Renewable Energy Cooperatives

This resource guide is in the process of being developed and we are in search of additional resources or other examples of renewable energy cooperative organizations. Please let us know if you know of other resources or organizations we should include!


Introduction

Cooperatives are often a great approach for developing community-based renewable energy projects because they can be structured to provide benefits to individuals, businesses, or communities. They allow citizens to band together to purchase biodiesel at a lower price, for example, or provide solar installers with the opportunity to own a stake in a solar company.

We’ve compiled a basic introduction to renewable energy cooperatives with the goal of helping you (1) learn the basics of coops, (2) see examples of different types of renewable energy coops around the country, and (3) get information on how to start your own coop. This resource guide is a living document, so please let us know if there is information we should add. We especially want to know about other groups that have already started renewable energy coops.


What is a coop?

A coop is officially defined as:

“An autonomous association of persons united voluntarily to meet their common economic, social, and cultural needs and aspirations through a jointly-owned and democratically-controlled enterprise.”

The International Co-operative Alliance has established seven principles that define coops as part of their Statement on the Co-operative Identity.

Principle 1: Voluntary and Open Membership

Cooperatives are voluntary organizations, open to all persons able to use their services and willing to accept the responsibilities of membership, without gender, social, racial, political or religious discrimination.

Principle 2: Democratic Member Control

Cooperatives are democratic organizations controlled by their members, who actively participate in setting their policies and making decisions. Men and women serving as elected representatives are accountable to the membership. In primary cooperatives members have equal voting rights (one member, one vote) and co-operatives at other levels are also organized in a democratic manner.

Principle 3: Member Economic Participation

Members contribute equitably to, and democratically control, the capital of their cooperative. At least part of that capital is usually the common property of the cooperative. Members usually receive limited compensation, if any, on capital subscribed as a condition of membership. Members allocate surpluses for any or all of the following purposes: developing their cooperative, possibly by setting up reserves, part of which at least would be indivisible; benefiting members in proportion to their transactions with the cooperative; and supporting other activities approved by the membership.

Principle 4: Autonomy and Independence

Cooperatives are autonomous, self-help organizations controlled by their members. If they enter to agreements with other organizations, including governments, or raise capital from external sources, they do so on terms that ensure democratic control by their members and maintain their cooperative autonomy.

Principle 5: Education, Training and Information

Cooperatives provide education and training for their members, elected representatives, managers, and employees so they can contribute effectively to the development of their cooperatives. They inform the public - particularly young people and opinion leaders - about the nature and benefits of cooperation.

Principle 6: Cooperation among Cooperatives

Cooperatives serve their members most effectively and strengthen the cooperative movement by working together through local, national, regional and international structures.

Principle 7: Concern for Community

Cooperatives work for the sustainable development of their communities through policies approved by their members. 


How are coops structured?

Coops can be formed to benefit individuals, businesses, or communities. There are five types of cooperative businesses or organizations. For each type of coop structure we’ve tried to include examples of renewable energy organizations. If you know of a renewable energy cooperative that isn’t listed below, please let us know.

Consumer-Owned Cooperatives

Definition

  • Owned by the people who buy the goods or use the services of the cooperative.
  • Participants seek to purchase goods and services together in order to get a lower price or a higher quality product.
  • The most common form of co-op

Examples:

  • Mt. Pleasant Solar Cooperative, a group of neighbors in Washington, D.C. that use their collective purchasing power to purchase discounted solar systems and advocate for solar policy changes in the District.
  • DC Solar United Neighborhoods(DC SUN), a coalition of neighborhood solar cooperatives in Washington, D.C. that helps its members save money on solar installations.
  • The ACORN Renewable Energy Co-op, a member owned business serving the residents of the 23 towns of Addison County, Vermont. Members of the co-op receive discounts on purchasing a solar hot water system, residential solar PV systems, bulk pellet storage systems, and bulk pellet home delivery. Members also receive discounts from numerous area business partners that offer energy products and services.
  • Cooperative Community Energy, a for-profit renewable energy cooperative in which its customers are part owners in the company. Owners get a vote in the direction and activities of this organization and have the ability to purchase a solar PV system at a discounted rate.
  • Piedmont Biofuels, a North Carolina “C” Corporation that sells biofuel products and is owned and operated by its members. Each member is entitled to buy fuel from the coop and vote for the Board of Directors, which governs the corporation’s actions.
  • The Energy Co-op, a Philadelphia-based energy cooperative that offers customers sustainable energy options. Coop members receive discounts on heating oil and biodiesel, as well as the option to purchase green electricity at a discounted rate.
  • Vineyard Power, a renewable energy cooperative based on Martha's Vineyard that produces electricity from local, renewable resources while advocating for and keeping the benefits within their community. Members pay a fee to join the cooperative and have their power supplied by Vineyard Power.
  • SOAR Energy, a member-owned solar and renewable energy buyers cooperative. The cooperative purchases renewable energy credits for its members from solar and renewable energy projects in the region.
Panels installed by Vineyard Power on capped landfill in Martha's Vineyard, MA

Worker-Owned Cooperatives

Definition

  • Owned and democratically governed by their employees. 
  • Provide employees with both jobs and ownership—allowing them to directly benefit from the financial success of the business. 

