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Eco-Explainer: What is Community Energy?
Energy

Eco-Explainer: What is Community Energy?

Renewable energy still has a hefty price tag for individuals. Community energy offers a way to share those costs and resources.

Let’s face it: Accessing renewable energy is expensive. Some folks, however, have found an alternative method of getting renewable energy to their homes and businesses by sharing their local energy sources with their neighbors.

Meet: community energy.

What is community energy?

As the name suggests, community energy is an umbrella term for local renewable energy that directly serves a community. This differs from our current system, in which far-away for-profit companies mass produce fossil fuel-powered energy. The power that ends up in your home or business has often gone through several changes and traveled long distances across the electric grid to get to you.

Community energy brings energy directly to local households through several different methods according to local needs. This is often in the form of wind or solar power on public lands or buildings, since “not everyone has a good roof for solar panels and few have space for a wind turbine,” according to Community Energy England, a group dedicated to promoting community energy in England.

Other models have been used in communities around the world. In Nepal, for instance, remote communities successfully built micro-hydro plants using meltwater from Himalayan glaciers. On the other side of the planet, RevoluSolar has been working within Rio de Janeiro’s favelas (slums located outside of the city) to produce decentralized community solar energy in Brazil.

Why is community energy important to Philadelphia?

Besides the benefit to natural resources, there are additional benefits.  

Healthy, thriving communities

Community energy improves the resilience of communities and frees them from depending on utilities for electricity, according to the Environmental and Energy Study Institute (EESI), a non-profit dedicated to promoting science-based solutions to the climate crisis. Community energy also benefits the local economy, job creation, and “improv[es] public health by reducing pollution and greenhouse gas emissions.”

Beyond the health benefits, EESI President Daniel Bresette said that many people also participate in the cost benefits. “A lot of people are really drawn to the idea of lowering utility bills. I’m sure you’ve heard people who have solar on their homes say, ‘I haven’t paid a utility bill in X number of years.’ It’s kind of a nice thing to be able to say.”

In dense urban environments, Bresette said that sharing resources is a big part of accessing renewable energy due to lack of space and variants in income levels. “(Community energy) is a way to do that.”

The threat of climate change in Philadelphia

Philadelphia is preparing for the major impacts of climate change in the region. Rising temperatures threaten the power grid as it is.

Decentralizing power through community microgrids, Bresette said, could help during the climate crisis. “If you’re less beholden on electricity that’s coming from a faraway place, there are ways that you can create greater energy resilience.”

At the beginning of this year, the Philadelphia Inquirer reported that Philly and its surrounding regions have already seen power outages due to powerful storms and flooding. Climate analysts warn that flooding in the region will increase in frequency as the effects of climate change manifest. Decentralizing power could be a key step to making sure communities are safe during upcoming energy outage threats.

Has Philly ever tried community energy?

YES.

Philadelphia attempted a community solar project between 2019 and 2020, led by the Centennial Parkside Community Development Corporation (CPCDC). The project did not come to fruition, however, due to Pennsylvania state laws which forbid the shared ownership of photovoltaic arrays.

Photovoltaic arrays are collections of solar panels that generate electricity. The CPCDC was particularly interested in operating solar arrays in unused parts of Fairmount Park and vacant lots, so local households and businesses could invest in the project. Instead, they launched Centennial Solar LLC in January of 2020: a community social enterprise that “provides innovative financing to help low and moderate-income households throughout the City of Philadelphia go solar with no up-front cost” according to their 2021 Annual Report.

“Centennial Solar provides loans to access the benefits of Solarize Philly, which low-income households could not previously access,” explained CPCDC Executive Director Chris Spahr. “Now, we’re starting to look at what to do with returns on those loans.”

Spahr said the CPCDC plans to use returns to continue investing in solar, whether through providing more loans for solar roofs or using it as seed money for a future community solar array.

“Our ultimate goal is still community energy. Many individual households in our community don’t have roofs that are big enough or are too shaded. We need change from legislators,” said Spahr.

What can we do until Pennsylvania community energy laws change?

“Pennsylvania needs to be more progressive with its community energy laws,” said Spahr. “In the meantime, we recommend focusing on energy-efficient housing and working within the community to build an understanding of community solar and its impacts. Use this time to educate.”

Here are two other ways to change our current energy setup, placing energy consumers in a more powerful position to take ownership of energy sources.

Public power is the deceptively simple concept of changing privately owned energy into energy that is publicly owned. The movement has been gaining momentum across the country, according to a recent report by Grist. Proponents can face an uphill battle, however, from for-profit energy companies.

Energy cooperatives are cooperatively owned energy companies. Philadelphia is home to The Energy Co-op, which is a “community organization whose primary goal is to bring value to Pennsylvania energy consumers and help create a more sustainable energy future,” said Lauren Keller, Membership Manager. Member-owners in the co-op “truly steer the organization” by voting on the board of directors, changes to governing documents, and through participating in surveys. They collectively “drive demand for renewable energy in Pennsylvania by voting with their dollars,” according to Keller.

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Angie Bacha (she/her) is a Philadelphia-based solutions journalist and recent Erasmus Mundus Master's in Journalism, Media and Globalisation student in Aarhus, Denmark. Previously, she worked as a student journalist at Community College of Philadelphia and managed her own business as a tutor/babysitter during the Covid-19 pandemic. Some other hats she has worn: Human Rights and Theatre Studies graduate; teaching artist; carpenter; AmeriCorps volunteer; and rock climbing gym shift supervisor. View all posts by Angie Bacha
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