When my son Walter was 12, he and his best friend Diego went to see Al Gore’s documentary An Inconvenient Truth. They came back upset and wanting to do something about climate change. We talked about going solar at home, but when we looked into it, we found that it was really expensive and confusing.
We knew it would be too much work to figure out solar just for our own house, but we had a vague idea that if we got enough people to do it at once, we could bring down the costs. So the boys started putting together flyers asking neighbors if they were interested in doing it too. Pretty soon, the Mount Pleasant Solar Cooperative had 50 members—and no idea what to do next!
At around that time, Walter was looking for a community service project as part of his Bar Mitzvah. So while we were figuring out how to go solar, he developed a project to buy $3,000 worth of compact fluorescent lightbulbs wholesale and to resell them at cost to members of our Coop. It was a great way to launch the Coop because we had a tangible action to take from the very start. We got to know our neighbors and were able to find more volunteers to work on the Coop.
What surprised us most was how much support we encountered from the very beginning. We live in a culturally and economically diverse neighborhood, and we’ve had strong support from across the spectrum. We quickly grew to several hundred households. Members donated time and also found us free services for a website, pro-bono legal counsel, meeting spaces, technical evaluations, hosting events, videos, lobbying, online advocacy, press, and outreach. Our membership is our best resource and our source of political strength as well.
We’ve overcome lots of obstacles since we first started in 2006. Energy regulation is very complicated, and it’s not an area accustomed to having common citizens involved. We had a steep learning curve. Our utility has been very unsupportive. Perhaps one of the hardest things is that it’s difficult to keep this kind of effort going. Our greatest strength is our membership, but sometimes it’s too much work to realistically sustain an all-volunteer project.
So how did we make it through? For me personally, it was really hard to quit because of the kids. I felt like I needed to show them that starting things is easy, but finishing them is the tough part. That personal commitment is what keeps you going. Today, I keep it up because we’ve had a lot of success and I want to see it scaled and expanded across D.C. Right now, 10 percent of our neighborhood has gone solar. We’d like to see 30 percent of the entire city go solar in the near term!
I’m currently building a national network, the Community Power Network, to connect groups like my own across the U.S. The idea is to share experiences, resources, and information—and ultimately to join together to get reform and policy changes.
I love organizing. I think it’s backward that in the environmental movement, organizers are paid so little and policy people make good money. We can’t get the good policy without building the power first. And it’s unlikely the policy will be good if it isn’t linked to the real world—to practical needs and concerns at the grass roots. There is no silver bullet!
And, of course, online organizing isn’t real organizing. The Internet provides a set of tools that can help you, but real organizing is about building real relationships with real people. It’s about building trust and mutual support.
It’s very important to figure out what other people want and why they want it—not to try to get them to see the world in your way or to convince them to do something you want them to do. We’ve found people who are anchors in their community, and they’ve added solar and climate change to the long list of issues they work on. These folks are the head of the local PTA, active in their church, active in local planning efforts, active in elections, and so forth.
So—leave your computer behind and go out and meet real people. Talk to them and listen to them!
There are many different approaches to solar that have been successful around the country. It depends a lot on the people in your community, the physical layout of the buildings and houses, as well as the specific state you live in, the incentives in place, and the cost of energy. With the Community Power Network, we’re bringing together examples of all these different approaches so you can learn from them and pick the unique hybrid that works for your community.
In some neighborhoods, a do-it-yourself “Solar Raiser” model—like a “barn raising” for solar, has been really successful. Here, folks literally get together and help each other install solar systems. In other communities, a group purchase or collective action to pass legislation is the key to making things work. In still other communities—for example, where most of the folks live in shady houses—people have developed community solar installations or “solar gardens” so they can own solar on a school or community center somewhere nearby.
On a broader scale, there are many key policy changes that could make a big difference. At the federal level, extending the existing 30 percent grant that goes to private companies that go solar to nonprofits would help thousands of churches and schools go solar. The credits that are currently available to homeowners should be allowed even if the solar panel is not placed directly on the homeowner’s own roof or property.
Obviously, if our country had a long-term energy and climate policy, that would make a big difference as well. Having national renewable portfolio requirements, for example, would be a good start.
On the state level, there is no limit to the creative ideas that can be developed. We’ve helped pass legislation that requires a percentage of our energy to come from solar. We also levy a small surcharge on everyone’s electric bill that goes to a sustainable energy trust fund to help pay for solar grants. We’re fast approaching the day when solar won’t need any subsidies, but in the meantime, we need to do everything we can to help spur momentum and create a pathway for large-scale deployment.
There are also lots of impediments to going solar that communities can band together and address. In many places, local permitting rules discriminate against solar, homeowner associations discourage solar, or the utility doesn’t have fair rules allowing interconnection and net metering. This is going to be a long process, and we need as many groups engaged in knocking down the barriers as possible.
Community based solar is inevitable. Despite the fact that most government incentives are focused on industrial-scale solar, the greatest deployment is still in distributed generation. It makes sense for homeowners who want to get a handle on skyrocketing energy costs to go solar. It makes sense to generate electricity right where you need it, not to transmit it across highly inefficient and unsightly transmission lines.
Most people are so frustrated with their national and local government that they are taking matters into their own hands. Community-owned energy is one glorious example of that populist discontent.