Power to the People! The People Power Solar Cooperative Opens Up Solar Ownership

By Steve Schaefer

PEOPLE POWER SOLAR COOPERATIVE’S FIRST COMMUNITY-OWNED SOLAR P

With reputable reports telling us that we need to decarbonize quickly to slow global warming that leads to climate change, we have to make sure everyone can participate. And now, with greater awareness of systematic racism in the U.S. and around the world from the murder of George Floyd and countless others before and after him, it’s time to address the connections between racial justice and climate solutions in this country. This is a critical opportunity to rethink beyond decarbonization and include everyone in the urgent work to fight climate change.

We can’t address the social justice issues without addressing the racist system that is oppressing many communities daily. The key to defending these communities is to allow them to have control of their own livelihood. Allowing them to have community control also lets us to address the climate emergency.

The People Power Solar Cooperative provides the technical, legal, and administrative backbone for communities to have control of their own energy regardless of whether they own or rent. The People Power Solar Cooperative’s mission is to create a just and inclusive transition to renewable energy by enabling everyone to own and shape their energy future.

Crystal Huang, CEO of the People Power Solar Cooperative

Crystal HuangCrystal Huang is a grassroots community-builder and the leader of the People Power Solar Cooperative. She has more than ten years of experience in climate solutions and activism. As a climate activist, she served as COO of Powerhouse, a solar incubator, and founded CrossPollinators, which fosters collaboration among grassroots solutions. She was associate producer of a documentary by Oscar-winning filmmaker Charles Ferguson called Time to Choose.

According to Crystal, although the climate crisis is our biggest problem, there is a growing understanding of how the system we have in place excludes many people from working on climate issues. Climate change may actually be a symptom of a larger problem that causes the exclusion to begin with.

“In order for us to include everyone in the climate solutions, we need to open our hearts to see the injustice and oppression that are happening every day,” said Crystal. “We need to recognize our privilege and in order to create collective climate action.”

In a society where some people get killed simply for living their lives, it’s virtually impossible for some communities to participate in the urgent climate solution. The longer we don’t recognize their reality and provide resources to allow them to live their lives, the more we are delaying the exigent need to pull humanity back from the edge of climate catastrophe.

“We need to break out of the culture of separation,” said Crystal. “We need to change the state of mind from exclusionary to inclusionary and share resources with them to collectively solve the biggest issues facing humanity.”

Crystal has gone through her own growth of awareness. Born in the U.S. but raised in her family’s native Taiwan, she didn’t experience racism herself, but became aware of it when she returned to the U.S. as an adult. When she was trying to increase the adoption of climate solutions with fellow climate activists, she ran into the problem we always think about—how  do we close the gaps between the haves and the have-nots.

As a curious soul, she went straight to these communities to find out why the gap exists. To her surprise, she learned from community groups in San Francisco’s Hunter’s Point neighborhood that community gardens didn’t just provide nutritious food but also reduced neighborhood violence and offered a sense of community and belonging as well as resources to not just survive but prosper.

“Low-income communities actually have a lot of solutions we don’t know about,” she said. “They understand what needs to happen, but don’t have the resources.”

Meanwhile, many in the clean tech community live without this awareness, thinking from their own privileged viewpoint that technology alone can solve the problem.

“Climate change is not the core problem, it is a symptom of the underlying problem,” said Crystal, summing up the issue. “The main problem is an extractive economy that exploits people and the planet for others’ economic gain.”

People Power addresses root causes of this problem, not just the symptoms.

It’s easy for a middle-class person, sitting in their own home in the suburbs, to call in multiple solar bids, choose the best one, and have panels installed on their own roof. I know, because that’s what I did last year. But, according to Crystal, more than half of our population can’t own solar, including renters, low-income homeowners, and people with shared roofs. “This is a failure for climate action and for justice,” said Crystal. “We need to open it up to everyone to move as fast as we can.”

A cooperative is a way to do it.

“If we are connected with each other, we become the solution, using technology as a tool,” said Crystal at a presentation for the Climate Reality Bay Area Chapter recently. She was inviting the audience to recognize the resource disparity — that disadvantaged communities tend to have an expertise and wisdom that we don’t have. “We can solve the climate crisis if we share resources for everyone to collectively own and control resources in their own community,” she said.

