Production and Circulation of Value in Community Energy Initiatives

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* Article: DOTSON T.C. & J.E. WILCOX (2016). Generating Community, Generating Justice? The production and circulation of value in community energy initiatives, Revista Teknokultura Vol. 13(2), 511-540.



"In this paper, we explore the potentialities and interconnections between existing and hypothetical community energy systems and the concept of generative justice. New York State’s more recent official energy plan, for instance, includes provisions for community-scale microgrids, and several European nations offer significant financial support to citizens interested in building micro and intermediate-scale renewable energy systems. Such efforts and technologies appear to promise some degree of generative justice, returning much of the value generated by distributed renewable energy back to the community producing it.

However, most currently conceived and implemented community energy systems recirculate value in very narrow and limited ways. Building upon an analysis of New York energy policy and on-the-ground cases, we explore community energy’s potential. What kinds of value are being generated by community energy systems and for whom? How could such efforts be more generative of justice across a broad range of values, not just electrons and dollars? Through the attempt to broaden thinking not only about community energy systems but also the concept of generative justice, we connect technological and organizational configurations of community energy systems and the forms of value they have the potential to generate: including, the production of grassroots energy and organizational expertise, the capacity for local and personal autonomy in energy planning and decision-making, and the enhancement of an affective sense and embodied experience of community. Finally, we examine some of the barriers to realizing more generatively just community energy systems." (


Forms and flows of value in community energy systems


"For most of the 20th century, ownership and operation of electricity generation equipment has largely been limited to large organizations with access to financial capital, and later, individual homes living “off the grid.” State policies requiring public utilities to purchase renewable energy produced by small, distributed systems were adopted in the 1980s, in the wake of the energy crises of the 1970s. Since that time, the vast majority of renewable energy installations in the US have been grid-connected to take advantage of net metering policies. As grid connectivity has become the norm, the cost of photovoltaic solar panels –hereafter shortened to “solar photovoltaics,” or simply abbreviated as “solar PV”– has fallen, the solar installation industry has matured, and system resilience has become a policy priority (St. John, 2014), the next frontier of “retail” energy has moved to community-scale energy systems. A range of actors, from grassroots environmental organizations to large “cleantech” firms and many in between, have called for policymakers to provide greater support for community energy.

As mentioned above, the definition of community energy is difficult to pin down, but the three specific models that appear most frequently in energy industry, policymaking, and advocacy accounts are

1) collective solar PV purchasing campaigns;

2) shared renewable energy installations; and

3) microgrids.

The first, often referred to as the “Solarize” model, involves a limited-time campaign, usually run by local officials, advocacy groups, or civil society organizations, during which rooftop solar installations are offered to customers at a discount. Solarize organizers set an installation goal, prepare and issue a request for proposals, and select a solar installation contractor on the basis of criteria such as system price (often treated as the most important), system quality, experience and, if desired, other community benefits, such as offering apprenticeships to local residents or meeting a wage standard. The organizers then carry out their campaign –which is usually run at the neighborhood level, with organizers tabling at local events and holding information sessions at libraries– to create local interest and convert interest to installations. Solarize initiatives are usually structured in such a way that the price for all participants is reduced once a certain participation goal is met. The profile of the Solarize model has risen as local officials in a number of states publishing case studies in coordination with the US Department of Energy’s Sunshot Initiative, which has released a report in support of the model (Myers, Hart, & Hofmeyer, 2012; Irvine, Sawyer, & Grove, 2011). Solarize programs routinely exceed their installation goals, and a typical campaign often results in a locality increasing its total PV installations by over 100 percent. The Solarize model uses grassroots mobilization to promote the diffusion of a well-established sociotechnical configuration--privately owned, onsite PV –with the enthusiastic support of policymakers and the solar industry.

The second model, shared renewables, remains less common, despite increasing interest among some policymakers and advocates. Most shared renewable systems in the US are large solar PV arrays, due to greater flexibility in siting and permitting, as well as a decreased likelihood of public opposition when compared to wind development (Coughlin et al., 2012). Shared solar development has not seen the same widespread growth of the Solarize model; this relatively slow growth is generally attributed to the increased complexity it demands. Indeed, because of their larger size and novel ownership structure, shared systems have to navigate the murky waters of incorporation, siting, and permitting in a way that private, Solarize installations do not. Shared systems, however, offer the possibility of energy generation ownership to a much wider public. Participation in Solarize projects is limited to those who own property that receives adequate sunlight and who (most likely) do not anticipate moving or replacing their roof any time soon. Shared systems would be accessible to everyone else: renters, property owners not meeting the criteria above, and anyone who simply does not want to site energy generating equipment on or adjacent to his or her home. Interestingly, shared solar is not often promoted through grassroots mobilization strategies, perhaps because the socio-technical configuration of shared solar is not yet well-aligned with existing energy governance regimes, resulting in barriers to adoption.

