Getting To Clean Energy: Choose Your Own Adventure Style (Episode 85)

Date: 14 Nov 2019 | posted in: Building Local Power | 0 Facebooktwitterredditmail

Host Hibba Meraay talks with Energy Democracy Director and ILSR Co-Director John Farrell about the new and improved Community Power Toolkit and how it can guide communities to take action on clean energy locally. They also discuss:

  • The advantages of the toolkit’s interactive, multi-media format and how it can complement more traditional research reports.
  • The link between energy policy and climate change mitigation and how strategies outlined in the toolkit can help communities take action to protect the planet, locally.
  • How the Community Power Toolkit gives communities access to over 20 tried and tested strategies for taking action on clean energy so they don’t need to reinvent the wheel but can instead learn from what is already working.


Cities have a lot of power that they can exercise to address climate change, to build local energy systems, to keep more of the energy dollars in the community. This can  be a resource for elected officials and for city staff to understand, “I don’t have to come up with the first and most original climate mitigation plan for our city. We can look at these stories of what’s happening in other cities.”

Hibba Meraay: Hey everyone. Welcome back to another episode of the Building Local Power podcast. I’m Hibba Meraay, Communications Manager at the Institute for Local Self Reliance. Today on the show, Energy Democracy Director and ILSR Co-Director John Farrell joins me to talk about the new and improved community power toolkit. Hey John.
John Farrell: Hello.
Hibba Meraay: So we get a lot of questions from folks asking us, “What can I actually do?” And the community power toolkit is something actually a lot of things that people can do to take local action on clean energy. So can you tell us a little bit, what is this new version and how is it different and better than the old one?
John Farrell: Yeah, well I just have to start and say I really am amused always by the phrase new and improved cause my dad used to point out that how could something be both be new and improved. But in this case it actually is true. We have things that we had in the original toolkit that we have spiced up to be more accessible, like better about telling the story about how cities, how communities, how individuals, and groups of people have done exciting things around climate and clean energy and cities. We’ve also added a lot of new content as well, especially audio clips, video clips, photos, things that help people really connect with how these different kinds of climate solutions happened. And frankly, the reason that we did the toolkit in the first place, which I think is important to explain, is for two reasons.

One is, people would email and be like, “Well, what can I do in my community? I’m really excited about doing something locally about climate change. I’m really motivated to do something.” Maybe we just elected somebody new who is making commitments on climate. Maybe my city is one of over a hundred that have said that we want to reach 100% renewable energy, but where do we start? And so part of the reason we developed the community power toolkit was to help people answer that question, “Where do we start? What can we do?” And it’s also a convenient library for me and for the staff on the energy program so that when we get that question, we don’t have to dredge it up from our memory or hand over a 30 page document for someone to read that we can say, “Hey go engage with this a little bit, click around, hear some of the stories of what communities are doing, and then we can still have a conversation with you if that’s helpful to help you continue to move forward some ideas in your community.”

Hibba Meraay: That’s awesome. I think one of my favorite parts of the toolkit, like you mentioned, is the multimedia component. So we have a lot of episodes of our Local Energy Rules podcast in there and then just videos and other things. Why did you decide to integrate those audio visuals into it and how do you think that’s more helpful to folks then maybe just a fact sheet or a traditional report?
John Farrell: I think what’s challenging about traditional reports, and don’t get me wrong, we’ve done plenty of them and I really admire work that has been done by other folks. There’s actually a terrific, quite lengthy report on city action on climate by the Cadmus Group. Some folks that I respect very well for their work with local communities. The details, a lot of the same things that are in our toolkit. But what is missing from there is that it’s sometimes hard when you are reading a report that is explaining how you do something to really understand what were the dynamics that took place about how that happened. Like how did people come to making those decisions? Or what were they thinking about at the time? Or who was involved in the decision making process? Or even what person in a city government makes the decision about making the city have electric vehicles for its fleet or putting solar on buildings?

And so what I think our toolkit does that’s really helpful is that because we include these interviews with actual folks from those cities who have either been pushing from the outside or who are inside city government, we help answer some of those questions just by having them on the air. And then we get a chance to have them explain why was it that you were interested in doing this particular thing? Why do you want to electrify the fleet vehicles in your city? Why do you want to do solar on the rooftop of your buildings? And we also get to address some of the challenges that came up in that in more of an organic conversational format rather than the dry format that you have in a report. And I think really what it is is that our toolkit is a compliment to those other resources that are available.