Collectives Work for People

There are plenty of historical examples of how cooperative living works well. Indigenous societies are known for living this way. The kibbutz movement in Israel was very successful in settling the country in the early and middle years of the 20th century. And cooperatives were around during the Great Depression, too, although their success has been downplayed as various government programs, such as the WPA, are now celebrated.

So, how does the People Power Solar Cooperative make community energy projects possible? Their innovative Commons Model proves that we can disconnect the ownership of land from the ownership of power. The model can serve as a tool for the community to organize, building on resources that may already exist there.

The Commons Model

There are three models, or “states-of-mind” in our society. The Market state-of-mind, which is all too familiar, wants to sell the energy project to the highest bidder possible. This means if you can’t afford to pay, you don’t get to have access to energy even if you need power to live. The Charity state-of-mind is well intentioned—its goal is to give the community free or cheaper energy. However, this doesn’t enable the community to participate in the process to have self-determination. The Commons state-of-mind, however, is different. It enables people in the community to come together to gain control of their own energy while building their collective wealth. It’s easy to see that the Market state-of-mind is exploitive, the Charity state-of-mind perpetuates dependency, and the Commons state-of-mind is liberating.

People Power Solar Cooperative’s Commons Model offers many benefits:

  • Members don’t need to be property owners
  • Members can buy shares in a cooperative that funds the solar installation, from as little as $100 up to $1,000—and receive interest on their investment
  • The “offtaker” from the solar installation buys energy from the cooperative and saves on their electric bill
  • Members can participate even if they don’t have their own house
  • The cooperative provides mutual benefit and spreads the wealth in the community

The People Power Solar Cooperative provides technical, legal, and administrative resources, while the community project groups choose sites, build interest, and recruit project members. The community owns and runs the installation, and assets are returned to the community. The project is free to partner with anyone they choose to provide the actual solar installation work.

Crystal provides a great way to visualize the structure: If People Power is a galaxy, the project groups are solar systems in it, and the individual owners are each planets within it.

There are four types of owners in a solar cooperative, each with a different role to play.

  • General owners provide capital and other support
  • Anchor owners provide leadership and spearhead project development
  • Subscriber owners get electric power, benefits, or services from the cooperative
  • Worker owners provide technology, operational, and organizational support to the other owners

When communities have control of their energy, they tend to use it to address the environmental, economic, and social crises they are facing. The benefits of a collective project include:

  • The community receives wealth from sharing revenue
  • There is increased “energy literacy” in the community, encouraging smarter use of resources (if something belongs to you tend to treat it more carefully)
  • A microgrid connects households
  • Energy can be used for many shared benefits, including streetlights, refrigeration for access to fresh produce, or even shared EV charging stations controlled by the community

Electrical power is important, but it can be the start of something more—building economic and political power for communities who have been historically excluded.

Building projects in low-income communities has many challenges, and they aren’t just financial. There are issues of trust, for example, when an outsider comes in to help. Crystal described four of them:

  1. People who are working multiple low-wage jobs to make ends meet don’t have time to talk.
  2. Community residents may not trust outsiders. Unscrupulous salesmen prey on vulnerable populations, and people remember this.
  3. The way of life may be different, for example, multiple families living in one small house, so there are issues of privacy.
  4. A “home energy upgrade” may sound good, but residents worry that it might cause landlords to raise the rent, displacing them from their home.

Funding the Projects

This all sounds great, you may say, but where does the money come from for projects? There are three sources, roughly provided in thirds:

  • The community members
  • Donations and grants
  • Financial institutions

If community members are financially involved, it tends to remove financial risk, since they feel ownership, and are directly accountable. Donations from charitable donations are always welcome and allow outsiders to participate while leaving control of the project to the community itself. Financial institutions, such as foundation investments, credit unions, and CDFIs can provide financial management and creative guarantees and due diligence.

As we move to a post-COVID-19 world, Crystal wants the People Power Solar Cooperative to move forward with new projects that are designed and governed by the community.

In the end, solar cooperatives can be part of making people freer and more prosperous. “We want a future where all life on earth can thrive,” said Crystal. “We want to break out of a culture of separation and give people the resources they need to liberate themselves.”

To learn more and to help, visit the People Power Solar Cooperative’s website and click Sign Up to Get Involved.