Energy Cooperatives Make ‘Solar Gardens’ Bloom

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Photo by Samir Qadir.
Solar co-op members in Maryland proudly stand next to their solar inverter.

Have you ever admired a strong, community-supported business? If so, it may be a co-op. By common definition, co-ops are comprised of workers, consumers, farmers, and others who work together to meet a common goal for the group.

Because they’re owned collectively, co-ops also strive to keep financial benefits within their communities instead of allowing those benefits to line the pockets of outside investors.

Historically, many co-ops have focused on farming and organic food. Their growing popularity in the United States means that more than 30,000 co-ops now exist for a wide variety of enterprises, ranging from hotels to hardware stores. And recently, the co-op movement has expanded to include renewable energy.

In many ways, alternative energy is a natural fit for co-ops. Community-driven renewable energy efforts allow experts and laypeople alike to band together and fund projects that benefit them all. Most of these projects would be too expensive to attempt otherwise — examples include neighbors acquiring a stake in a local wind turbine company, or managing fields to grow crops for biodiesel.

Solar power is the sector in which renewable energy co-ops have really taken off. As the affordability and accessibility of solar panels has improved in recent years, more people have turned to sunlight for their energy needs — and co-ops are making the process simpler than ever. Because they pooled their resources and expertise, many solar energy cooperatives are now on the cutting edge of community solar initiatives and are pushing innovations that will make solar an option for more people.

One of the best-known solar co-ops in the United States is the Mt. Pleasant Solar Cooperative, a Washington, D.C., co-op that’s comprised of 300 households. The co-op was started by a group of neighbors who realized it would be cheaper to install their own solar panels if they could purchase them in bulk and rely on community experts for installation help and advice. The cooperative has grown every year since its founding. Members reap the benefits of shared expertise and expenses, which dramatically brings down the overall price per system. To make solar accessible for more people, the co-op also advocates for solar policy changes throughout its district.

For those who want to harness the benefits of solar but currently rent their homes or can’t afford panels, community solar arrays offer an alternative for sourcing solar energy. By creating “solar gardens,” co-ops create opportunities for members to own or lease solar panels from the community supply and then receive credit on their electric bills. The Clean Energy Collective, one of the first organizations to offer solar garden shares, makes it simple for customers to purchase as much solar energy as they want without being responsible for repairs or the installation process.

Shifting the national energy policy to sustainable solutions is a slow process. Yet, in some parts of the country, community organization is quickly making renewables a reality.

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