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Book Review: Freeing Energy

Freeing Energy, How Innovators are Using Local-Scale Solar and Batteries to Disrupt the Global Energy Industry from the Outside In by Bill Nussey, Mountain Ambler Publishing, 2021.

Review by Janis Petzel, M.D.

Freeing Energy by Bill Nussey couldn’t have come out at a better time. As our elected representatives in Congress spin their wheels on Build Back Better, and California seems poised to go off the deep end by threatening to assassinate net metering, Nussey’s easy-to-read book offers a way forward for everyday people who just want to do the right thing for the environment. It’s practical, hopeful, motivating, useful, well-written and fun to read. He takes a complex topic, the world of electricity, and makes it accessible for those of us who are not electrical engineers.

Nussey is an electrical engineer. He’s also a former tech CEO, venture capitalist and philanthropist who turned his attention to solar power after a visit to rural Africa, then having an epiphany about the future while he was a VP at IBM. After my disappointment with Bill Gates’ book, How to Avoid a Climate Disaster, I was prepared for yet another rich white guy trying to show us all how smart he is.

But this book is nothing like Gates’ book. Nussey is like your favorite teacher–passionate and knowledgeable about his subject, with contagious enthusiasm and injections of humor to make a point (for example, A Monopoly Parable, where a fictitious company named McDunald’s worries about data that their hamburgers are unhealthy. The company starts a disinformation campaign about salad because lettuce only grows part of the year). He explains his material in a way that we can all get without dumbing it down.

The book opens in Puerto Rico in 2017 after category 4 Hurricane Maria. Many parts of the island were without power for nine months. Hard to imagine how they survived.

Nussey visited a school in the small town of Naranjito, which managed to install a microgrid of solar panels and battery storage during the post-hurricane chaos, and the community blossomed.

Thus, Nussey introduces the concept of local energy. He writes, “It is about individuals, communities, and local businesses generating their own energy. It is about choice and fair markets. It is about unleashing innovation in our outdated electric grid. It is about all of us finally taking control of one of the most essential parts of our lives—energy.”

Local energy—the solar panels on your own roof or from community solar—is rapidly becoming the “cheapest and most reliable way to provide most of the power to the homes and buildings of the 70% of Americans who live in suburbs and rural areas.” That’s us, G.E.T. readers!

Freeing local energy, Nussey writes, does not require government handouts or the dismantling of utilities—in fact, it can benefit utilities as well as customers. Locally generated electricty is more reliable given weird weather. It’s cheap and getting cheaper. And most important, it’s fair to all parties.

Across ten chapters, Freeing Energy walks the reader through the history of electrical power in this country, why the current system is failing people, the rise of innovative technologies, which he calls “billion-dollar disruptors,” and why “bloated US residential solar costs” are so high compared to Australia’s (but still cheaper and cleaner than fossil fuel-generated electricity).

The excellent final third of the book deals with the future and how to make use of his information. He includes a “Local Energy Bill of Rights” and ideas on how to reinvent electric monopolies and the Big Grid, which he says is still essential for industrial power needs and in urban areas.

I found this book to be eye-opening for finding ways to communicate about green energy. In fact, I’ve started a list of ideas from the book that I want to talk to my state representative about.

The chapter, “The Battle for Public Opinion” shows why myths about solar and clean energy are inaccurate, a big help for those of us who get tongue-tied in an argument and need backup.

Given Maine’s recent battles with Central Maine Power over net metering, an investor-owned utility, the chapter on “Utilities Versus the Future” was especially pertinent to current events. Chapter subheadings like Goliath Roars, David Roars Back, Jungle Warfare and Grid Defection, and the Death Spiral, paint a vivid picture of what local energy supporters are up against.

I’ve already used what I’ve learned from this book as I serve on my town’s energy committee. We’re asking the town to install conduit and circuit breakers for solar, electric vehicle charging and battery storage up front rather than trying to retrofit later as we design a new town building. Nussey suggests this approach for any new construction, residential included.

We’ve been through a battle over net-metering in Maine, and now it’s California’s turn. If net-metering is on your radar, I suggest you read pages 217 through 219, and check out Nussey’s website which also provides information on where you can purchase this book: https://www.freeingenergy.com which has a page on net metering https://www.freeingenergy.com/share-net-metering/. I hope you do buy this book. You will find it time and money well-spent.

Janis Petzel, MD is a physician, grandmother and climate activist whose writing focusses on resilience, climate, and health. She lives in Islesboro, Maine where she advocates and acts for a fossil-fuel free future. She serves on the Islesboro Energy Committee and is a Climate Ambassador for Physicians for Social Responsibility.

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