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.