Are solar barnraisings and "voluntary gas taxes" the future of renewables incentives?
With the uncertainty surrounding federal climate policy right now, many people are wondering what the future might hold for clean energy in the US. While angst is justified—and vigilance necessary—it's important to remember a couple of things:
1) Renewable energy prices have dropped precipitously in recent years
2) Solar and other clean energy technologies are insanely popular with the general public, regardless of their political leanings.
With this in mind, I managed to give myself a post-election pick-me-up by watching video of a team of 25 volunteers gathering to install 180 solar panels on the rooftop of the Harrisonburg Gift & Thrift Store, which serves to support the work of the Mennonite Central Committee (MCC). Not only did the volunteers install the solar panels, but it was the community that came together to raise the money to fund the project in the first place. Members of a group called Voluntary Gas Tax have been paying a discretionary 50 cent "tax" on every gallon of gasoline to help ease their community's reliance on fossil fuels. They are now in the process of raising an additional $40,000 to increase the size of the array by a further 120 panels.
Who knows where solar policy is headed for the next few years. I have a hard time imagining that politicians would turn their backs on such a promising, popular and job-generating industry. That said, this was a powerful reminder that whatever happens at the federal level, we can all work more locally to make renewable energy a core part of the fabric of our communities.
In fact, Jeff Heie, a Voluntary Gas Tax member and organizer of the Solar Barn Raising, names community support as one of the most important factors in making solar successful in Harrisonburg:
“Harrisonburg has the greatest per-person amount of solar energy installed, compared to any city in Virginia. We believe strong grassroots support has been a huge driver of that success, where we see commitment to lowering our ecological footprint from individuals, churches, nonprofits, local businesses, and solar coops. We have a long way to go, but we hope these types of larger projects can serve as a model for other initiatives in the region.”
Of course, no grassroots community action should be taken to mean that government policy doesn't matter. But we can do our part, whatever is happening in the wider world.