So I wouldn’t say it replaces the need to go out and do more reading and understand the details of some of these things. In effect, we provide some of that information and I think others do as well. But what I hope that it does is give you a chance to understand how these kinds of decisions and things take place in a different way. It also is not linear, so I don’t have to go through our multimedia toolkit, the community power toolkit, starting at the beginning and clicking my way all the way through it. In fact, it’s really not designed to be viewed in that way. When you land on it, there are five different options right off the top to let you dive into different sections about how cities might take action, like from raising money or changing rules about local policy or setting goals.

And then within each of those areas is where you can start to tap into the different stories. So I really like that it gives people a way to both dive in in a particular way without having to read through an entire report, but also get that conversational tone, get that chance to understand how communities come to make these decisions.

Hibba Meraay: Yeah, I think like you said, this is like a choose your own adventure game. You know those those books you had when you were younger and you get to skip forward to whatever chapter after making some decision.
John Farrell: The good news is nobody dies in any adventure that you choose in this one.
Hibba Meraay: Correct. Correct. I think actually the worst outcome is that if people don’t take action on clean energy, eventually that’s going to get all of us. So yeah, I think it’s a great new resource and like you said, a compliment and a good library for different things that we’ve put out, including the podcast, including different videos and reports. So I wanted to ask you more about the focus on climate. So when we were trying to push out the toolkit and when we talk about it, we talk a lot about the intersection between energy policy and climate policy and I feel like those connections aren’t always very clearly made in the mainstream media or policy space. How do you feel about that and why is it important to link the work you do around energy, democracy to climate change at this moment in time?
John Farrell: Well, obviously we have a climate crisis that we’re facing down and we need to take action quickly and so it’s important to understand where are the biggest places that we can have an impact. It’s funny what you say about the media not necessarily making the connection between energy and climate, because since I live in this space of talking about energy and climate, everything I read about climate change to me has some sort of energy twist on it. You look at the wildfires that are happening in California right now and there’s a very direct connection, right? The wildfires are causing them to shut off the power grid to avoid spreading more wildfires. But they’re also calling this very important question, which is, how do we still have an energy system that works for us that delivers this essential service to us at a time when climate change is threatening how that system operates?

And it won’t just be wildfires, of course it will be hurricanes and floods and all of this kind of stuff. And there’s a really robust conversation happening right now because of what’s happening in California about how do you build an electrical grid that is more resilient, that allows people to still have access to this essential service even when climate induced wildfires or other natural disasters are threatening that system? So there’s a very direct connection in terms of the way that energy infrastructure is threatened by climate and therefore, we need to be thinking about that. But also the fact that energy infrastructure can either force further climate change or it can help mitigate climate change.

And that’s where I think this conversation gets so interesting is that we can talk about in cities, we have tons of energy infrastructure in cities. I mean if you just walk around a few blocks, you’re going to see power lines most likely running down the alley in your community if not, if you live in a suburb or or what not, they might be underground but they’re still there and they’ll come up through the ground to connect to that meter on the outside of your house. So that infrastructure is there. There are pipelines under the streets, you’ll see that when they’re doing street work. In fact, there are some photos on our website that are actually pictures from my neighborhood where they have just recently been upgrading a natural gas main and so they had the street torn up for several months in a row as they were replacing this huge chunk of energy infrastructure and of course, natural gas, or as we more appropriately call it fracked gas, since that’s the technique that is most often used to extract it, has a really significant climate impact.

Not just when we burn it in our homes in terms of carbon dioxide emissions, but of course, most of what is in gas is methane, which is a very, very potent greenhouse gas. And so the idea behind the toolkit is to help people understand there is a really big connection between energy and climate, not only in the fact that the infrastructure that we count on for our daily lives is threatened by climate change, but also that by changing that infrastructure, we can mitigate climate change. So we can use clean energy like solar and wind power, but we can even do it at a localized level so that we have less of a threat to our infrastructure. So we’re going to have a podcast published pretty soon on the Local Energy Rules Podcast. It’s for our energy program where we talk with the CEO of the Kohai Island Electric Cooperative and he talks about how this is literally an island so they have to be totally self sufficient for their electricity and how they are shifting to solar power and to batteries because it will make them more resilient in the event of natural disasters like hurricanes and also more resilient because they won’t be subject to disruptions in their fuel supply because they have been so reliant for so many decades on imported oil in order to provide energy to their communities. So this is a way for them to not only deal with the impacts of climate change but also to mitigate it. And I just think that is the community power tool kit then is helping people understand that there is stuff we can do right here in my neighborhood, in my city that helps to make those connections.

