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Think Globally, Power Up Locally
The "locavore" movement is big, especially in California. With the bounty of food found locally in the Bay Area, living off the land - and sea - is not only possible, but also a delicious exercise. But there's another, less obvious, revolution brewing here in the Bay Area: the "locavolt" movement.
In response to high gasoline and natural gas prices, global warming and an increasingly unstable, scary world, residents more than ever are looking to generate power right in their own homes and neighborhoods with free energy from nature.
Within the next year or so, the Bay Area may bolster its locavolt credentials with a California program that allows local governments to choose power supplies for their constituents. San Francisco, Oakland, Berkeley and Marin County are all investigating a plan that would allow them to stay with Pacific Gas and Electric Co. for billing, distribution and repair service, but allow local elected officials to choose more locally produced green power. In Marin County, for example, the long-term goal is 100 percent renewable energy.
Technology advances in computers, telecommunications, generators, inverters and even cars are all providing locavolts - both newbies and veterans - more tools to harness renewable energy and lead a fairly normal life.
Before long, plug-in hybrid cars in California will be able to serve as mini power generators for homes and store renewable energy from solar photovoltaic systems or small wind turbines. Plug-in hybrids also may help balance out a smarter electricity grid capable of easily sending power back and forth between generators and consumers, much like we send and receive e-mails on the Internet today.
There are many factions of locavolts. Boulder, Colo., and New York City represent the urban high-tech crowd, as does Silicon Valley. At the other extreme are folks in rural areas installing small wind turbines (not the giant machines in wind farms, but the small ones).
What about T. Boone Pickens and his massive $4 billion investment in wind power? Is he a locavolt, too? Purists would say no, but if one takes a broad national perspective, one could argue that giant wind farms sporting machines over 300 feet tall is still promoting home-grown energy, albeit Texas-style.
In Minnesota and Iowa, the preference is "community wind" projects owned exclusively by local farmers, schools and other neighbors. This more neighborly approach to being a locavolt is catching on in the Pacific Northwest and in Sacramento.
The locavolt movement actually has its roots in the '70s and '80s in places such as Mendocino County, where solar power was the best option for rural homesteads not yet connected to the electricity grid. Then, in the 1990s, solar costs decreased while state incentives for home and business installations increased.
Unlike the old-school purists, newer locavolts have cooperated with the local utility, using its grid as a backup when necessary. The downside to this arrangement is that when the utility grid goes down, so does the solar power system - and modern life as we know it.
One of the cutting-edge members of the locavolt movement in the Bay Area is Jerry Lunsford, who lives completely off-grid on less than 1 kilowatt of solar power on the outskirts of Point Reyes Station in Marin County. Lunsford works at the Dance Palace, a community center that literally sits on the San Andreas Fault on the edge of PG&E's grid.
Worried about the next power failure, which can last for days on end in his rural area, he installed the nation's first "solar safety net" last spring. The battery backup allows part of the solar power system to provide basic services - lights, telecommunications and refrigeration - when power goes out during emergencies. The rest of the time, he's connected to the grid like most everyone else.
"Self-reliance should be the goal here," Lunsford said. "Being responsible for our own electrical generation is a large part of the puzzle when it comes to global climate change."
Just up the road in Petaluma is Stubbs Winery, which brings the concepts of locavolt and locavore together. There, Mary and Tom Stubbs grow organic grapes to make premium wine. They live off-grid, completely powered by 2 kilowatts of wind and sun, consuming only 5 to 10 percent of the amount of energy of you or me. "I like the independent aspect of not being beholden to anybody," said Tom Stubbs.
He noted that being a locavolt isn't always fun. "Our best time for wind power production is spring, but our energy supplies are at their lowest in winter," he said. "I become a bit of a tyrant with our children, following behind them turning off lights."
Grid-connected solar power was the fastest-growing power source in the world over the past two years, expanding at a 50 percent clip. More than 1.5 million homes around the world now feature solar power systems feeding into the electricity grid. California's share of the U.S. grid-connected market is 60 percent, by far and away the national leader.
A study from Europe solar companies and Greenpeace projects that with strong government support, as much as 10 percent of the world's total population could be solar powered by 2030.
But just how many locavolts are really out there now? Is this just a California fad? There is no inventory of locavolts, but one thing is for sure: If they are to successfully challenge our status quo approach to powering up our lives, they still must:
-- Change existing regulations precluding the sharing of solar power with neighbors.
-- Access smarter energy storage systems.
-- Reduce the costs of solar power systems, currently the most expensive of all energy choices.
If truth be known, the technology is now available to secure up to 40 percent of our electricity from local, distributed renewable energy sources like wind and sun, if we stay connected and get creative with storage from batteries, cars and maybe fuel cells. Something tells me the locavolts are on to something big.