Planning for a Post-Carbon World
Book Review: The Citizen-Powered Energy Handbook by Greg Pahl
Greg Pahl's new book, The Citizen-Powered Energy Handbook, is a bit like James Howard Kunstler, celebrated doomsday environmentalist, meeting Tim Allen, fix-it guy from the long-running television series "Home Improvement."
Pahl, who has lived in the Champlain Valley since the 1980s and is president of the 3-year-old Vermont Biofuels Association, has surveyed the early tremors of the impending peak-oil crisis. He understands that "the time for action is now." In fact, he envisions this, his fifth book, as a "logical extension" of Kunstler's best-selling The Long Emergency.
At the outset of this non-technical layman's guide, Pahl assesses America's energy situation with plainspoken über-fatalism. "The [inevitable] crash of the U.S. economy could be spectacular - and terrifying," he writes. "Most Americans simply won't be able to believe that it is happening."
Europeans and Canadians do understand the scope of the problem, according to Pahl. They've been developing renewable technologies for decades, leaving America behind to wallow in its own acid rain.
To jumpstart the reader's imagination, Pahl highlights cooperative wind, hydro, solar and geothermal energy projects from around the world. "I have traveled extensively [around Germany], and can say from personal experience that wind farms there are simply amazing," he claims with a hint of turbine-envy.
Ever the energy connoisseur, Pahl recently took a page from the Europeans' book: He has a Danish wood-pellet burner - sleek, low-maintenance, clean-burning - in his basement. It's one of only a handful this side of the Atlantic, he boasts during a recent visit to his home in Weybridge.
If he likes what they're doing in Denmark so much, why not just move there - buy a road bike and a Euro-rail pass, maybe a sunny flat in Copenhagen?
"My going there isn't going to help them any," Pahl says. "We might as well stay here and get to work, as we've got a lot of catching up to do."
Pahl doesn't mince words. In a tone that reflects an endearing, if occasionally manic, obsession with sustainable solutions ("My personal relationship with biomass heat - and cordwood - has been a long one"), the book explains all the basics of terms you've never heard of, let alone tried to pronounce. (Cellulosic ethanol and enzymatic hydrolysis sound like things to keep away from the kids.)
If The Citizen-Powered Energy Handbook is a wistful ode to democratic socialism, it's also a celebration of Vermont's role as America's renewable-energy pace setter. Every chapter of Pahl's book brims with local success stories: The Winooski One Project, Burlington's McNeil Generation Plant and NRG Systems in Hinesburg, among others, deserve praise for their commitment to green innovation, he insists.
But kicking a global oil addiction isn't so simple. "There are no perfect solutions, only imperfect solutions in an imperfect world," Pahl writes. "In my view, the challenge we're facing is so large that the response needs to be equally broad in scope."
This means communities themselves - local governments, energy utilities, citzens' groups - should pull together on a municipal scale if they hope to sidestep the pitfalls of peak oil.
Pahl calls his theory CSE, or Community-Supported Energy. This is similar to community-supported agriculture, except that "instead of investing in carrots, tomatoes or chicken, local residents invest in greater energy security and a cleaner environment," he writes.
Socially conscious citizens should embrace CSE cautiously, though, Pahl warns. Some community-based energy schemes "can simply end up substituting one form of corporate dominance for another." On the other hand, a true CSE that's locally owned and financed "keeps local energy dollars circulating."
In Weybridge, Pahl is doing his part to grow a healthy local economy in Addison County. Sure, he has his Danish wood burner in the basement, solar panels on the roof and a new Toyota Prius in the garage, but the principles of CSE demand that he cooperate with neighbors to develop a more comprehensive strategy for achieving energy independence.
That explains why Pahl helped to found ACORN - the Addison County Relocalization Network. The Middlebury-based group, which styles itself as "a cooperative response to an energy-constrained future," takes its lead from the Vancouver-based Post Carbon Institute, an international grassroots coalition of more than 100 similar initiatives.
Last September, ACORN partnered with other organizations around Vermont to organize the "Localvore Challenge" - a grassroots campaign to support locally oriented eating. And Pahl, who serves as the group's vice president, will soon hear from the USDA about a $35,000 Rural Business Enterprise grant that would help finance an ACORN-directed renewable-energy feasibility study for Addison County.
"My book and ACORN evolved together and informed each other," he asserts.
ACORN President Ron Slabaugh, for one, is happy to have Pahl around. "From his research, Greg knows a lot about what is working in community energy production around the world," Slabaugh says. "[His] approach is particularly helpful in these times where most people don't realize" the scope of the challenge we face.
Ross Conrad, CFO at Middlebury's Vermont Soapworks and a beekeeper on the side, attends ACORN meetings periodically. He says the group couldn't have formed at a better time. "If we don't find that the direction our society is moving in is the right one, then we need to make changes in our own lives," he notes.
Pahl has managed to mobilize lots of like-minded individuals "to work with people and governments to implement various infrastructural changes," Conner adds. "ACORN will make the future easier to live in."
Life after peak oil will be "small-scale, diversified and decentralized," Conner continues. But compared with other states, Vermont will be in a good position to "mobilize for its future," thanks to its existing civic structures.
Pahl agrees. He considers renewable technology a "step in the right direction," but warns, "it's not enough." Only through "coordinated community responses" can Vermonters prepare to navigate the downward slope of a peak-oil curve," he suggests. "I stay hopeful by being involved in projects rather than sitting around, waiting for the sky to fall."