In Spring 2006, a group of Macalester College students started the Clean Energy Revolving Fund to use the savings that efficiency provides to finance student-driven campus projects that save energy and money. The revolving fund empowered students to envision and implement ways to make their community better and has since been institutionalized into the operating practices of the college. It served as a role model for Macalester College’s revenue positive carbon neutrality plan and dozens of other revolving funds at colleges across the country.
A second project, the development of Macalester’s EcoHouse, a green building out of an existing building, highlighted a sharp contrast in how we think about sustainability. At a time when many colleges were focusing on creating high-tech green buildings from scratch, the EcoHouse demonstrated a very different concept – how current buildings can be transformed with relatively limited investment into dramatically more sustainable spaces. Since the vast majority of the buildings we will have in fifty years have already been built, this project helps shift the focus – how can we take common sense actions to transform what is normal for energy use in our communities.
These basic ideas – that energy efficiency in existing communities grows economic opportunity and catalyzes community sustainability – were seeds for Cooperative Energy Futures.
In February 2007, our team hosted a three-day conference to envision and plan a people-based vision for a sustainable Minnesota. Out of the event came a community partnership to take the model of efficiency as an opportunity for community entrepreneurship to a broader level. Throughout 2007, we researched the contracting industry, discussed energy policy with state legislators, taught ourselves the basics of energy auditing and home energy systems, and built dozens of new partnerships with non-profit staff, small businesses owners and community leaders. Our efforts rapidly intersected with state and national policy around energy efficiency, the affordable housing and foreclosure crisis, and the rising movement among youth and community members for green jobs, energy independence, and a post-carbon society. As we delved into innovative financing, cooperative culture, and local community organizing, we found ourselves developing a strategy congruent with emerging cutting-edge research from across the country.
Cooperative Energy Futures Begins
In January 2008, we formed a Steering Committee composed of students and local efficiency leaders and named the rising initiative Cooperative Energy Futures. We spent the next two years creating the basics of a cooperative energy business and tested out our ideas:
- In summer 2008, we worked with a capstone group at the Humphrey Institute to identify strategies for asset-mapping a community, pathways for effective organizational development, and identify opportunities in the Smart Grid.
- In summer and fall 2008, we worked with students in the Summer of Solutions program to run a pilot project in St. Paul’s Merriam Park neighborhood, where we coordinated the insulation of a group of 7 homes and negotiated a group discount for all participants.
- Throughout summer and Fall 2008, we investigated and refined our organizational structure with support from Dorsey and Whitney, finally incorporating as a 308B cooperative in February 2009 with a 6-member founding Board.
- In 2009, we built a model for home energy workshops and direct product sales of home energy materials and established and developed a management system for a first wave of inventory. We also secured our first round of grant funding and a $5,000 angel investment to make this possible (successfully returned at 6% in one year).
- In 2009, we explored data analysis and community energy mapping using Google Earth and resident self-reporting in Mahtomedi to map energy usage and community energy actions.
- In 2009, we launched a website and new graphic identity.
- In late 2009 and into 2010, we started focusing in on building long-term grassroots relationships with local leaders and residents in South Minneapolis, going through a long process of building roots in a community already struggling with high energy costs, poor reliability, and many energy-linked health and economic threats.
Refining and Launching Operations
In Fall 2010, we started developing a business plan to define the major areas and the timeline of our work in a way that would provide clear opportunities in the neighborhood and welcome people to join us. We defined a four-part strategy starting with the simplest steps and moving to the most difficult for helping build a community-powered energy future:
- Basic education and engagement to help people build commitment while experiencing the direct and immediate benefits of low-cost, high-impact products and practices through our home energy workshops and product sales. We tested this model through a pilot project with the East Phillips Improvement Coalition in Summer 2011, running 29 home workshops reached by door-knocking including 11 in Spanish. In early 2012, we hired a community energy workshop organizer working to provide 160 workshops by the end of 2012.
- Neighborhood coordination to stream-line and lower the cost of major energy upgrades, especially insulation and air sealing while making it a fun neighborhood activity. We piloted this approach with a group contracting project in Fall 2011-Winter 2012, insulating 10 homes at a 3% discount with a qualified local contractor. The Corcoran Neighborhood Association has set a goal of engaging 50 more neighborhood households in this program by the end of 2012. In the future, we are looking to provide financing linked to savings, just like CERF.
- Developing a community ownership model that would allow community members to own renewable energy projects jointly. The goal of this model would be to expand participation in clean energy beyond those who have a good roof alignment and reducing the per-household upfront costs by allowing many people to jointly own a solar array located on a central community building and selling energy to that building. This model is still in development, though a number of community sites and development partners have been identified. We aim to have this element operational by late 2013.
- The final step in our process is turning the role of the average energy user on its head – from consumers to producers. Innovative energy markets are already paying energy users for valuable assets including avoided energy use, shifting the time of energy use, and producing distributed energy. We seek to create mechanisms so that communities can participate in that market, reaping the benefits of their collective actions. We expect this process will take several years.
We are going through the process of these first three steps in close partnership with a growing base of South Minneapolis members (33 and counting as of early March 2012), supporting the neighborhood in taking the lead of this transition. As this work establishes itself in the local area, we aim to broaden work to other local communities seeking these solutions as we work towards the long-term transition.