In recent years, photovoltaic (PV) systems have become cheap enough that they now are cheaper than coal and competitive with natural gas.
Solar energy can be harvested at many scales, from giant arrays (potentially in outer space), buildings and campuses, individual homes, and, of course, gadgets . It’s basically the same technology.
One of the most interesting things about solar power is that it really is possible to distribute the generating systems at many scales, including personal, neighborhood and community systems. For me, this means that it is possible to “put the tools in the hands of the workers”, so people can own their own electric power generation. How can I not want this?
Achieving this vision requires meeting a number of challenges.
While PV is cheaper to install each year, and very cheap to operate, building and installing a solar array needs a significant financial investment. Second, any scheme to share electricity (solar or other) requires distribution to the users, ideally via existing grid connections. And third, this requires political and economic structures for the technical systems.
In recent months I’ve reported on some developments that are addressing these challenges [2,3].
This being the US, any problem that can be solved by monkeying around with money, is a problem we can solve, yessir. So, for instance, there is now a Clean Energy Credit Union (CECU), which offers all the advantages of an insured credit union, and is dedicated to financing PV and other clean energy for consumers and small businesses .
Locally, there is also a bulk purchase program, which negotiates a good deal from a good provider, and then promotes installation of PV on homes and businesses . In both these cases, the institutions help pool and direct local people’s money to local projects (and local workers).
These are good things, and help everyone “Think Heliocentrically, Act Locally”. But this isn’t the end of the story.
The vast majority of people do not own their own home or business. To date, the only way to get PV power is through public utilities, assuming the utility has renewable energy generation and can and will “sell it” to customers (e.g., through a check off that requests renewable energy). In some places, including my local area, cities are generating renewable energy for government and sometimes local consumers.
But how can average people, without a lot of money, invest in solar power, and reap the benefits of generating their own power?
We can see that the CECU credit union is implementing the “consumer lending” model that helped get two cars in every garage, as well as a lot of people into houses with garages (for better or worse).
For generating power, we might look for other models from how people finance their housing, such as condominiums, time shares, and cooperatives. The basic idea is for people who don’t necessarily own property to pool money and build PV arrays near by. The power generated is shared out to investors, and any profits would go to them. It is quite possible that an owner/customer’s investment might be entirely paid back in a decade or so, from reduced utility bills.
There are more than one way to skin this particular cat, but I’m particularly interested in local cooperative model for community solar projects. There have been electric coops for a century and more, usually in underserved rural areas. This same model can work for a small solar farm in town or on roof tops.
What does it take to do this kind of project? I’m still learning the ins and outs of how it might be done. In general, there are a variety of organizational and legal models  Personally, this old bolshie heart beats fastest for a pure cooperative, a la People Power Solar Cooperative  . Much depends on local laws.
Beyond legal charters, the key is, as usual, the right people and leadership. Identifying and mobilizing the right people in the right way. Easym peasey!
I have a lot of work to do before I’ll see anything coming true.
- Robert McGrath, Tiny Watts – Solar Power For Everyone, in Tiny Watts Blog. 2018. https://www.ases.org/tiny-watts-solar-power-for-everyone/
- Robert E. McGrath, A New Option to Finance A Clean Energy Future for Everyone, in The Public I: A Paper of the People. 2018. http://publici.ucimc.org/2018/12/a-new-option-to-finance-a-clean-energy-future-for-everyone/
- Robert E. McGrath, Think Heliocentrically, Act Locally, in The Public I: A Paper of the People. 2019. http://publici.ucimc.org/2019/04/think-heliocentrically-act-locally/
- People Power Solar Cooperative. People Power Solar Cooperative. 2019, https://www.peoplepowersolar.org/.
- Trebor Scholz and Nathan Schneider, eds. Ours to Hack and Own: The Rise of Platform Cooperativism, A new Vision for the Future of Work and a Fairer Internet. OR Books: New York, 2017. http://www.orbooks.com/catalog/ours-to-hack-and-to-own/