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By KYLE HENCE
When Aquidneck Island lost power last weekend, Islanders experienced once again their precarious, even dangerous, dependence on a fragile centralized electrical grid.
There was an eerie silence as I ventured out to shovel in my Middletown neighborhood. Even the snowplows were missing. In that pregnant silence across the Island was a poignant message for those who could hear it. “We’re dangerously dependent on a shaky system.”
Moving to a home in Newport with a gas fireplace last Sunday the silence was interrupted and replaced by police sirens, and house and car alarms. While the silence was a welcome respite from frenetic daily life, the alarms and sirens sounded a warning, one that should lead to a call to action, and for change.
What we need is freedom from debilitating, potentially catastrophic dependence on undependable, unsustainable energy sources, and fragile energy delivery systems. We are losing power. We have lost our individual and neighborhood power because our communities have lost their independence and good, old-fashioned, New England-bred self-reliance. Resilience has eroded.
Instead, we’ve grown accustomed to creature comforts we take for granted until they are knocked out. More frequent and intense storms have forced many of us to begin to re-examine and redefine our economic, food and energy security. In doing so, we can go from losing power to regaining it.
With every purchase at a big-box store too much of our hard-earned money exits our community. We are losing power. We lose the community-building power of our economic vote by not shopping locally. Instead of that dollar circulating through the community by a multiple of three to five times, it’s siphoned off to out-of-state or overseas profiteers.
We are losing power when our economic vote isn’t vested close to home. Our economic security is compromised and prospects for change are tenuous as long as dollars are unnecessarily drained from our community.
Of all the food we consume in Rhode Island, only 1 percent is grown, harvested or foraged in the state. On average, the food on the shelves at most major supermarkets travels 1,500 miles, burning fossil fuel and fouling the air along the way.
If this long-distance food supply was interrupted, the food on shelves or warehoused would last just days. Our current food system is fragile and unsustainable. The more centralized and monopolized it becomes, the more we lose power. Real food security is freedom from debilitating, potentially catastrophic dependence on unsustainable food sources. We gain power as we strengthen our local food system.
With every corporate or government decision to excessively limit the expansion of renewable, decentralized energy — think wind, solar and geothermal — we are losing power. Our community loses power whenever the growth of small-scale distributed energy systems is stifled.
When this happens, we are missing the opportunity to create more thriving, independent and resilient communities, to create genuine energy security, security derived from our own hands, from the power from our own installed energy infrastructure.
The loss of power across Aquidneck Island last weekend was a poignant reminder of our vulnerability to major disruptions, of the fragility of our region’s electrical grid and energy production system. The fear and anger of many calling into talk-radio stations was palpable and understandable.
But no matter where we source oil or gas to run electrical generating plants, or how many lines are run underground protected from damaging winds, the reality is that we have lost power. Our Yankee can-do spirit and prideful independence has ebbed, as we have become ever more dependent on corporate cartel-driven infrastructure. While these vast systems bring economy of scale, convenience and welcome comforts, they have bred blindness to increasing dependence.
This is particularly true when it comes to energy production. Look at National Grid, an enormous conglomerate that manages the New England electrical grid and natural gas pipelines, from Maine to New York. Our “National Grid” is 100 percent owned and operated by a U.K. corporation. It’s the 22nd-largest company on the London Stock Exchange, and its Chairman, Sir Peter Gershon, was knighted by her Majesty.
In effect a Knight of the British Crown oversees our power here in New England. In a way, England has inadvertently reclaimed its once rebellious and lost colony.
Not too big to fail
When renewable-energy options are advanced it is no surprise the proposals supported by the state install huge, utility-scale turbines tied into the electrical grid and funded by hedge funds and big banks. When a storm hits, knocks out power and the grid goes down, the massive turbines continue to spin and generate power. Problem is, that power can’t be delivered to heat homes and pump water.
Our individual and community energy security is compromised here. The system, though “too big to fail,” does anyway. And we’re left literally in the cold, vulnerable, waiting and hoping the guys in the National Grid trucks ride to the rescue.
Lost power and community resilience can be restored, however. Though it’s a long row to hoe, our independence, our true power, can be regained by investing in a decentralized or distributed energy system that puts energy-generating capacity in your backyards, deep underground below our homes and on our roofs.
Twenty years from now, were Aquidneck Island to be dotted with modest, residential-scale turbines, photovoltaic arrays, geothermal systems, or tied to community-scale tidal, wind, solar or geothermal systems, one thing is for certain: when the storms strike, likely more devastating than last fall’s Sandy or last weekend’s blizzard, there will be more Islanders able to offer a warm refuge and hot showers to neighbors accustomed to losing power that is tied to faraway nuclear, coal or natural gas plants.
Here is the kicker: those who invest in energy independence and energy security from renewable sources will save money, money perhaps spent within the community rather than going to U.K.-based National Grid, whose fragile network can so easily be brought down, leaving those dependent on it, vulnerable and wishing they and their community had invested in energy alternatives that foster local economic security and greater energy security.
Similarly every dollar we spend on local food not only supports our local farmers and fishermen, and thus our local economy, but also our personal health. Non-renewable energy also is saved because the broccoli from Simmons Farm or chicken from Aquidneck Farms isn’t traveling hundreds of miles to get to our tables.
The more our communities are directly responsible for, and able to produce the essentials of food, water, energy and shelter, the more power we have to take care of our families, our loved ones and our environment.
Kyle Hence is a Middletown-based contributor to ecoRI News.