Power to the People

Scotland’s clean energy future is community owned. Can the United States follow suit?

ON A CLEAR SPRING morning, I drive into the Scottish Highland village of Polbain to meet a man named Iain Muir. His house is easy to find. This charming community on Scotland’s northwest coast contains 20 or so homes built along a single-track road. I identify Muir’s white garden wall, park my car, and pause to admire the view. Below me, the green hills of the Summer Isles rise from the dark blue Atlantic.

Muir, a tall, middle-aged man, greets me with a steady cadence and leads me into his large-windowed home, where classical music plays on the radio. Trained as a veterinarian, Muir has struggled to make a living from his chosen profession. “I have people coming to me with their animals, but I can’t make a living doing it,” he says. “I have to have income from other sources.” But Muir doesn’t tell me only about the limits of economic opportunity in Scotland’s rural communities. Actually, I’m here to learn about the opposite.

All across Scotland — and throughout Europe — communities are taking control of their energy sources.

In fact, Polbain’s region of Coigach is a financial success. Eleven years ago, the village’s outlook was bleak: The local school had dwindled to one teacher, the shop was set to close, and “things were on the downturn,” Muir says. But in 2010, Muir and other residents founded the Coigach Community Development Company to revitalize their area. Now, as the company’s chair, Muir manages a princely community fund for Coigach’s 270 residents. In 2019, the company doled out £165,000 ($227,000) to locals, paying for everything from university fees, to music lessons, to affordable housing projects. Since the start of the ongoing Covid-19 crisis, the company has helped provide an array of resources, including masks and hand sanitizer supplies for the villagers, as well as private therapy sessions.

The source of all this wealth? From Muir’s house, I look southeast down the road, toward where a single 250-foot wind turbine spins in the breeze.

Polbain’s turnaround is impressive, but it’s certainly not unique. All across Scotland — and throughout Europe — communities are taking control of their energy sources, often adopting renewables and even making profits in the process. In Scotland alone, roughly 90 community-run renewables projects produce more than 80 megawatts of energy. In Denmark, where one-fifth of energy comes from wind, 85 percent of wind power is community-owned. In Germany, local residents control nearly half of all renewable energy. Europe as a whole hosts at least 1,500 energy cooperatives.

The turbine at Polbain represents a clean energy future — one based on decentralized, community-owned energy, and one that stands in contrast to the feudalism and fossil fuel dependency that defines much of Scotland’s history. It’s that history community members like Muir are trying to deconstruct in order to build something better.

At Muir’s house in Polbain, my thoughts shifted home, and left me wondering: Can the clean energy movement in the United States learn from places like Polbain? Is widespread community-based energy even possible in the US?

WHO OWNS THE ELECTRICITY that lights your home, washes your clothes, and boils your kettle every morning? In the US, chances are it’s a for-profit company, probably an investor-owned utility. These businesses serve nearly three-quarters of all US electricity users. The industry has become increasingly consolidated among a small group of major players. As of 2016, the nation’s largest electric utility, Exelon, served nearly 9 million customers across six states for an annual profit of more than $30 billion.

So far, the renewable energy industry is no different. Last year, clean energy investments in the US surged to a record-high $55.5 billion. Major corporations are leading the transition. One of the biggest players is Berkshire Hathaway Energy, part of Warren Buffett’s multinational empire. The company owns nearly 8,000 megawatts of wind energy and 1,500 megawatts of solar, including one of the country’s largest solar installations, California’s 550-megawatt Topaz Solar Farm. An even bigger scheme, the 690-megawatt Gemini Solar Project, is planned for Nevada’s Mojave Desert.

The Ivanpah Solar Project in California’s Mojave Desert. The project, which includes an array of 300,000 software-controlled mirrors, owned by NRG Energy, Bright Source Energy, Bechtel, and Google. The renewable enegry industry has become increasingly consolidated among a small group of major players. Photo by Dennis Schroeder / NREL.

Some renewable energy experts doubt that large companies are the equitable answer to cutting greenhouse gas emissions. Investor-owned utilities “have other interests at heart,” according to Maria McCoy, a research associate at the Institute for Local Self-Reliance (ISLR), a research and advocacy group that seeks to help build an American economy driven by local priorities instead of corporate control. “Earning a return on investments and padding the pockets of shareholders come at a price, often paid by customers.”

