Front Porch Blog

Community-Owned Electricity Gets A Breath of Fresh AIRE

By Jamie Goodman and Jeff Deal

Why is there so little renewable energy in Central and Southern Appalachia?

It was this question that launched the Appalachian Institute of Renewable Energy (AIRE), a grassroots organization working to promote and provide renewable and community-owned energy in Appalachia.

One of AIRE’s primary programs is the Community Megawatt Initiative, which seeks to create significant community-owned solar electricity generation in Appalachia. Stage one of the project is to produce enough clean green electricity for 224 energy efficient Appalachian homes. Last July, AIRE installed a pilot system, consisting of 2.4-kilowatts of solar photovoltaic panels in Boone, N.C.; the group is working with that town’s civic and business leaders to develop an additional 40-kilowatts by the end of 2010.

The group also plans to incorporate community-scale wind projects in the future, and will focus on systems ranging from a single 600 kilowatt wind turbine up to three 2 megawatt turbines. The community-owned model places emphasis on the benefits of local control; the size and scope of wind projects are to be determined by the community rather than by utility companies or institutional investors.

AIRE is currently developing innovative financial models which will allow community members to participate in and become part owners of a community wind or solar electric/photovoltaic installations. Even those with limited household budgets will be able to be an owner participant in these renewable energy developments.

“We need to reduce the scale of our energy production to the point where we can participate in its ownership, where we can have control, enjoy its economic benefits and be producers instead of mere consumers,” said Steve Owen, Executive Director of AIRE. “And to do all of that, we’re going to need to understand how to organize communities financially, how to engage in the permitting and policy worlds, and how to change the rules.”

The AIRE team works constantly to educate Appalachian communities about the benefits of locally produced renewable energy, and seeks to facilitate dialogue with residents in Appalachian coal producing and coal consuming regions about the alternatives to largely coal dependent electric generation policies.

“There is much talk about the ‘cheap’ electricity and energy available in central and southern Appalachia, but often these discussions do not include the rampant poverty and economic depression in Appalachian “coal field” communities,” Owen said, “not to mention the environmental devastation levied on the health of our region’s air, water, and forests by mountaintop removal coal mining and heavy coal consumption.”

“AIRE seeks to cultivate the green energy economy in our beautiful Appalachia,” he concluded. “It is our goal to unshackle our communities from the unsustainable environmental damage and economic stagnation of our heavily fossil fuel dependent energy policy.”

For more information about AIRE, visit aire-nc.org or call 828-262-5022. To read about their Community Megawatt Initiative, visit aire-nc.org/community-megawatt

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