Hibba Meraay: I really like what you said about kind of like folks having a choice, right? Energy infrastructure impacts climate change. So whether it helps to mitigate it or whether it accelerates it, it’s up to people and what we do at the local level and what we choose to have our municipal governments do. So I think that sums up nicely what we’re about and I think it’s time for an ad break.

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Okay, so we’re back with John Farrell talking about the new and improved community power toolkit. John, how does the toolkit lend itself to action? Like how can normal people use it to bring about change in their community?

John Farrell: Well, I think what the toolkit is going to do is it’s not going to do the work for you, right? Like it is a bunch of stories about how this has happened in other places. So what I would hope would happen, what I see as sort of the path between what this resource is and how people use it is, you know, somebody is motivated to do something at the local level about climate change. Whether that’s an elected official, somebody in a city sustainability office, maybe it’s an activist who’s been working on climate in their community. They can share this with the person who is going to be doing decision making. So if it’s an activist, maybe it’s about organizing a community group to put pressure on their city to take action and this will help them to articulate, “Hey, you know what? The reason that we want to organize and push our city to do something is that cities can do a lot.”

If there’s nothing else that you take away from this toolkit, I hope it’s the lesson that cities have a lot of power that they can exercise to address climate change, to build local energy systems, to keep more of the energy dollars in the community. And so that’s one piece of it. You know, I hope that it can also be a resource for elected officials and for city staff folks to understand, “Hey, there’s lots of other examples of people doing this. I don’t have to reinvent the wheel. I don’t have to come up with the first and most original climate mitigation plan for our city. We can look at these stories of what’s happening in other cities.”

And frankly, a lot of the people I interviewed on this podcast are like, “Hey, people can call me up and ask questions. I’m happy to help.” And so we’re happy if folks want to contact us and say, “Hey, I just listened to this podcast interview that was through the toolkit, or I read this story. I’d really love to talk to the person that you interviewed. I want to talk to Leon McGee down in Louisiana about how her city made a one hundred percent renewable energy commitment, or I want to talk to the guy from Austin Energy, Carl Popham and understand how did their city utility do this public charging program for $4 a month to allow you to do an unlimited charging on their public electric vehicle charger network.”

We can introduce you to those folks, we’d be happy to connect you. And they are really interested in being helpful and having their story shared and seeing more of what they’re doing done in their community. And so that’s the kind of way that we see it happening. And it’s funny because I think, you know, certainly foundations that support our program and others often ask us, “Well how do you know that what you’re doing is having an impact?”

And I guess what I would say is, we do our best to sort of map where these things are happening. We’re going to continue to add to the toolkit. So maybe right now there’s one story about this electric vehicle charger network, but by next year maybe we’ll have two or three stories so that people can see how these things are happening in different places. And what I am excited to do is to make sure that there’s always an opportunity for people to dig deeper to find more information. And maybe not everybody that uses our toolkit gives us a call or sends us an email or tells us their story. But we know from the advocates that we’ve worked with, whether it’s Sierra Club and they’re Ready for 100 campaign or NAACP and the way that they’re trying to help people develop community-based energy projects that folks are interested in the information we have and want to use it, they just might not always report back.

It’s the same problem an app developer has on an app store. They want to get you to review their product if you really like it. So they are doing all sorts of things to nag you. We’re just not much of nags at the Institute for Local Self Reliance.

Hibba Meraay: I think. Although if you listen to any podcast episodes that Chris hosted, he is a little bit more in that style. But yeah, on a more serious note, I think it’s a great plug for folks to reach out to us and be in touch with us if they want to be connected, like you said, to people that are showcased in the toolkit. I think also I would venture to say that if you feel like your story should be added, then you should reach out to us as well. Because like you said, John, the toolkit is not something that it’s like one and done, it’s going to be growing and more stories will be added as we find them. So there are over actually 20 tested tools and strategies that communities can use. So what are some of your favorites or maybe like the more popular ones that you see communities implementing, John?
John Farrell: I can have two favorites in the toolkit, although frankly everything we included in there, we included for the reason that it was, we thought, an important tool that communities could use and one that is accessible to most places. So the first one is just, we have a section in there called Raise Money. When you first open the toolkit, it’s one of the buttons and it’s really this question about how do you have the financial resources to execute local climate action, local clean energy development. And I think this is an important issue because anytime you talk to a city, there’ll be like, “Well, we’re so strapped for cash, we just don’t have the resources to do stuff.”

And you know, how do we find the resources in order to address this pressing public, global problem, that also has significant local impacts. And the story that we share in that section, the primary story that we share is about Edina, Minnesota.