Ecosystems also pick up the tab. Renewables inevitably use land, but deciding where, and how much, is up to the producer. Because large renewable energy projects need plenty of room, private companies sometimes build them in remote open spaces, including near national parks. NextEra Energy’s 550-megawatt Desert Sunlight Solar Farm, for instance, sits just outside of Joshua Tree National Park, and has been criticized for its potential impacts on rare plants and imperiled wildlife. In contrast, smaller-scale installations are easier to build on unused pockets of land, such as rooftops and brownfield sites.

New, small-scale, locally controlled clean energy systems could be a chance to reshape social, political, and economic structures for people and the environment.

New, small-scale, locally controlled clean energy systems could be a chance to reshape social, political, and economic structures for people and the environment. According to McCoy, that’s where community energy comes in.

“Community energy” is a broad term encompassing a variety of projects that fill multiple niches in the energy system. Some, like community-owned solar installations, produce energy that is then distributed over the grid. Others, like community choice aggregation programs, don’t necessarily produce energy but choose their communities’ energy sources — often with a focus on renewables. Each offers certain advantages. Compared to individual installations like rooftop solar, community energy producers are more cost-efficient because they operate at a larger scale. They also allow more people to reap the benefits of renewable energy, including those who don’t own property or whose homes can’t support rooftop solar (roughly half of all US residences).

Compared to investor-owned utilities, local energy producers tend to create twice as many local jobs, ISLR estimates. And proceeds often support social, economic, and environmental projects in the community. “Households participating in community energy projects could see their energy bills reduced; communities would see decreased reliance on fossil energy, healthier environments, and the ability to keep energy spending and jobs local,” says Miguel Yanez, a senior associate at the Environmental and Energy Study Institute (EESI) based in Washington, DC.

Scotland offers clear proof of these benefits. Over the past two decades, for instance, the Inner Hebrides Isle of Gigha has managed a remarkable turnaround. For centuries, a series of wealthy landowners owned this seven-mile-long island tucked in Scotland’s far southwest corner. By the late twentieth century, the village had fallen into serious decline.

Local residents decided they’d had enough. Despite pushback from landowners, the community bought the island with the help of grants and loans on March 15, 2002 — now celebrated yearly as “Gigha Day.” Determined to pay back debts and revitalize homes, locals looked to wind energy for income. In 2005, they installed three wind turbines totaling 675 kilowatts, creating Scotland’s first community-owned, grid-connected wind farm. Named Creideas, Dòchas, and Carthannas (Gaelic for Faith, Hope, and Charity), the turbines soon provided roughly two-thirds of Gigha’s electricity and an annual profit of £75,000 ($103,000), which funded renovations for many islanders’ houses. In 2013, the community installed a fourth turbine, followed by an innovative storage battery to increase efficiency. In 2019, feeling fiscally secure, the Isle of Gigha Heritage Trust established a community fund to offer its profits directly to residents.

“Energy democracy, where energy users make their own decisions, brings equity to the equation.”

In contrast to the intense opposition that sometimes accompanies wind energy plans in the US, Gigha’s turbines have found broad support, in part, it seems, because community members own them. “There was great excitement when the turbines arrived,” Andy Clements, renewables manager for the trust’s subsidiary energy companies, tells me. “We even had a blade washing weekend where islanders came up with buckets of water and sponges to clean down the turbine blades.”

This isn’t to say community energy is a magic-bullet solution. Like many community organizations, the Isle of Gigha Heritage Trust has struggled to finance goals, and it’s unclear how well the trust’s structure would scale up to serve larger communities. Nonetheless, when community energy projects flourish, they can offer numerous advantages over investor-owned utilities.

These advantages are being noticed across the pond. “As a country, the US needs to accept that the dominant top-down utility structure is no longer working,” McCoy of ISLR says. “Energy democracy, where energy users make their own decisions, brings equity to the equation and will reroute our trajectory toward a clean and affordable energy industry.”

So why do we see such divergent energy landscapes in the US and European countries like Scotland? One factor is key to the success — or failure — of the community energy movement: government policy. And it’s here that the situations on either side of the Atlantic most clearly differ.

