Changing Power Sources Starts With Changing Minds

Changing Power Sources Starts With Changing Minds: Melanie La Rosa

Last weekend was the 166th birthday of Nikola Tesla, the idiosyncratic Serbian American inventor well-known for his advocacy of alternating current, numerous inventions, and battles with former employer-turned-rival Thomas Edison. Alongside those of Edison and George Westinghouse, Tesla’s innovations are largely responsible for the electrical power system we use today. Like in Tesla’s time, calls for mass electrification still provoke debates, which is why reflecting on his legacy can provide insight into the many possible paths for electrical power production that exist.

States across the US are calling for deep structural changes to powering and heating buildings with goals that include sustainable energy; combating climate change; and withstanding hurricanes, blackouts, and floods. But what are the first steps to changing buildings, and how do we take them? We begin by changing our minds.

"In celebration of Tesla’s legacy, we need to remember there are more ways than one to create power."

In making my documentary film, How to Power a City, I followed 34 people, each leading a unique solar or wind project in their community. Of the locations filmed, the first was a 100% renewable energy-powered waste-water treatment center in New Jersey (where both Tesla and Edison lived). I then moved on to Las Vegas, the nation’s first large city to use 100% renewable energy for all city buildings. From there, I went to Vermont to document the nation’s most innovative utility; Highland Park, MI a community installing solar-powered streetlights; and in Queens for the passage of Renewable Rikers. I also followed groups in Puerto Rico creating off-grid solar rooftop arrays and forming coalitions to transform the island to 100% solar power after Hurricane Maria knocked down its power grid.

How To Power A City (trailer), July 15, 2022.

The through line? There were a few. For one, everyone leading these energy projects believes in the effective use of renewable power -- and they’re right. They also organized neighbors and workplaces, included public education about energy, and focused on what was within immediate reach, from a single outdoor yard light to an entire city. And the final one: several used community solar, a fast-evolving business model.

"Extreme weather will keep coming just as gas and oil prices will keep rising. But we have new options for energy that can mitigate these dangers in multiple ways..."

Traditionally, most people get solar power from rooftop arrays. With community solar, arrays are built on warehouses, large roofs, landfills, or in fields, and customers purchase solar energy through their regular utilities. The property owners can earn rent for the solar panels built on their land or buildings, and consumers can buy renewable power without installing panels on their rooftop. Sometimes, the community solar project is owned by a non-profit organization and priced significantly lower than market rates.

The top three states for community solar are Florida, Minnesota, and New York. But 80% of US states have some type of community-based energy project. In March, New York Governor Kathy Hochul called for a ten-fold increase in such projects in the state by 2030. This development and following plans like Cornells’ recent roadmap to a climate labor force could spur thousands of new jobs.

Bloomberg: Community Solar Is Bringing Renewable Energy to Everyone, March 23, 2021.

Now This: Should Every Rooftop Install Solar Panels?, September 21, 2020.

Community projects provide a way for everyone, from homeowners and renters to small businesses, to switch to clean energy immediately. It’s not just solar; community wind projects are also underway where conditions permit. While vastly expanding access to renewables, the numerous business models for community energy currently in development also create local jobs. 

In addition to changing energy sources, installing solar arrays or wind turbines changes infrastructure and makes for greater climate resiliency. When designed properly, a building with an attached solar array can "island off” from the power grid, meaning it will still have power shortly after a hurricane, wildfire, or power outage.

CNBC: How The U.S. Can Build A 100% Clean Grid, January 27, 2021.

TED: How to decarbonize the grid and electrify everything, John Doerr and Hal Harvey conversation on November 19, 2020.

Of course, there is much more to surviving extreme weather and addressing climate change than a few places switching to community solar or wind. Updating a building’s power system is only the first step toward larger-scale progress. For example, New York City contains approximately 1 million structures. Changing the city’s buildings is a task engulfed in complicated paperwork and permits, especially when it comes to older cities and buildings.

The calls for electrification also require more than renewable energy. Residential and commercial building owners need to pay for new clean energy technologies. There will be logistical hurdles and supply chain issues. The labor force will need to be trained, and the jobs will need to be good.

Recently, the New York City Council joined other cities in banning natural gas hookups to encourage the conversion to electricity for heating. President Biden has also signed two executive orders promoting heat pumps and upgrades to insulation as vital to national defense.

" Clean energy systems work. As Tesla once said, 'If you want to find the secrets of the universe, think in terms of energy, frequency, and vibration.'"

Still, policy challenges will continue. The New York State Assembly avoided voting on a bill allowing publicly-owned renewable energy. And the New York City Green New Deal is being challenged by a lawsuit from real-estate owners, which means New York’s Mayor Adams and City Council will have to enforce it.

By gathering stories from people who are changing their power systems, I was able to reframe my perceptions. One, the most powerful energy shift comes from people who desire to use energy to help their community. Two, individuals are key in adapting buildings and energy use, even if a state or nation passes the greatest energy laws in the world. Three, we need new narratives that show transformation is possible, necessary, and within reach. We need narratives that say, “we can do this.”

UN: A Practical Guide to Climate-resilient Buildings, July 6, 2021.

Financial Times: How cities around the world are tackling climate change, January 28, 2021.

In celebration of Tesla’s legacy, we need to remember there are more ways than one to create power. The expense of changing a building’s energy system is an investment that updates infrastructure and will reduce future spending. It will relieve dependence on oil and gas.

Similarly, it is better to update buildings to withstand climate disasters than to rebuild them after the inevitable. Extreme weather will keep coming just as gas and oil prices will keep rising. But we have new options for energy that can mitigate these dangers in multiple ways, like solar arrays, wind farms, and geothermal power plants.

There are also new guides to help individuals access clean energy. Organizations and support mechanisms like Solar United Neighbors in Washington DC and Shared Solar in Los Angeles are increasing public access to renewable energy sources. The NYC Accelerator, for example, aids co-op boards and building owners with energy upgrades and financing, provides training events for community organizations, and recently published its first multilingual set of materials in Spanish, Chinese, and Haitian Kreyol, with more languages coming soon. Furthermore, renters and small businesses can sign up for community solar through the PowerMarket or contact Here Comes Solar’s Community Solar Info Hub.

The most important reframe? Clean energy systems work. As Tesla once said, “If you want to find the secrets of the universe, think in terms of energy, frequency, and vibration.” Right now, the US has multiple guides for the transition. It’s time to power up.