The third model of community energy, microgrids, are exactly as they sound: energy systems designed to provide heat and power for a localized area and operate in conjunction with or isolated from larger energy infrastructures as conditions dictate (Bourgeois et al., 2015). From the perspective of the larger electricity grid, microgrids act as a single unit, either importing or exporting electricity.

Microgrids operate at a higher order of complexity than shared solar systems because they

1) can involve both heating and electricity, often produced through district heating and cogeneration; and

2) involve aligning generation capacity and system load.

As would be expected given this level of complexity, microgrids are the least common model of community energy: At the time of this writing, no community owned microgrids are in operation in the US.

Each of these models of community energy holds the potential to generate multiple forms of value beyond the standard paradigm of dollars flowing to individual, private consumers. Community energy systems could help to generate multiple forms of value, ranging from economic, environmental, and resiliency values, to more novel forms, such as the establishment of thick community, local expertise, and capacities for community governance, experimentation, and the enactment of social and environmental values." (

Energy Investment Districts


"Alternative institutional designs, such as Energy Investment Districts (EIDs) (Center for Social Inclusion, 2014), can be permitted by the authority to levy fees or taxes according to a variety of models, potentially including socioeconomically progressive provisions that would enhance the inclusivity of community energy efforts. EIDs or comparable institutional structures also have the capacity to receive state, federal, or philanthropic funding for clean energy transitions that would have previously been channeled to larger bureaucratic organizations or directly to individuals as incentives. Such entities could become institutional intermediaries, ensuring that both financial inputs and returns are administered and reinvested for collective benefit. Such an organizational design could provide additional economic benefits to a given community by supporting the local economy and creating just and meaningful employment and livelihood opportunities. Most importantly, this institutional form could be applied to any technical manifestation: rooftop solar, shared renewables, and microgrids." (

From the conclusion: toward more generatively just community energy systems

"We have focused our discussion on the models of community energy most commonly discussed and promoted by a diverse set of actors: collective purchasing, shared systems, and microgrids. Throughout this discussion we have referred to forms of value that could flow from and through community energy systems. These include economic, environmental, and resiliency values, as well as more novel forms, such as the establishment of thick community, local expertise, and capacities for community governance and experimentation, and the enactment of social and environmental values. It is important to note that none of these models is mutually exclusive to any other. An “all of the above” community energy strategy likely carries very little opportunity costs or other forms of risk. But we think that it is important to imagine and articulate a model of a generatively just, thickly communitarian energy system to guide and evaluate efforts in this domain. It is also key to point out that, at present in the US, no project comes close to realizing more than a fraction of these value streams.

In any case, community energy systems face a number of barriers to their implementation. Most significantly is the current regulatory vacuum for small to intermediate-scale and decentralized energy infrastructure. State policies in the US leave a great deal of uncertainty regarding the legal and regulatory status of microgrids and community energy systems (Morgan & Zerriffi, 2002; King, 2006). Are they permitted? Are they subject to the same regulations as public utilities? How should they be connected to the larger grid and other utility infrastructure? Such uncertainties enable local utilities to block decentralized energy production through expensive interconnection studies and requirements for potentially unnecessary equipment (Tongsopit & Haddad, 2007, p. 326). Moreover, municipal codes frequently do not recognize community-scale energy infrastructure and thus do not address if and how they can be erected in neighborhoods (Wiseman & Bronin, 2013). Creating more room for community energy systems within state and municipal policy is the first step for ensuring their broader realization.

Even if better accommodated and sanctioned in policy and governance regimes, the expertise needed to design, build, and operate community energy systems is either inaccessible to community energy advocates or lacking altogether. Communities interested in

The production and circulation of value in community energy initiatives developing sophisticated, shared community energy systems may soon find that they are in need of extensive legal and engineering expertise. New York State is beginning to address these barriers by offering planning assistance to communities interested in developing community solar and microgrids through organizations like the New York State Energy Research and Development Authority (NYSERDA). However, the diversity of expertise on offer in these new programs has yet to be demonstrated, and they do not focus on building the more broad-based expertise needed to both build support for and guide development of community energy projects. Indeed, the hybrid forms of expertise that can be generated through participation in community energy systems are also necessary to develop the first wave of community energy. Developing this expertise and providing it to communities is a key area around which local, state, and federal policies can be oriented.