AS I SIP TEA in Iain Muir’s Polbain home, overlooking the old stone walls that line the surrounding fields, we talk about his family — and his hopes for the future of Coigach. Muir’s sense of that future is deeply influenced by the past. He knows the difficulties his and other communities have faced (and many still face) under an unequal system. Community energy, for him, is a way to replace the legacy of centuries of Scottish feudalism.

Even today, much of rural Scotland is dominated by large private estates owned by individuals or companies for leisure or investment. As of 2010, half of Scotland’s rural private land was owned by fewer than 450 individuals — a higher concentration of land ownership than any other country in Europe.

“This place has got such a long history of injustices,” Muir says, “but I think that people here and now are experiencing it, and here and now they actually have an opportunity to do something about it. I think you have fairly fertile ground to plant some seeds.”

The Scottish government has been supporting many community energy initiatives through subsidies aligned with the European Union’s effort to encourage renewable energy. Photo by Andrew Wilson / Alamy Stock Photo.

Coigach community members erecting the wind monitoring mast to gather the data necessary to make the case for the wind turbine. Rather than employ professionals, the community sourced and erected the 50 meter mast up themselves. Photo provided by Photo courtesy of Coigach Community Development Company.

Many isolated homesteads in Scotland have wind turbines to supplement their electricity supply. Photo by Oliver Dixon.

In recent years, the Scottish government has tried to move beyond feudalism, often encouraging community control of resources. For instance, in 2003 parliament passed the Land Reform (Scotland) Act, which gave rural communities the right and funding to buy private estates from willing owners. Since then, more than 400 community groups have purchased around 550,000 acres, nearly 3 percent of Scotland’s entire land area. Much of this land is remote, with few income sources, so clean energy projects have become a go-to resource. The government has even directly supported many of these initiatives through subsidies aligned with the European Union’s effort to encourage renewable energy, including community energy. For instance, a feed-in tariff scheme offers a subsidy for every kilowatt-hour of electricity that small-scale renewable energy producers provide to the grid. In some instances, that subsidy can be nearly three times the value of the energy itself.

Such support has enormously benefited the Isle of Gigha Heritage Trust and countless others. “Europe has shown us that locally generated clean energy shared through a smart grid energy network is possible,” says Yanez of EESI.

At the same time, the Scottish model has seen its fair share of setbacks. In 2019, the United Kingdom government closed the feed-in tariff scheme to new entrants, explaining in its decision that “growth in the small-scale low-carbon generation sector must be sustainable; driven by competition and innovation, not direct subsidies.”

This change stopped some community energy projects dead in their tracks.

The Assynt Foundation’s community land trust, for instance, had purchased 44,000 acres of undeveloped land amid the lochs and peaks of Scotland’s northwest corner. For years, the foundation’s members debated the merits of a clean energy project. Eventually, it was too late. With the feed-in tariff gone, hopes for a profitable energy future in Assynt have vanished. “Dreams need the capital funds to deliver them,” says Gordon Robertson, the foundation’s former executive officer.

But vanguard groups like the Isle of Gigha Heritage Trust continue, carrying the community energy movement’s momentum in Scotland. The question now is whether they can maintain it.

SOME 5,000 MILES across the Atlantic, Marin County, California — a wealthy suburban enclave north of San Francisco — is known for its scenic redwood forests and beaches. In 2010, it made the news for a different reason. That May, Marin Clean Energy, the state’s first community choice aggregation program, began to serve its nearly 10,000 customers.

California had legalized community choice aggregation in 2002, but Marin Clean Energy’s founders had struggled to make their vision a reality. Their biggest obstacle was the Pacific Gas and Electric Company (PG&E), California’s largest investor-owned utility, which provides electricity to roughly half of California. In the run-up to Marin Clean Energy’s opening, PG&E spent more than $45 million on a statewide ballot initiative that would have significantly raised the barriers to creating such programs. Then, Dawn Weisz, Marin Clean Energy’s CEO, tells me, PG&E hired a call center to encourage customers in Marin Clean Energy’s service area to opt out of the new program. They also spent $4 million on “mailers and other types of marketing,” Weisz says.

