Friday, January 13, 2012

Citizen Power Goes Solar

In the U.S. and abroad, citizens are banding together to provide clean energy for themselves and their neighbors.

In 2011, we saw a burgeoning movement of protest spread around the world. But protest is only one side of the coin – and maybe not even the most important side. That's because ordinary citizens around the world are not just demanding change, they are making it. And they’re not waiting for governments to step up to the plate.

A Solar Coop in Holland

This came home to me when I heard from my Dutch side of the family over the holidays. My (step) half-brother Vincent Dekker is a well-known business journalist in the Netherlands. He read my CSR roundup for 2011, where I mentioned that the cost of solar energy is plummeting. Vincent told me that he and some neighbors have started a solar energy cooperative in Bergen, the small town by the North Sea where they live.
A small group of citizens got together last year; advertised their intentions; and Vincent and a neighbor joined.

The coop is still in the planning stages, but the goals are ambitious. Bergen Energie hopes one day to supply all the power to Bergen and two other nearby towns with a combined population of about 33,000 inhabitants. And while solar will make up a large portion of the energy provided, they also hope to bring wind power and biogas into the mix.

They envision long stretches of solar panels gleaming from the surrounding farmland or from brownfield sites like old municipal dumps. And they intend to do the entire project without expecting any subsidies from the government. That’s because the right wing Dutch government is going backwards on solar energy – they recently eliminated solar subsidies to citizens.

But the price of solar is dropping so low, Vincent told me, “it’s not really necessary to get a subsidy anymore." 

The Return on Investing In Solar Energy

Vincent already has solar panels on his roof (he joined the coop to support green energy) that provide 90% of the electricity he uses in a year. The cost was just over €7000 including installation. With the feed in tariff from the Dutch utility paying him $.22 per kilowatt hour as long as he doesn't produce more energy than he uses (after that it drops to $.06 per kilowatt hour), he expects a net return on his investment of 4.5% per year over the expected 30-year life of his solar array. And the price of his electricity will never go up.

But back to the cooperative. 

Strength of Cooperatives: Power in Numbers

I asked Vincent how the group expects to raise the capital for large arrays of solar panels and wind towers.  “That’s simple,” he told me. “You sign up customers for a two or three-year contract and you can get bank loans easily because the financial picture is good. That solves the problem of start-up costs.”

And here’s where the real advantage of a cooperative comes in: no need to pay millions in big bonuses to a bunch of corporate executives. Bergen Energie will hire a few managers at a reasonable salary and plow net revenues back into the real purpose of the venture: providing clean energy to its customers.

Can Solar Initiatives Go Solar in the U.S.?

Community solar initiatives are gaining ground in the U.S., as well, although many operate on a different model. Rather than becoming a power company themselves and signing up customers, they aim to make rooftop solar power affordable and available to all.

They range from Solarize Portland, a program led by Portland area neighborhood associations to make volume discounts available to residents to neighborhood coops like the one in the Washington D.C. neighborhood of Mount Pleasant. The Mount Pleasant Solar Coop got started when a 12-year-old boy and a friend asked their parents what they could do about global warming. Bringing affordable solar power to their community seemed a good way to go.

At the kitchen table in one of the boy’s homes, the kids and parents sketched out a plan, as one of the parents, Jeff Morley, writes:
            1. Get a whole bunch of neighbors to install solar at the same time.
            2. Get city government, local business and environmental groups to support our efforts.
            3. Find a solar contractor who would give the Solar Coop a discount because of economies of scale.
            4. Install those panels.

It wasn’t quite that easy – along the way, the coop organizers have had to educate themselves, pressure the city to remove barriers to coop solar, and learn more than they ever thought they would have to know. But they are 70 households strong now and have created connections with other communities to spread the solar people power. (Read the story here in Scientific American.)

The California Example

While the D.C. government has been somewhat recalcitrant toward smoothing the path for community solar, California has been exemplary. Take net metering: it’s a billing arrangement that gives solar customers “fair retail credit” for the excess power their rooftop systems generate during the day. In 2010, the state raised the solar net metering cap, doubling the number of potential solar customers who could take advantage of it.

The author of the bill that raised the cap, Assemblymember Nancy Skinner, summed up the benefits:

 “California leads the nation in solar energy, accounting for more than 65 percent of the all the solar installed in the U.S. Net metering has been absolutely fundamental to that success. The passage of this bill means continued green job growth, further energy bill savings, progress in the fight against climate change, and a brighter future for California.”

One company the bill helped is CCEnergy, a cooperative operating much like Bergen Energie hopes to in Holland. That company sums up the benefits of being a coop more eloquently than I could state:

“Our focus is to benefit our members and educate our communities, not make profits. Cooperatives are democratic organizations controlled by members who share in the power structure by actively participating in setting policies and making decisions for everyone's mutual benefit.” 

With community solar, civil society isn’t just demanding power, it’s making it.


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