So it’s a suburb of Minneapolis and St Paul, you know, 40, 50,000 people. And what they did is they have, and most cities in Minnesota have, what’s called a franchise fee on their utility bills. So people who live in Edina pay a small fee for the electricity and the gas that they consume in that community and that money goes to the general fund in the city. And the basic concept behind a franchise fee is that you are recovering the cost of fixing up the infrastructure once the utility does work on it. So I gave that example just earlier in the podcast about the gas company in my community digging up the streets in order to replace the gas mains. Well the streets have to be put back together again. And part of what that money from the franchise fee is intended for is to help communities rebuild the public infrastructure that’s disrupted when energy infrastructure has to be fixed or replaced or constructed.

But what you can do it with it is really up to the city. And so a franchise fee covers those costs, but it doesn’t have to just cover those costs. And what Edina did is said, “We’re going to raise our franchise fee by a little bit. And the money that we get from that we are going to use to help finance a clean energy improvements in our community.” You know, use is as a loan loss reserve that would help us lend out money to homes and businesses that want to make energy improvements to lower their energy bills. To put clean energy, like solar, on the rooftop of public buildings, et cetera. And we’re seeing other cities pick up on that notion. So Minneapolis, Minnesota has also done the same thing. I actually was just at a meeting this week with folks in the city about how do we allocate that money.

I’m on an advisory committee to that group talking about how do we find like most like high impact way the city can invest those resources. And it’s funny because in Minneapolis we’re talking about more than $2 million a year, not necessarily a small amount of money. And yet we’re still talking about feeling like we’re barely able to scratch the surface of the challenge that’s in front of us. So you know there’s a good place to go for resources and franchise fees are there. There’s another story in that same section of the toolkit about Portland, Oregon, which just passed a clean energy and climate program, there’s this through a sales tax and that will raise $30 million a year. So the important thing is to note that cities have these ways of accessing more money through their tax system, through their fees system, et cetera, and you can make a one-to-one connection here. I mean, the amount of money that we pay for energy on our bills is generally relative to how much energy we are consuming from fossil fuels.

Most of the electricity we use, most of the gas that we’re using is contributing to climate change, is causing pollution in our community that’s having poor health effects, et cetera. Charging more for it is a good thing, especially if we use that money to help people save money by switching to cleaner energy or by using less energy. So it’s a really powerful link and a great story I think to share.

The other one that I really like in our toolkit is really just actually the whole section called First Steps because it highlights the things that cities can do on city property or just for the municipal enterprise, for the city itself, not for businesses and residents, but basically easy ways to get started where you have lots of authority over as a city, right? A city can decide where it gets its energy from. It can put solar on a rooftop. It can change out light bulbs to LEDs.

The city can decide what vehicles it’s going to use for its employees, if it has a fleet vehicles, and switch those to electric ones to lower maintenance costs and fuel costs. And the city can put solar on its buildings and basically say that when we build a new building, we’re going to put solar on it or that we’re going to make it be a net zero building or a passive building in terms of its energy use. So lots of opportunities in ways cities can exercise that authority, and we have good stories of the financial benefits to cities of doing that and kind of some explanation of how cities went about that that I think can be really helpful.

Hibba Meraay: I think you highlighted really nicely kind of the breadth of the toolkit, right, so we’ve got stories in there about, like if you’re just starting out first steps, kind of like low hanging fruit that cities can take action on and then there’s more complicated things like financing and other examples. I think we did do an episode on the Portland example that you mentioned and that was awhile back so we can link to that on the show page for this episode and also we’ll definitely link to the toolkit and so that people actually have a place to check it out.

I want to come back to kind of like the wider policy space and talk a little bit about what are your thoughts, John, on like people in policy designing interactive tool kits like this? Are you going to try it more often? Are there other similar kind of interactive resources that you’ve seen that work really well out there?

John Farrell: This is a good question. I haven’t seen a lot of interactive tools like this. There are some tools out there around, for example helping an individual that wants to put solar on their home. For example, look at a satellite map and identify if their house would be good for solar. I’ve seen a couple of city-owned utilities do these like thermal imaging flyovers or using drones and taking pictures of homes and businesses on like a really cold day and they like light up like Christmas trees with the infrared camera to identify what homes could really benefit from energy efficiency improvements.

And then they like put that online so that you can see which homes are the ones that are the leakiest and most in need of help. There’s some tricky things about like what’s public and what’s private data in that and kind of, you don’t want to shame people because a lot of the people who have a leaky home might just simply not have the financial resources to deal with that, and in fact that’s part of what we work on is how do we help solve that problem? How do communities address this issue of helping people who do not have the money upfront to make energy improvements, given that unlike a car or anything else that people going to invest money in, energy improvements usually pay back.