But PG&E’s efforts failed, and Marin Clean Energy now serves nearly 500,000 customers in four counties. It provides customers a minimum of 60 percent renewable energy, with the option of 100 percent locally-produced solar power.

The US’s regulatory landscape leans heavily towards the large-scale investor-owned utilities that have long dominated and influenced it.

Similar struggles have played out in communities across the country. McCoy notes that “investor-owned utilities make money by building new things, like power plants, whether or not the grid needs them. Distributed energy, such as community solar, reduces the need for additional utility investment.” Therefore, when community groups aim to “compete” with utilities in the US, they often have to meet their large counterparts head-on at the ballot box or through other political processes. But that hasn’t stopped some groups from trying.

In Winter Park, Florida, residents fought the city’s private utility in court and at the ballot box before successfully transitioning to a municipal-owned utility in 2005. The private utility, Florida Power (owned by Duke Energy), spent roughly $500,000 campaigning against the transition. In Santa Fe, New Mexico, advocates have struggled since 2014 to replace the private utility Public Service Company of New Mexico with a municipal-owned utility. The company has refused to sell its infrastructure and lobbied against the campaign. They’re still fighting.

Many US-based community energy projects exist in spite of federal policy. The US’s regulatory landscape leans heavily towards the large-scale investor-owned utilities that have long dominated and influenced it. For example, much government support for renewable energy takes the form of tax incentives. Because community groups are often nonprofits and therefore don’t pay taxes, they can’t access these incentives.

A messy patchwork of regulations further complicates the situation. “There are many different policies at state and local levels that have increased the transaction costs for clean energy technologies,” Yanez tells me. Just seven states currently have laws that allow community choice aggregation programs.

Members of California’s People Power Solar Cooperative in front of their first installation. The Golden State now hosts 23 community choice aggregation programs. Photo by People Power Solar Cooperative.

But regulation isn’t the only problem. For community energy producers, a major obstacle is finance, especially startup funding. “Even though renewable energy paired with energy storage is increasingly competitive with — and often cheaper than — fossil fuel energy, communities need to make the upfront investments that would otherwise be undertaken by their utilities,” Yanez says. That investment can be hard to find.

In spite of these obstacles, California now hosts 23 community choice aggregation programs. And other, more radical, energy projects have entered the mix. People Power Solar Cooperative in California aims to further decentralize energy ownership by helping local groups pool funds to build and profit from solar projects on individual property owners’ lands, allowing people to benefit even if they don’t have access to land. “What’s the point of a green transition if we can’t do a just transition?” says Grayson Flood, a People Power co-leader.

While community energy advocates in the US still face significant political resistance, some see a chance for change under President Biden’s administration. “Diminishing the power of entrenched monopolies and re-envisioning a bottom-up energy grid will be difficult under any administration, but I’d say that there is more hope under a Biden administration,” McCoy says. Big and small, opportunities for reform are there. For instance, the administration could start out by expanding grant and loan programs that encourage clean energy development, such as the US Department of Agriculture’s Rural Energy Savings Program.

Regardless, many experts agree that new regulations are key. “Community energy cannot replace [investor-owned utilities] without a complete overhaul of policy,” Yanez says. Only time will tell whether, and when, that transition might occur.

SOMETHING PEOPLE POWER’S Grayson Flood tells me stands out: “One of the lessons we can learn, I think particularly from Europe, is that we need to work hand-in-hand with environmental justice groups and labor unions that are fighting the bad as we’re building the new.”

This approach, I realize, has been key to the success of Scotland’s community energy movement. By and large, community energy advocates focus on how best to support their communities in the places they call home. At the same time, they recognize and confront existing challenges, in part through national-level bodies such as Community Energy Scotland and Community Land Scotland.

So far, the budding US community energy movement seems to be doing the same. Advocates tend to talk less about what they’re against than what they’re for: clean jobs, a healthy environment, and a more equitable society. But, as Marin Clean Energy’s story shows, that fight for the future often involves a present struggle against those in power. The rise of overarching organizations, such as the Energy Democracy Project and People’s Solar Energy Fund, are helping to assert justice-focused energy at a larger scale. By continuing to bridge the divide of critique and creation, US advocates just might build a robust community energy movement like the one I found in Scotland.

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