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Energy Use: The Human Dimension
and the nation. Local institutions are also in a good position to transmit information to and receive information from the informal social networks that are so influential with energy users.
Local institutions may also be best suited for doing some of the necessary work of planning for and responding to energy emergencies (see Chapter 6). Because emergencies affect different geographic areas in different ways, local authorities will be in the best position to identify and respond to local needs. As we have argued, local institutions should be centrally involved in emergency planning, for unless they are involved in the planning, they will not know how to respond effectively. Furthermore, an understanding of local energy management during stable or normal times may have value for energy emergencies: to the extent that local energy systems can act independently of each other, the society as a whole is less vulnerable to any localized disruption.
There are many good reasons for thinking that more local control could, at least in theory, improve energy management both under ordinary conditions and in emergencies. The critical question is whether the potential advantages of local action can be realized in practice. Although local energy management may require different scales of technology, it rarely requires new technologies, so feasibility is mainly a social, political, and organizational question. Unfortunately, local energy management has not been carefully studied by energy analysts, possibly because local management relies heavily on institutions other than the federal government and the market.
This chapter examines local energy action as a set of phenomena. We note the existence of sharply differing views of its feasibility under present conditions and the lack of sufficient knowledge to make a reliable judgment. We then offer a partial framework for learning more about the potential for local solutions to energy problems.
Since the oil embargo of 1973, an increasing number of local governments and organizations have struggled on a path that they hoped would lead to reducing the demand for fuels and electricity, to expanding the use of alternative methods of producing and delivering energy, and to mitigating the effects of fuel price increases in their areas. We refer to this collection of phenomena as “local energy action;” we define it as collective action at the local level to meet local needs for energy services. Energy services—that is, heating and cooling, mobility, industrial processes, and so forth—can be provided by any combination of conventional fuels, renewable energy resources, and energy-efficient technology.
Local energy actions vary widely—in sponsorship, in content, and in the ways they have come about. A few examples indicate their range. In