The Basis of Sustainable Community Energy Policy

Renewable energy policy and sustainable community issues place an enormous strain on society and its institutions. For good or ill, the fossil energy economy created a sense of independence. But times are changing. There is an increasing awareness that energy supply is somehow connected to nearly all aspects of modern life: diplomacy; international conflict; health care issues; environmental quality; international development; food supplies; and sustainable living conditions in general.

None of this is new, but the confluence of events along with a growing awareness of “peak oil;” general conventional energy depletion and transportation to markets; and value shifts have focused the public’s attention on the issue. The problem is of growing evidence and importance — it is one of our “wicked” problems — complex, difficult to define in terms of scope and impact, and complicated in terms of solution…a solution that may very well be tailored to local need. Public opinion polls indicate that Boomers and generations since have been raised to feel efficacious and when a problem is defined as being of communal interest, young people want to participate in solution identification and implementation. Generations X and Y, the generations most likely to be impacted by the decline of fossil energy and the growing importance of alternative (often renewable energy), are more likely to demand direct access to decision-making and policy implementation. In order to participate, however, all energy policy stakeholders require at least two things: unbiased information and the capacity to process information. In the energy policy arena, information is widely available. Internet web-blogs, government and private sector web pages offer a plethora of information. Professional journals are also available and are highly informative. Yet, the big challenge for a broad-based understanding of renewable energy lies in the capacity of individuals to assess the legitimacy and value of information; in that way, information becomes something even more essential — knowledge. Therefore, the two essential prerequisites to a participatory sustainable community energy policy making environment are inextricably and perpetually linked. Knowledge is valuable, but the utility of policy related knowledge must be assessed in terms of what Nobel laureate James Buchanan once referred to as the rules of the game — namely, the policy process, history and evolution. As is the case with so many other aspects of public policy, energy paradigms move incrementally, interrupted occasionally by short bursts of policy innovation and change that take policy into new directions before again settling down into a period of stasis. Recent developments in energy policy — namely EPAct of 2005 and the Hydrogen Initiative — effectively demonstrate how knowledge will likely be channeled in future years. Additionally, state renewable energy portfolios have increased market demand for low- or zero-emission energy as well as “green tags.” EPAct of 2005 helped this process along, enlarging the commitment of government in legitimizing alternative (primarily renewable energy). The act, however, also creates new opportunities for next generation nuclear energy, which is often downplayed in the renewable energy community. Nevertheless, the rules of the game create the opportunity for the growth of policy knowledge in an energy sector often demonized by advocates for safe and clean energy. At this juncture, the Hydrogen Initiative fits well into the discussion. In January, 2005, the National Academy of Sciences released the findings of scientists that pushed back the horizon on the idea of cheap widely available “green” hydrogen fuel for use in next-generation automobiles and the like. Hydrogen is often touted as the form of fuel cell technology, which a deeper reading of the material science and energy policy literature would clearly indicate that it is by no means the sole fuel cell system — other readily deployable systems exist. An understanding of the future of the hydrogen economy and the capacity of science, government and the market sectors in implementing it remains unclear to the average consumer, who is more likely to assume that a policy initiative equates to a viable and readily available solution to energy shortfalls of the future. Understanding how policy processes work and how policy history and current circumstance merge in the elevation of novel ideas or solutions is critical to making good energy choices within the context of sustainable communities. Currently, energy prices are falling due in part to unseasonably warm autumn temperatures. What winter and the months ahead will have in store remains unclear. Falling energy prices, however, hardly motivate individuals to actively pursue information sources, to move from an information base to a knowledge base, and finally to produce workable policy solutions in the context of the rules of the game and of policy momentum. Thus, sustainable community discussions are likely to narrow in scope to individuals who are eager to pursue clean energy. The grassroots becomes less grassy and more powerful actors operating in institutional contexts make policy choices regarding the energy paradigm of the future — economists would of course argue that this is expected given that institutions are associated with a desire for efficient production. Nevertheless, the desire to participate in a democratically agreed upon sustainable community energy paradigm falls by the wayside due in part to public neglect and limited economic motivation. The demands of young and middle aged policy stakeholders tends to parallel the rise in energy costs; but declines as prices of fossil energy become seemingly more manageable for the majority of individuals. Energy sustainability and community participation, therefore, is unlikely to make major leaps without the guidance of knowledgeable policy experts and the support of public and private institutions. Institutions must make readily accessible the tools and facts needed by citizens when and if they choose to become more active participants on a broad scale. It should be generally understood, however, that sustainable community development is a “wicked” problem that requires regular attention. Government and the private sector cannot sit by and wait for the next energy crisis before citizen efficacy melds with long term citizen participation; but when that time arrives, the active inclusion of citizens into the policy process should be conducted as seamlessly as possible. Christopher A. Simon is an Associate Professor of Political Science at the University of Nevada, Reno. He is the author of Alternative Energy: Political, Economic, and Social Feasibility, Public Policy: Preferences and Outcomes, and To Run a School: Administrative Organization and Learning. He has published articles on community building programs in Public Administration Review and Administration & Society as well as articles on land use and natural resource policy and equitable administration issues in Land Use Policy Journal and Policy Studies Journal.

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