They lower your energy costs, they produce clean energy from your rooftop, they can help repay those loans. That’s why we work on a policy called Inclusive Energy Financing, which I don’t think is in this version of the toolkit. It was in our original version and we haven’t yet designed the multimedia feature that’s going to cover it, but we do have a homepage on our website that both shares a report that we’ve published on it, a short video explaining it, etc. That’s really important. So I guess what I’d say is there’s not a lot of other interactive things out there.

I think it’s a lot easier to write a 30-page report than it is to try to put it into this kind of interactive and multimedia format, and we were aware that there are plenty of reports covering a lot of the issues that we work on already and this was, we thought, a more accessible and more valuable way to spend our time, was to give people a way to connect into this, and so we do have plans to do more of this. We have two extra, two other sections in the original toolkit. One looked at how you can make changes through a utility company, so that’s where we talked about inclusive energy financing. That’s where we’ve talked about like rebates and other incentives that utilities can offer.

You can still access that version of the toolkit with those resources on the toolkit page if you kind of scroll down, and there’s a link back to the legacy version, and then there’s also a community facing version that talks about things that you can do as a community member. We talk about things like solarize campaigns that communities have done where you try to get a bunch of people to put solar on their roof at the same time, kind of buying in bulk, or doing even community-owned renewable energy projects, which we produced a really nice 30-minute video for the NAACP’s Just Energy toolkit, which I highly recommend as a resource for looking at community-renewable energy, but we are hopefully going to put that together as well so that video, which we already have on our website with an interview with Timothy DenHerder-Thomas of Cooperative Energy Futures, would be there along with other resources that we’d build out as we put that together.

That’s probably coming, I’d say, early next year. We have some other projects right now in the pipeline, but I definitely intend to continue to develop this because we think that it’s really important that we make this stuff accessible to folks who aren’t prepared to read 50 pages.

Hibba Meraay: I think you’re right. I think, like you said, it takes a lot of time and kind of like more specialized graphic design skills to put these resources together, but ultimately I think they have more reach and people can kind of pick and choose. And also I hope that folks that maybe aren’t inclined to read a traditional 30-page report are inclined to kind of click through a toolkit. So I’m excited to see what you have in store. I want to give you a chance to just add anything that we might’ve missed about the toolkit or otherwise.
John Farrell: I just wanted to flag one thing. We’re talking on our Building Local Power podcast. ILSR has several other podcasts but most relevant to this, we have our Local Energy Rules podcast, which is also published biweekly, and I just wanted to flag that a lot of the resources that are in the toolkit are in that podcast. So if you’re not inclined to sit down for 10 to 15 minutes and engage with the toolkit, but you are interested in the stories of what’s happening, you can just subscribe to that podcast in addition to the Building Local Power podcast and hear a lot of the same information and hear a lot of those stories of how communities are pushing ahead.

And we’ve got a special, Voices of 100%, in a series right now where we’re specifically talking to communities that have made commitments to 100% renewable energy and are wrestling with this issue of where we get started. So very much related to the resources that we have in the toolkit, so I definitely encourage people. There’s lots of different ways to connect. You can still read our reports. We have them, they’re long, but filled with lots of graphics. You can check out our toolkit to get an interactive flavor or you can just listen along in our podcasts.

Hibba Meraay: Great. Lots of options. So the toolkit is a great resource if you’re looking to take action on clean energy or climate. I think we have done a lot of talking about it, so now all that’s left is for you to check it out yourself. So thanks so much John for joining us.
John Farrell: Thanks. You bet.
Hibba Meraay: Thank you all for tuning into this episode of the Building Local Power podcast from the Institute for Local Self-Reliance. You can find all the links to what we discussed today, including the community power tool kit at on the show page for this episode. That’s While you’re there, you can sign up for one of our many newsletters and connect with us on social media.

We would also super appreciate if you could help us out by rating and reviewing this podcast. It really helps more people find the show. This show is produced by Lisa Gonzales and me, Hibba Meraay. Our theme music is Funk Interlude by Dysfunction_AL. For the Institute for Local Self-Reliance, I’m Hibba Meraay and I hope you join us again in two weeks for the next episode of Building Local Power.


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Audio Credit: Funk Interlude by Dysfunction_AL Ft: Fourstones – Scomber (Bonus Track). Copyright 2016 Licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution Noncommercial (3.0) license.

Photo Credit: Marvin Hayes, Baltimore Compost Collective 

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