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Energy Democracy

Using Solar Commons To Decentralize And Share Solar Energy

Energy from the sun is sure one of the most pervasive forms of common wealth. So why not capture and share that wealth more widely with everyone? That's the basic idea behind the Solar Commons, a prototype project that uses revenue streams from solar energy and partnerships to build community wealth. The primary vehicle is a Solar Commons trust agreement among diverse community groups and the owner of a solar power array. The driving force behind this socio-legal innovation has been Kathryn Milun, a community-engaged scholar, writer and energy democracy advocate.

A New (Renewable) Energy Tyranny

There are two very different (and antagonistic) renewable energy models: the utility-centered, centralized energy model—the existing dominant one—and the community-centered, decentralized energy model—what energy justice advocates have been pushing for. Although both models utilize the same technologies (solar generation, energy storage, etc.), they have very different physical characteristics (remote vs local energy resources, transmission lines or not). But the key difference is that they represent very different socio-economic energy development models and very different impacts on our communities and living ecosystems.

Local Ownership Of Clean Energy Boosts Benefits And Busts Barriers

ILSR’s new report, Advantage Local: Why Local Energy Ownership Matters, finds that local ownership of clean energy can address many of the most pressing challenges we face today, from the climate crisis to economic inequality to corporate exploitation. The report details how local clean energy ownership — as distinct from local siting — can boost the economic impacts of clean energy, cut through public opposition to project development, and put power back in the hands of people instead of polluting utility monopolies. As shown in the report, local ownership of clean energy, such as rooftop solar panels and shared solar gardens, offers numerous benefits to individual clean energy owners and their communities.

Movement That Built Puerto Rico’s First Community-Owned Microgrid

For two weeks after Hurricane Maria devastated Puerto Rico in 2017, Lucy’s Pizza was the only restaurant open in the central mountain town of Adjuntas. The town’s 18,000 residents, like those on the rest of the island, were entirely without electricity. “No one has power, you can’t get gas, it’s difficult to make food, so everyone came here to eat,” says owner Gustavo Irizarry. “The line,” he gestured down the block along the town’s central plaza, “endless.” Using a diesel generator, Lucy’s was running at about 75% capacity. The generator was loud, emitted dangerous fumes and wasn’t always reliable.

Utilities’ Failures And Shady Practices Show We Need Energy Democracy

In June of 2021, torrential rains flooded the City of Detroit and surrounding areas, causing over $100 million in damages, mostly in poor, Black, and Brown neighborhoods. Kamau Clark, an organizer for the nonprofit We The People Michigan, moved into his apartment in Detroit’s West Village neighborhood just two days before the storm. “I came home at 2AM and the apartment was flooded,” he recalls. Overwhelmed and unsure of where to turn, Clark went to a town hall on the city’s east side, where representatives from water and sewage authorities tried to explain the situation to him and a crowd of angry residents. According to officials, the city’s infrastructure was not fit to handle the unprecedented volume of rain. However, there was another problem — the storm had also caused a power outage at the city’s wastewater facilities, rendering some of their pumps only partially operational. At the time, city officials told residents that it was these outages, combined with the heavy rain, that caused the record flooding.

Rooftop Solar Forms An Alternative To Monopoly Utility Models

Since rooftop solar became possible, electric utilities have struggled to incorporate it into their outdated business model. In recent years, this lag in utility recognition has become increasingly problematic, risking the health, environmental, and financial impacts of over-investment in large fossil fuel power plants. In over 30 states, monopoly utilities submit plans for new power plants to public regulators without adequately considering how customers will serve themselves. However, a new modeling approach from Vote Solar and the Institute for Local Self-Reliance (ILSR) might finally put distributed solar on the same footing in grid planning as the large power plants that utilities prefer. Our method, first filed in a resource plan in early 2021 for Minnesota-based Xcel Energy, showed that the utility could cost-effectively add nearly 2,000 megawatts more distributed solar than it plans to, saving customers billions of dollars.
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