Paris, the Woodland, NC Solar Flare, & Local Action

Yesterday, Leonid Bershidsky wrote a piece about the problems of implementing renewable energy and meeting the Paris Agreement’s goals. He writes,

As 195 countries hammered out an agreement to minimize climate change the town council of Woodland, North Carolina, met to ban a solar farm on its land and prevent all future attempts to establish one of these devilish installations. One speaker, a retired science teacher no less, opposed the green energy project because she claimed it would soak up all the sunlight and kill plants in the vicinity.

The Paris agreement is powerless to counter such moves. Article 12 states:

“Parties shall co-operate in taking measures, as appropriate, to enhance climate change education, training, public awareness, public participation and public access to information, recognizing the importance of these steps with respect to enhancing actions under this Agreement.”

The Paris Agreement may be powerless against such moves if you make the locus of power the United Nations, Francois Hollande, or Secretary Kerry. The locus of power is not the United Nations alone. As one of my favorite policy writers (yes I have those), Aubrey McLaughlin wrote years ago, “[P]olicy-directed change ultimately is a problem of the smallest unit.” The smallest unit, or close to it, is municipalities.

Local governments, civic groups, universities, and businesses are and will be collaborating to take up renewable energy projects in the coming years. While Bershidsky pokes fun at Woodland, he overlooks the much larger moves afoot at the civic level to create individual and community-level renewable energy systems. While small, they are happening. Based on a combination of projections from tech and economics and hearsay, I think renewables will outpace and displace concentrated fossil fuel generation in the United States in the coming decades. The same could be true of forest preservation, conservation, and regrowth. But on renewables, local action in the United States can help with development that can further drive down costs and increase uptake for developing nations and vice versa. By working in our own communities, on economies of scale, we will become the ratchet mechanism as Sandra Steingraber might say (pic courtesy of PBS via Steingraber’s Twitter feed).

I’d also add that the community in Woodland didn’t make its decision on bad science alone. There was also resentment to the utility because the community was gaining no immediate benefit from the project, just the sacrifice of more land to some big company. Had the utility taken a more community-oriented multiple stakeholder approach that listened instead of told, we might have seen another utility-scale array go in. Perhaps they could have proposed one that could have had habitat preservation and beautification built into it. Apparently, they dropped the ball on that one.
But I’ll give Bershidsky this much. The provisions of Article 12 will need to go a lot further. All sectors of society will need to develop energy and ecological awareness, understanding, and skills in our people. The basic competencies we need to meet the 2 degree C minimum goal depend on those skills being distributed in our society and especially our leaders and decision makers.

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