After living in Bemidji for over a year, I realized I had failed in one of my civic duties as a community member: I had no idea where my energy was coming from. Although climate scientists argue we cannot mitigate our global carbon emissions through individual actions alone, I was disappointed in myself.
The energy I use in my home and car every day has real-world consequences in real-time. I want -- and feel obligated -- to know what’s happening behind the scenes so I can charge my phone and turn on the lights. Reducing my personal carbon footprint feels like one of the kindest things I can do for my neighbors and for future generations, and yet I hadn’t the slightest clue what’s keeping my power on.
Now, that’s not entirely my fault; there’s mixed and obscured information about both energy and sustainability. For example, electric cars charged in homes powered by coal are actually worse for the environment than cars running on gasoline.
That doesn’t mean we should give up on electric cars; it just means that the environmental impact of what you drive to work is more nuanced than simply asking "what car should I buy?" Not all outlets are created equal.
Another example is natural gas, which burns cleaner than coal in terms of methane emissions, but wreaks havoc on underground water systems during extraction. I could (somewhat) guiltlessly run eight refrigerators and a sauna if I knew that 100% of my energy was solar-powered. But it isn’t.
While renewable energy is undoubtedly the way forward, we have a lot of decisions to make before this country is run on renewable resources.
So what are we running on?
The Beltrami Electric Cooperative, for one, claims that the electricity they purchase and redistribute from Minnkota is derived from 55% coal, 34% wind, 8% hydro and 3% from other sources. To contextualize, the U.S. Energy Information Administration states that in the U.S., fossil fuels like coal and natural gas comprise about 60% of our energy, nuclear makes up approximately 20% and renewables such as solar, wind, hydro and wood-burning compose the other 20%.
While coal is a pretty gnarly fossil fuel, it was uplifting to see what a high percentage of our local energy comes from wind. It’s not perfect, but it gives me a little hope.
What impressed me more as I dug into our energy profile was the sheer number of utility companies in our area. Where I grew up in the suburbs of Phoenix, families had almost no choice in their electricity supplier. Salt River Project was the energy company. But here in Beltrami County, we’ve got Ottertail and Enbridge, as well as two unique decades-old community cooperatives in Beltrami Electric and Red Lake Electric Cooperative.
Choice is the first step to democratizing our energy future and resisting the energy monopolies that so many communities face. And what better way to do that than community-owned local cooperatives?
In the immortal words of rapper Kanye West, “No one man should have all that power.”
Still, knowing that a large proportion of my personal energy use is coal-powered, I feel compelled to take this into consideration in a few ways. There are some easy ways to reduce energy use (and energy bills) that many are familiar with: LED lights, clotheslines in the summer, tossing that second fridge in the garage, charging our electronics less and insulating our homes.
But besides just trying to unplug my appliances, what I really want to see are innovative community solutions to our energy needs that slowly reduce our local dependence on coal. A sign outside my neighbor’s house recently caught my attention. The sign reads, “GO SOLAR: Join our neighborhood Co-op.”
With Solar United Neighbors, Minnesotans can opt to join in on community solar gardens, paying monthly co-op membership fees which are less than the discounts energy companies in the state are required to give for solar power. Basically, the co-op owns a small photovoltaic system, and being a member means families can own a proportionate slice of the energy those panels generate, which are connected to the larger grid.
The beauty of solar cooperatives is that there are no up-front solar panel investments, no installation hassles and you don’t even have to own your home. Solar community gardens are therefore more accessible to low-income households, renters and even folks who simply don’t get enough sun. To make matters better, the federal government offers a 22% solar investment tax credit for those who invest in solar in 2021.
What it all really boils down to is that it’s time to investigate our energy use and energy providers. By taking a microscope to a more localized energy profile, we can better understand our individual impact instead of losing ourselves in large and out-of-context climate statistics.
Do your energy homework. What does your energy provider say, and how do you feel about it? One fascinating way to get started is using the carbon footprint calculators on the EPA's website. Just understanding our regional energy options and realities can be a great way to start dismantling our reliance on non-renewable resources and imagine a just and clean energy future.
Because as they say: knowledge is, well, power.
Originally from Phoenix, Ariz., Rachel Beglin now resides in Bemidji. She is a former Peace Corps Volunteer, sustainability advocate, gardener, writer and coffee enthusiast.