Solar energy entrepreneurs are pioneering new models for democratizing power
One solution that would circumvent the property-owning restrictions is allowing people to subscribe to solar gardens and other renewable energy facilities in their area and receive the same credit on their utility bill for their share of energy delivered to the grid. Decoupling where energy is made from who is able to buy it "allows everyone to participate, it makes it so it doesn't matter if you are rich or poor, the only thing that matters that you have a utility bill," said Tom Price of CleanPath, a solar project investment firm.
California Senate Bill 843, introduced by Sen. Lois Wolk (D-Davis) and coauthored by Price, attempted to create the legal framework for this kind of virtual transaction. Over the summer, it died in the Assembly Committee on Utilities and Commerce as result of late session lobbying by Pacific Gas & Electric and Southern California Edison. Notably, the state's other largest utility, San Diego Gas and Electric, supported SB843. Also supporting the bill was a wide and diverse coalition ranging from the US Department of Defense to the Ella Baker Center for Human Rights. Wolk plans to reintroduce SB843 in the next legislative session.
Price and other supporters see the bill's eventual passage as inevitability: "In an age when so many transaction are virtual [and] we can put so many parts of our lives in the cloud, why can't we put energy in the cloud and let people virtually subscribe to it? From the grid's perspective, there is no difference."
Democratizing the green energy industry is about allowing everyone to participate easily, but it is also about empowering those who are typically left out of the conversation.
Low-income and marginalized communities are often the ones most impacted by the environmental and health effects of burning fossils fuels. As the green energy revolution expands, those same communities will potentially be last in line to benefit from or exert influence over the transformation.
Considering that solar can be small scale and still financially sound in the long term, "there is an opportunity to rebuild the energy infrastructure...from the grassroots," said Shiva Patel who co-founded Energy Solidarity Cooperative. Patel and his partner Dave Ron want to set up multi-stakeholder cooperatives that promote ownership and decision-making by consumers.
In a low-income neighborhood, residents are most likely tenants with little leverage and no eligibility for California's renewable energy incentives. The cooperative model suggests residents can pool space, financial resources, and labor to become players in small-scale power production.
Normally, consumers considered downstream along the energy supply chain do not have the financial or political means to make decisions about the energy their communities use. "We are flipping that on its head," said Ron "We want those people to be upstream. We are taking a very horizontal approach."
The nuts and bolts of the coop's structure may be new, but the distinction between those who own and control the community power project and those who finance it is important. There are three types of members in the cooperative: consumers, workers, and community investors. The consumers initiate the community power project and then maintain ownership of it. They contribute labor and money toward the project according to their ability. The workers are a group of energy experts organized into a collective that provide support and advice for the project. Decisions about the coop and its projects are left to the consumers and workers. Community investors are drawn to the project by crowd funding, but financial support does not buy them a decision making role. Once the upfront costs of the project are paid back to the community investors, consumers can keep the revenue or use it to foster more community power projects.