many municipalities do, and it’s a great place to learn more about the local energy players and policies in your community and begin to affect change.
A bunch of folks casually coming together to talk about 100% renewable energy is great, but a highly visible, regularly meeting group with clear-cut goals and internal structure is even better. Such organizations attract more members as well as attention from the press, and can over time become a powerful political force. Start small by hosting get-togethers with like-minded community members to discover common goals. Or, start big with a community event to celebrate the launch your group. Either way, there is power in numbers, large or small. Amazing things happen when we come together for a common cause.
We hope this post has given you a hearty introduction to the 100% renewable energy vision: what it is, why there’s a need for it, and how you can get started on transitioning your own community. With any luck, you’re still interested and have follow-up questions. Check out the links below, and/or reach out to us via our comment form.
Oh, and thanks for caring about the planet.
thesolutionsproject.org – learn more about transforming each U.S. state to 100% renewable energy
go100percent.org – more on 100% renewable communities
climaterealityproject.org – information about the climate crisis and how you can get involved