Co-ops; Choosing and Creating Change (Part 2)

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[Click here to read Part 1 of this article]

Faced with the menace of global warming, food co-ops are playing a vital role in bringing about needed change. For instance, in 2006, just after the European Union had deregulated and democratized Europe’s national monopolistic electric systems, Biocoop, the largest organic food contractor, processor, and distributor in France, joined forces with Greenpeace and Friends of the Earth to create a 100-percent-green electric utility.

They called it, appropriately, Enercoop, a cooperative venture, owned by its employees and member-users (I am one).

Enercoop was the first such energy cooperative in France, generating all of its electricity from clean, renewable sources, specifically hydro, solar, wind, and biomass. When Enercoop was originally formed, the business media scoffed, calling it an environmentalist’s fantasy, and predicted Enercoop would vanish in less than two years. Over the last 11 years, Enercoop has not only continued to exist but has steadily grown to a base of 47,000 member-users in 2017. In April, the magazine Que Choisir (What to Buy, France’s equivalent of Consumer Reports) rated the 12 electric utilities serving France. Enercoop was rated number one, not only because of its 100 percent green electricity, competitive pricing, and customer satisfaction, but also because of its business ethics, integrity, and financial transparency. More than half of Enercoop’s yearly profits are used to create more renewable electricity.

Could Enercoop Happen in NY?

The Enercoop cooperative model cannot be duplicated for food co-ops in New York state, because the electric utilities-grid system has not been democratized and the grid has not been separated from the large electricity utilities. For example, where I live in France, my electric service is provided by Enercoop, but the woman who lives in the apartment above me has her service with Direct Energy, while the couple in the apartment next to mine have their electric service with EDF. That’s much different than in New York state where utilities have zones of exclusivity over the grid and often over electricity service as well. Anyone living in these zones has little choice; they must get their electric service delivered though the region’s ‘historical’ (big, quasi-monopoly) utility, such as National Grid or Con Edison.

NY State Introduces Community Solar

In 2016, the New York State Energy Research and Development Authority (NYSERDA) introduced a new regulated program called Community Solar, disrupting the standard utility zone model. This game changer was not technological, it simply allowed a group of customers in a utility’s zone to join together and form a self-proclaimed ‘community’ for the purposes of producing solar electricity at a single, communal location that delivers solar energy to the electric grid. Each Community Solar participant then gets credit on their home electric bill for their share of solar-generated electricity.

This Community Solar program opens a new horizon for food co-ops in New York state, giving them the means to offer their members and clients green electricity to help minimize emissions that lead to climate change. And, most importantly, they can do this without incurring any debt, because Community Solar is entirely self-funded. That means food co-ops in New York state can host the formation of a Community Solar group from their base of members and clients. Thereafter, the community operates on its own as an electricity co-op within the larger food co-op enterprise. Commonly, food co-ops become vital enablers of these Community Solar groups because, in addition to providing a group of community members, they may also be able to provide the necessary space for placing solar panels, such as on roofs, over parking lots, and/or on a parcel of open land.

How Community Solar Works

A Community Solar group is formed when 10 or more people join together to form a community and pledge money to install the necessary number of solar panels at a selected location. This community then appoints a sponsor (i.e., a leadership group or committee) that acts in its interest and manages a few required details. The community and the sponsor next select a NYSERDA-certified solar installer to install and connect the solar-panel array, ready for grid connection. Lastly, the local utility connects the solar array to the grid through a meter.

Once electricity starts flowing into the grid, the local utility is obligated to offset (or credit) each Community Solar member’s home billing, based on the member’s percentage of ownership and the electric production of the solar array (kWh, or kilowatts per hour). This monthly offset in the member’s home billing continues indefinitely, until the member’s original investment in the solar array is paid off, which typically occurs in about 12-15 years. Over the average lifetime of the solar panels, each member’s share would amount to a minimum of 25,000 kWh of clean, renewable electricity delivered to the grid. As a comparison, consider that, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration, the average monthly electricity consumption for a residential utility customer is about 903 kWh per month.

The above diagram shows how a Community Solar co-op would function. The members would raise the funds required and appoint a Sponsor, i.e., a leadership group or council. They would then contract with a solar installer to have the panels installed at a specified location. The electric output of the solar array connects to the Utility’s grid and is metered. The Sponsor also informs the Utility what percentage each member owns of the solar array. The Utility then credits each member’s home billing with their percentage of the solar electricity generated, thus reducing their billing charge and re-paying the member’s investment over time. (image courtesy of NYSERDA)

The Basic Rules

Following are the basic rules for a NYSERDA Community Solar group:

  • There must be at least 10 members in the community;
  • Each member must have residential electric service with the same utility (e.g., National Grid);
  • Each member must own at least 1,000 kWh per year of electric generation (in New York State, this equates to three solar panels with an estimated installed cost of $2,800);
  • Each member cannot own more solar panels than are needed to generate their historic annual electric usage (kWh);
  • The solar array must be located in the same utility zone as the members’ home utility service provider;
  • Members can only be in one Community Solar group at a time.

Beyond Roofs

The location of a community’s solar panels is not limited to roofs. Other unused spaces can also be utilized, such as otherwise empty space over parking lots and available space within agricultural lands.

A Way Forward

Community Solar is not a technical innovation, but a social-cooperative initiative. Its potential for food co-ops in New York State promises a bright and shining future for members who want to come together to protect our environment by producing more clean, renewable electricity, which they may not be able to do on their own.

The need to generate more green electricity is paramount. With global warming and climate change currently destroying forest land, wiping out crops, and destroying entire towns, communities, and neighborhoods, it is a critical time to act. As in the past, food co-ops have proven instrumental in disrupting ‘business-as-usual,’ because they are typically comprised of people who desire change for a better world. Let’s work together to keep making a better world!

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Dennis Shibut is an environmental physicist and technical communicator. A former researcher for NASA and the US Coast and Geodetic Survey, he publishes the Kyoto Action Report. He is also a member of the Union of Concerned Scientists and the Sierra Club. He is currently an Ambassador at Enercoop in France where he resides and has been a life-long ‘co-oper’ in food, housing, banking, and electric utilities.