Local food. . . local art. . . local entrepreneurship. Encouraging these endeavors in small-town America can involve complications and difficult choices in how to use money and imagination. But the concepts are pretty straightforward and relatively easy to grasp if you’re trying to reinvent things in your community.
Local energy. That seems like a different kettle of fish. Now we’re talking about global greenhouse gas emissions, the economic impacts of hydraulic fracking and the pushes and pulls on the 100-year-old electrical grid that powers the nation.
But still, some Minnesota communities are wading into the waters and trying to generate their own power. Red Wing put up solar panels on city buildings to tie into the grid. Crow Wing County makes money by burning landfill-generated methane. Grand Marais is using local tax dollars on a plan that would make heat by burning excess wood from surrounding forests. And Minnesota’s biggest utility is having to adjust.
So that makes local energy a good topic for Ground Level. Listen for our series, “Making Energy Local,” starting today. Reporter Jennifer Vogel will be talking about what she’s found this afternoon on All Things Considered and reporters Dan Kraker and Stephanie Hemphill will be on the air Wednesday and Thursday. And you can read the full coverage on our topic page here.
Community generation of electricity and heat follows the larger “act locally” mantra, of course. But more starkly than other parts of that movement, it can show the choices in front of people. There can be big upfront costs to shoulder. And, as Katie Fernholz of Dovetail Partners, which is helping Grand Marais, told Kraker, “when you localize things, you end up localizing the good and the bad.” In Grand Marais, for example, saving money on energy might increase truck traffic and air emissions.
This idea of small generation is a miniscule part of the big energy picture. But it’s growing. Xcel, for example, three years ago received 1.6 megawatts of power from small wind and solar. By last year, that figure had quadrupled. It’s tiny compared to the utility’s 6,000-plus-megawatt Minnesota system, but incentives are in place for it to increase. And, as Hemphill’s story shows, there’s an important debate taking place this fall and winter that will either expand or curtail those incentives.
Check it out.