Empowering communities with local, renewable energy: Review of Greg Pahl's Power from the People

By Rosana Francescato

The subtitle of Greg Pahl’s Power from the People — “How to Organize, Finance, and Launch Local Energy Projects” — suggests it’s a guide. And for the most part, it lives up to expectations. Reading it won’t fully equip you to create your own community energy project, but it will give you a solid foundation to move in that direction.

The book provides a comprehensive look at community power. The main theme is resilience, or “the ability of a person or community to adapt to changing and uncertain circumstances.” To thrive in the face of impending energy and climate crises, Pahl says, communities will need to adapt and work together — and we’ll all need to let go of past assumptions about energy.

To show why those assumptions are no longer valid, Pahl begins with an overview of each of our most common sources of energy, and shows how reliance on fossil fuels leaves us vulnerable to both shortages and environmental devastation. I expect most people interested enough to pick up this book won’t need to be convinced of that. But I appreciate Pahl’s straightforward look at each energy source, including the pros and cons of the major renewables.

A strength of this book is that Pahl goes beyond the usual discussions of solar and wind to acknowledge that because there’s no silver bullet that will solve our energy problems, we need to look at all the options. He devotes as much time to hydropower, biogas, liquid biofuels, and geothermal energy as to wind and solar, and makes a strong case for turning to all of these to get beyond our dependence on fossil fuels.

Pahl also makes the important point that which renewables a community focuses on should depend on what resources are most abundant in that community — a crucial part of keeping power local. And he provides a helpful explanation of the kinds of projects that are suited to scaling down to community size and what the outlook is at this level for each kind of renewable.

After emphasizing the need for energy efficiency and conservation and detailing what individuals can do to become more energy resilient, Pahl gets into the heart of his book: community energy. He explains what makes community projects more than just small versions of large projects: community ownership, power that’s local and distributed, adaptive resilience, and a focus on conservation. Then he presents a useful overview of financing and legal options, as well as the main models used for these projects. In a book of this scope, these are necessarily brief. I would have liked to see more, for example, on community choice energy and crowdfunding options. Still, the most common community energy models are at least mentioned, with further resources provided. Reading this won’t tell you everything you need to know, but it will give you enough of an overview of the options to know where to start, and what to research further.

The remainder of the book is devoted to examples of projects featuring each major type of renewable covered, from solar to biomass to geothermal — focused on power sources more than on models for how to organize and finance projects. Some of the descriptions are rather detailed and beyond my technical knowledge. Yet they provide a great view of the many different kinds of projects happening around the country, and a resource in case you’re considering any of these options.

I still don’t feel equipped to start a liquid biofuel community project, but if I were so inclined I’d know where to go and whom to contact for more information. And I know a lot more about the variety of projects happening than I did before. Indeed, one of the pleasures of reading Pahl’s book is finding out how many communities are taking matters into their own hands and even saving money by pursuing local, renewable energy options.

Especially inspiring are the final three case studies, which look at “exceptional community energy initiatives.” These show what communities can do when they combine adoption of various renewables, and how the momentum can build as community members see the benefits firsthand and become eager to participate.

Resilience is not the only theme that emerges in Power from the People. The case studies emphasize that when it comes to renewables, communities can't wait for the government to act -- we must take matters into our own hands. And that usually means a dedicated group of people devoting a lot of time and work to a project. The patience and persistence of the people described here is admirable, and it’s good to see that at least in these projects, it was rewarded. But many hurdles remain: the lack of a coherent national energy policy, financial and legal barriers, and in some cases even local resistance.

It’s not easy to put together a community power project, especially for the pioneers described here. Let’s hope that their work paves the way for greater ease on future projects — and this book will help by providing resources for the rest of us to start with.

As Pahl notes early in the book, to thrive in the twenty-first century will truly take a village. Power from the People is a significant contribution to all the villages making the valiant attempt to adopt renewables. The more of us read it, the better equipped we’ll be to make community power a reality everywhere.