Like any other capital-intensive project, community energy projects often face financial barriers. Certainly, the ability to raise funds through an EID or similar institution is helpful but may not be sufficient for many neighborhoods lacking a suitable reserve of wealth. In this area, distributive justice can be leveraged to “kickstart” more generatively just socio-technical configurations: bill surcharges and other funds mandated and collected by the state can be granted to collective institutions such as EIDs based on economic and environmental justice criteria. These funds can help to overcome the barriers associated with relatively high capital costs faced by community energy projects. More broadly, extending dedicated feed-in tariff carve-outs, low-interest loans, and tax credits to collective energy entities may help to lessen the financial risk community energy participants are exposed to. Given the tendency for most community energy projects to center around renewable resources like solar or bioenergy, carbon taxes and other forms of pollution penalties could disincentivize electricity from the fossil-powered macrogrid at the same that they raise funds that could be used to subsidize decentralized energy development.

Furthermore, community energy systems are likely to be vigorously opposed by entrenched energy actors and corporate conglomerates displeased with the competition. Efforts like Xcel’s multimillion dollar battle against Boulder, Colorado’s plans for municipalization of their energy infrastructure are suggestive of the kind of opposition to be expected against emerging community energy systems (Kroh, 2013). Favorable national-level policies could help but may not be forthcoming given the pervasiveness of regulatory capture –the undue influence of corporate and monied interests on government agencies– within the United States. Advocates of community energy systems, therefore, might best economize on their activist energies by focusing their collaborative efforts on working with rural energy cooperatives, which already serve some 42 million Americans.

Finally, subtle but not insignificant cultural barriers stand in the way of citizens’ desire and capacity to seek out communitarian projects. Some may be wary of the communitarian focus of these energy systems, given the patriarchical character of some traditional, communitycentric societies. Similarly, those habituated to the privatism afforded by networked living in affluent or so-called developed societies may find community-led forms of soft surveillance concerning their energy usage unsettling, despite their clear environmental benefits. Such cultural patterns and ways of thinking about the good social life are likely to influence the possibilities for realizing different forms of community energy. Hence, they are already a constituent of the dominant sociotechnical regime, constraining the potential for alternative energy futures.

These socioculturally constructed ideas about community and expectations for private living or unencumbered consumer liberty are likely to be deeply entrenched within the minds of many citizens, especially in the United States. As such, they may not be displaced by arguments pointing to the capacity for tolerance and respect for difference demonstrated among certain Native American communities and Quakers. Nor are they likely to be unseated by pointing out how turning to individualistic, bureaucratic institutions to provide the services previously offered by community often comes with new kinds of harms and injustices rather than unalloyed liberation. Contemporary North Americans, for instance, seem more likely to call on police to arrest parents who let their children play alone in local parks rather than keep an eye on their neighbor’s children for them (Olmstead, 2014). Populations that are interpreted as inconvenient rather than valuable in strongly individualistic societies, like the elderly, are often viewed as problems to be solved by being hidden away in old folk’s homes and similar spaces rather than integrated into social life. We make this observation, of course, not with the intention of downplaying or ignoring the existence of coercive and undesirably exclusionary form of collectivism, such as evangelical churches that demonize or attempt to forcibly “convert” gay teens. Our point, rather, is to suggest that more collective forms of life need not be so. More so, trotting out the cliché of intolerant community to dismiss possibilities for thick community out-of-hand denies recognition to those who suffer as a result of living in societies they regard as overly individualistic and anomic. Regardless, the wariness of some citizens regarding more communitarian social forms may only shift with incremental gains in successfully experimenting with and realizing strongly democratic thick communities that lack many of the pathologies that have affected many traditional ones.

The concept of generative justice helps to broaden thinking about the diversity of values that could be controlled by and recirculated within communities vis-à-vis appropriately-scaled energy infrastructure. We hope that the preceding analysis can serve as a first approximation of how a form of technology assessment explicitly aimed at evaluating technologies according to their “political ergonomics” (Winner, 1995) for generative justice might proceed. Moreover, in explicitly inquiring into the possibilities for, advantages of, and barriers to community-scale and community-governed energy infrastructures, we have sought to act as “thoughtful partisans” for such technologies and those who stand to benefit from them, helping to reimagine how technological societies could be “reconstructed” (Woodhouse, 2005) to be more generatively just. Readers who are at least partly persuaded of the utility of our approach would do well to consider some of the following questions within their own thinking and research: which sociotechnical system designs are more compatible with generating values like democracy, community and sustainability from the bottom-up? What are the barriers to realizing those technologies? How can such barriers be lessened? Seeking answers to such questions will help leverage the concept of generative justice into a focal point for imagining and strategizing how to incrementally realize alternative, more desirable futures."

More Information

  • BOURGEOIS, T., GEROW, J., LITZ, F., & MARTIN, N. (2015). Community microgrids: Smarter,

cleaner, greener. Pace Energy and Climate Center. Retrieved from <>.

  • CENTER FOR SOCIAL INCLUSION. (2014). Energy investment districts: Policy concept paper.

Retrieved from <>