Energy Efficiency as an Act of Protest

Sept. 9, 2014
Energy efficiency, microgrids and distributed generation are more powerful ways to protest big power plants than are signs, blockades or marches. There is no doubt that mass rallying can reshape history. But when it comes to energy, it may not be the most effective way to accomplish the reshaping.

Credit: Robert Couse-Baker

A friend recently asked me how she can stop doing business with her electric utility as an act of protest. The utility is building a major gas transmission line that will run through pristine land. She wanted to make a statement by leaving the utility for a competitive electric supplier.

It turned out that’s not an option for her – her state has not deregulated, so consumers have no choice but to buy power from their local utility.  (And in any case, the competitive supplier likely would secure energy from the same source as her utility.)

So instead my friend wisely started exploring other means of protest: Not sit-ins, signs and blockades, but energy efficiency and rooftop solar.

We are deep in an era of energy dissent. Whether the concern is environmental, economic or political, consumers clearly want to have more say in shaping where their energy comes from. Witness the massive response to 350.org’s campaign against the Keystone Pipeline. Or take a look at the charged trailer for this new climate change film, “Disruption,” which heralds the idea of getting people to the streets to demonstrate against carbon-intensive energy sources.

There is no doubt that mass rallying can reshape history. But when it comes to energy, I suspect it is not the most effective way to accomplish the reshaping. Protesting against energy supply does little good if the demand for the energy remains.

Hence, promoting energy efficiency and distributed generation, to me, represents the most effective approach to moving us away from centralized power plants and big transmission lines and toward more local energy. Reducing energy demand is not just a way to call for change; it’s a way to make change. If you don’t buy it, they can’t sell it. If they can’t sell it, they won’t build it.

If you don’t buy it, they can’t sell it. If they can’t sell it, they won’t build it.

Bainbridge Island, off the coast of Seattle, represents one of my favorite energy industry stories. When the island began putting excessive strain on its power supply, the local utility proposed building a new substation. The islanders balked. But rather than telling the utility to figure out another way, they found a solution themselves. Meeting week after week in a local church, a community group, energy consultants and the utility worked together to create an energy efficiency plan that allowed them to defer construction of the substation. The islanders became early users of digital energy displays and other signals to get the citizenry to reduce their electricity use during periods of peak demand.

Some in the utility and regulatory community are getting this message, and are seeking out ways to avert construction of infrastructure with smart energy technology. Take a look at the Industry Perspectives article we posted today by Bill Radvak about what Consolidated Edison is doing in New York.

This may be the next, key selling point for energy efficiency, microgrids and other forms of distributed generation – that these forms of energy may be able to keep new, big power plants and transmission lines out of your backyard.  There is a buzz, an emotional current afoot to make energy more local. Energy efficiency can become a big part of the movement if it tells its story right; indeed it may at times be the happy ending.

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About the Author

Elisa Wood | Editor-in-Chief

Elisa Wood is an award-winning writer and editor who specializes in the energy industry. She is chief editor and co-founder of Microgrid Knowledge and serves as co-host of the publication’s popular conference series. She also co-founded RealEnergyWriters.com, where she continues to lead a team of energy writers who produce content for energy companies and advocacy organizations.

She has been writing about energy for more than two decades and is published widely. Her work can be found in prominent energy business journals as well as mainstream publications. She has been quoted by NPR, the Wall Street Journal and other notable media outlets.

“For an especially readable voice in the industry, the most consistent interpreter across these years has been the energy journalist Elisa Wood, whose Microgrid Knowledge (and conference) has aggregated more stories better than any other feed of its time,” wrote Malcolm McCullough, in the book, Downtime on the Microgrid, published by MIT Press in 2020.

Twitter: @ElisaWood

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