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Bill McKibben and the folks at 350.org have decided to target the pernicious financial influence of the fossil fuel industry and its front groups. On the day following the election, they kicked off a 21-city “Do the Math” tourto “mount an unprecedented campaign to cut off the industry’s financial and political support by divesting our schools, churches and government from fossil fuels.”

Divestment is a fine strategy, but we all know that it won’t starve Big Oil, Coal, and Gas of needed capital. The goals of the divestment campaign are to make a statement and to get people to engage in the fight.

With those goals in mind, I want to set out another challenge to everyone who recognizes the need to divest from the fossil fuel industry. Moving our investments from a mutual fund that holds shares in ExxonMobil to some kind of socially responsible investment fund is important, but it’s just a baby step.

We also need to invest our capital (both financial and sweat) in community-owned, distributed, and small-scale renewable energy. Why? Because we must fundamentally remake the energy economy as if nature, people, and the future actually mattered.

That means investing in renewable energy that is distributed, because renewable sources themselves are diffuse and distributed, and because redundancy and distribution are key to building resilience in the face of shocks like superstorm Sandy, which are increasingly likely in a climate-changed world.

It also means investing in renewable energy that is community-owned, because we’ve seen what happens when large, multinational companies control essential human needs, whether they be food, health care, or energy. By their very nature, these corporations place profits and shareholders over the well-being of the communities they ostensibly serve. A new energy future must be part of a new economy future, a new economy that puts people and planet over profits.

And finally, it means investing in renewable energy that is small-scale, again because distribution increases resilience but also because even renewable energy can have profoundly negative impacts on ecosystems if not sited and scaled in ways that are appropriate to the environment in which it — and we — reside.

Sounds like a tall order, I know. But thankfully there are a number of great, replicable examples of individuals, institutions, and communities meeting the challenge. Below are just a few. (For a much more complete resource, check out Power from the People: How to Organize, Finance, and Launch Local Energy Projectsby Greg Pahl, the second in the Community Resilience Guides series published by Chelsea Green Publishing and Post Carbon Institute.)

Individuals

  • Invest in yourself. The single best thing we as individuals can do to divest is
to reinvest in projects that reduce our personal and household energy use. The bad news is that fossil fuels are embedded in virtually everything we touch — from our homes to our cars to our food. The good news is that means there are lots of ways to get started, and lots of reinvestment opportunities. Many of these can actually provide a better return on investment than what you’ll get investing in the market, not to mention help build your own energy resilience. Chapter four of Power from the People, “Your Household’s Energy Resilience” (excerpted for free here), is a great place to start thinking about how.
  • Crowdfund renewable projects. Thanks to new crowdfunding legislation, a number of new online platforms like Solar Mosaic (launching soon) are making it possible for individuals to fund solar projects in their own communities or elsewhere. Unlike platforms like Kickstarter, Solar Mosaic will pay back investments once the solar has been installed.
  • Buy Clean Energy Victory Bonds. The good folks at Green America are spearheading the call for a new Clean Energy Victory Bond that would “allow all Americans to invest in Treasury Bonds for as little as $25 each that will fund a clean energy future.” In August, the Clean Energy Victory Bonds Act of 2012 was introduced in the House of Representatives. Much like the victory bonds that contributed greatly to the WWII mobilization effort, the hope is that Clean Energy Victory Bonds can engage tens of millions of Americans in investing $50 billion in a new energy future. If you agree this is a good idea, voice your support.

Universities

Middlebury’s biomass gasification plant.

The primary target of 350.org’s call for divestment are colleges and universities that have tens of billions of dollars invested in fossil fuel companies. Just a couple of days into the campaign, Unity College announced its plan to divest from fossil fuels. But universities should not only be encouraged to divest from these holdings, they should be encouraged to reinvest in on-campus energy-efficiency and renewable-energy projects.

Middlebury College, where 350.org has its roots, is a great example of a university that has done just that by building its
own biomass gasification plant to replace about 1 million gallons of oil that were previously being used each year. In an interview for Power from the People, Tom Corbin, the director of business services at the college, explained their reasoning:

“The real incentive for us was the price of oil, our inability to control it, and the fact that we were subject to an extremely volatile price for fuel,” Corbin says. “There were also questions about the possibility of future interruptions in the supply of oil. The fact that we were sending all of this money out of the county, the state, or even the country was another concern. So, when we switched over to biomass, we gained greater control over our energy future, and the money is now being spent more locally; that’s important to us.”

A number of universities have developed revolving loan funds specifically designed to finance sustainability projects on campus. The American College & University Presidents’ Climate Commitment has some terrific resources on its website on campus revolving loan funds.

Communities

Faced with a lack of policy leadership coming from Washington, D.C., and state capitols, many communities have taken power — literally and figuratively — into their own hands.

  • Energy cooperatives: Across the country, a number of community co-ops have been formed for everything from solar PV and wind purchasing and installation, to energy efficiency, to growing and selling biofuels. Some of the most innovative and effective include Co-op Power in New England and the Evergreen Energy Solutions in Cleveland, Ohio, which create employee-owned businesses and jobs in the process. The Community Power Network has a great list of resources and replicable models detailing various paths communities can take to produce their own energy. The Center for Social Inclusion provides an important case study, based on the Boston Energy Service Cooperative, on how to ensure that disadvantaged communities and communities of color can fully participate in, and benefit from, community-owned energy.
  • Feed-in tariffs: Some communities have employed policy mechanisms to take control of their energy future or give a big boost to local energy production. One of the most promising tools is feed-in tariffs (FITs), which provide businesses and homeowners with long-term contracts for electricity they produce, thus incentivizing installation of renewable energy systems above and beyond what a homeowner or business needs for their own use. After seeing FITs work with great success in Europe, the City of Gainesville, Fla., enacted a FIT program in 2008. In just the first three years, Gainesville overtook the state of California to become the highest per capita solar producer in the country.
  • Community Choice Aggregation: CCAs allow local governments to procure and sell electricity to customers within their jurisdiction. Not surprisingly, CCAs have cropped up first in states like Vermont and California, but they are also emerging in places like Illinois and Ohio. Chicago just last week became the largest municipality to approve a CCA program (I believe). While having the power to purchase renewable energy is an important first step for local governments, some communities — like my own, in Sonoma County, Calif. — are aiming bigger by seeking to purchase renewable energy that’s also produced locally.

Again, these are just a few examples, but I hope they serve to show that it is possible for us to not only divest from shares in fossil fuel companies, but invest in a new energy economy. And, of course, if we’re really serious about “going fossil free,” what’s ultimately required is reducing our actual energy use.

See also: Energy democracy: Three ways to bring solar to the masses