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Energy and Community – “Let’s meet at the clothes line”

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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Lowering your thermostat setting to decrease your monthly power bill seems simple enough, until your roommate says the magic words, “I’m cold”. Suddenly, that extra sweater and socks go from being an acceptable solution to the chill to an inadequate bandaid on a bigger problem. You are now facing the tough choice – try to explain to your roommate why our sacrifice is worth it or just walk over to the thermostat and turn up the heat.

This step from the personal (one-person) to a local (two-person) level has added a layer of complexity to my system – a concept that is studied in the context of government, political science, and collective action theory. [1]

Attributed to Scottish planner Sir Patrick Geddes, the phrase “think globally; act locally” expresses the importance of personal and community action to influence a much larger group of people and places.

So, what do we mean by the word “local”?

One definition of the word “local” can be drawn from the global Fellowship for Intentional Communities (FIC), an organization promoting communitarianism. The FIC Directory lists more than 1000 North American communities and 250 located in other areas. Of those in the directory, 490 communities list renewable energy as a community goal or part of their community’s vision and 802 reference sustainability.

From FIC’s website, “Intentional Community is an inclusive term for ecovillages, cohousing communities, residential land trusts, communes, student co-ops, urban housing cooperatives, intentional living, alternative communities, cooperative living, and other projects where people strive together with a common vision.”

So, Intentional Communities (ICs) could be a reasonably-scaled example of “local” with members who share a vision of producing greater common good. Members receive personal value and are willing to share in the common cost. As such, ICs offer a broadly dispersed research space for collecting resource use, economic, and social-science data.

The current edition of FIC’s Communities magazine has the theme of renewable energy, climate change, and community revival. Articles describe community projects that implement co-generation, geothermal heating, micro hydropower, central solar cooking, and community-scale energy efficiency projects along with discussions on how to live “sustainably” both on and off the grid. Authors describe pros and cons, success and failures, costs and practices, and the community impact of each of these local projects.

In this Winter 2013 edition, a common lesson shared with readers is that renewable energy becomes more economical when it is used by multiple owners. Another finding is that sometimes “it isn’t easy being green.” However, according to the magazine, with member commitment, most FIC communities achieve their energy and sustainability goals.

Let’s take an example…

Calculations tell us that line-drying clothes can reduce residential energy use (about 2 kWh per dryer load). In “Putting Our Lives on the Line”, Josina Guess describes the activity of using a shared clothesline. The concept is simple – why use a dryer when the sun gives you one for free?

But the main lesson learned here has little to do with the total kWhs saved.

Instead, Guess’s article paints a picture of the clothesline’s evolution from an appliance replacement option into a communications venue. “Meet me at the clothesline” becomes a code word for “we are all in it together” and encourages a stronger connection to the collective good (i.e., produces greater perceived value in making the effort to hang your clothes outside on a sunny day). People feel better about using the clothesline and so it becomes a part of the community.

In another story, Don Schramm describes “Burlington Cohousing’s Excellent Solar Adventure.” By the numbers, this community built two solar projects (25.4 kW and 11.52 kW) at an installed cost just above $3 per watt.  Beyond the numbers, the article describes deep community involvement and its observed impacts on the success of the project.

Particularly interesting is Schramm’s description of this community’s process in determining how to balance public and private space use, personal and shared investment, and the distribution of common value from the systems. In these discussions, “no one claimed that they owned their roof, but many felt strongly that they should have a say about what happened up there.” Initial successes included 10 of the community’s 32 families receiving electricity credits from the solar installation. Schramm says that, moving forward, the next step will require a full build out shared by all community members.

The step from personal to local energy projects can add a layer of complexity to the system. But, this step can also add a layer of community that can help increase the chances of meeting sustainability and energy goals. These examples provide interesting insight into what “local” can mean in sustainable energy movements – and the power in acting locally.

Photo credit: Photo of a clothesline with pegs by Michael Jastremski. Found using Creative Commons.

Reference: [1] Olson, M.: The logic of collective action. Public goods and the theory of groups. print. ed., Cambridge, Mass. 1971.

Melissa C. Lott About the Author: An engineer and researcher who works at the intersection of energy, environment, technology, and policy. Follow on Twitter @mclott.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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  1. 1. sault 11:47 am 01/21/2014

    Wow…installed residential solar PV for $3 per W. That’s a really good price and shows what can be achieved when people work together. Prices like these are not just limited to the types of communities highlighted in this article and are actually available to ANY community that can act together, pool their recources, and make a change to a more sustainable lifestyle while also saving a lot of money. Crowdfunding solar development through organizations like Mosiac or just getting a bunch of neighboors to invest in a shared neighborhood solar array are among the many clever and efficient ways solar power can be installed for cheap. Now if we can just start getting builders to just use solar panels instead of roofing material in the first place…

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  2. 2. tuned 12:40 pm 01/21/2014

    You can’t show the world you are really serious about fighting pollution when the coliseum events like sports, concerts, etc. use a million watts for lighting and SUV POVs fill the parking lots.
    Solar is great, but more ways to be more content are the key.

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  3. 3. Carlyle 9:54 pm 01/26/2014

    Blatant misrepresentation again. $3 per W is the price for the nameplate capacity. Actual delivery averages about 15% of capacity meaning that the actual power delivered cost will be closer to $20 per W. That is without the backup costs, because of offset credits, taxpayers & other utility users are the losers but hey, what price feel good at others expense?

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  4. 4. 4:03 pm 01/28/2014

    Couldn’t agree more. Local communities acting together can achieve much.

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