Examples:

  • Sol Power Cooperative, a solar installation workers cooperative based in Providence, RI.
  • Evergreen Energy Solutions, an employee owned company that designs, installs, and develops PV solar panel arrays for institutional, governmental, and commercial markets.  
  • Pamoja Energy Solutions, a cooperatively owned solar company based out of Richmond, California. Pamoja’s mission is to provide each customer with high quality, cost-effective solar services, while promoting long-term economic development in underserved local communities. Pamoja was established in 2013 by Solar Richmond, a nonprofit organization that offers training and work opportunities to low-income and underemployed workers. By partnering with Solar Richmond (SR), Pamoja offers business ownership opportunities to SR graduates.
  • Biofuel Oasis, a worker owned and operated biofuel cooperative in Berkeley, CA that offers ASTM quality biodiesel and biodiesel made from waste oil purchased from California plants.

Biofuel Oasis Owners


Purchasing/Shared Services Cooperatives

Definition

  • Owned by small, independent businesses, municipalities or other like organizations that band together to enhance their purchasing power. 
  • Members can lower their operating costs by pooling purchasing power for goods and services. 

Examples:

  • We’re stumped! If you know of any examples of purchasing cooperatives, let us know. A great example of this type of cooperative would be a group of renewable energy installers or biofuel producers that pool their resources to buy equipment, share materials, or distribute their product. 

Producer-Owned Cooperatives

Definition

  • Owned by producers of farm commodities or crafts that band together to process and/or market their products. 
  • Members, often farmers, band together to improve their performance and competitiveness. Before cooperatives were organized, farmers were often trapped in a situation in which processors could dictate the prices paid for crops. By selling their products as a group they are able to negotiate a better price for their goods or services.

Examples:

  • We’re stumped! If you know of any examples of renewable energy producer-owned cooperatives, let us know. A good example would be a group of biofuel farmers or producers banding together to get a better price for their product. 

Hybrid Cooperatives

Definition

  • Owners develop multi-stakeholder hybrids, which seek to balance the sometimes conflicting needs of its stakeholders —for example, between consumers’ desire for affordable products and producers’ desire for higher prices for their goods. In many cases, this is tied to members’ dual roles as producers and consumers, most often in agricultural co-ops, but not always.  

Examples:

  • Energy Solidarity Co-op(ESC), a multi-stakeholder cooperative with three types of participating members: workers, consumers and sustainers.
    • Worker members are energy practitioners offering technical services and tools that support the development and management of community power projects for our consumer members.
    • Consumer members are individuals and organizations coming together to own and operate renewable energy systems, such as solar photovoltaics, within their neighborhoods.
    • Sustainer members are community investors who directly enable the development of clean community power, while their investment is repaid with interest as the project earns revenue.
  • ZooShare Biogas Co-operative, a non-profit renewable energy co-operative whose mission, through education and investment, is to be a catalyst for the growth of community-owned biogas plants. Members of the coop purchase bonds to finance biogas production plants and earn a return on their investments. Because the members are investing in the cooperative as a way to earn returns (rather than buying a membership to earn a discount on goods or services), this model is somewhat of a hybrid of the consumer-owned and producer-owned models.
  • Edmonds Community Solar Cooperative, a Washington-based company that offers members the opportunity to purchase a share in a community solar project. Coop members receive a share of the economic benefits that flow to the Cooperative based on clean energy sales, public incentives for clean energy, and potential future sources of income like greenhouse gas credits and renewable energy certificates. Because the members are investing in the cooperative as a way to earn returns (rather than buying a membership to earn a discount on goods or services), this model is somewhat of a hybrid of the consumer-owned and producer-owned models.
Edmonds Solar Cooperative members showing first payment checks

Resources

We’ve compiled some resources that may be helpful as you’re starting to develop a renewable energy cooperative. How you structure the coop will depend on your goals and whether the coop seeks to benefit consumers, workers, or the broader community. 

It’s often helpful to also speak with people who have already gone through the process of establishing a cooperative. If you’re interested in speaking with any of the groups listed above, let us know and we can put you in touch.

Getting Started

Consumer-Owned Cooperatives

  • Building a Solar Cooperative. The Center for a New American Dream put together a video on the Mt. Pleasant Solar Coop as part of its new Community Action Kits series. The video covers how the Mt. Pleasant coop was formed and how you can replicate the process. Also included in the Action Kit is information on how communities are sharing ideas and resources.
  • Mt. Pleasant Solar Coop Factsheet. A factsheet put together by The Solar Foundation on the history of the Mt. Pleasant Solar Coop and the lessons learned by its members.
  • The Pleasant Way to go Solar: Neighborhood Cooperatives. An article that outlines how the Mt. Pleasant Solar Coop got started. Gives a good overview of the different types of issues they faced, the kind of information they needed to gather as a coop in order to be successful, and the factors that contribute to starting a successful coop.

Worker-Owned Cooperatives

Resource Organizations

  • National Cooperative Business Association. An association for cooperative businesses in the United States.
  • Coops USA: A center to support the development and growth of purchasing and shared services cooperatives. They have a resource center on their website that provides:
    • Publications – a set of free publications on cooperatives and starting a cooperative
    • Development Centers – listing and contact information for a number of cooperative development centers providing assistance in rural areas under the USDA Rural Cooperative Development Grant program
    • Financial resources - listing and contact information for a number of loan and grant programs applicable for cooperative start ups and other cooperative funding sources
    • Consultants –matching people with a private consultant, identified by area of specialty, with whom Co-opsUSA has established a partnership arrangement.
  • International Co-operative Alliance. An organization that helps individuals, government authorities and regional and international institutions understand the co-operative model of enterprise.
  • US Federation of Worker Cooperatives. A national grassroots membership organization of and for worker cooperatives, democratic workplaces, and organizations that support the growth and development of worker cooperatives. 
  • The Cooperative Fund of New England (CFNE). A community development loan fund that facilitates socially responsible investing in cooperatives, community-oriented nonprofits, and worker-owned businesses in New England and adjacent communities in New York.
  • Democracy at Work Network. A network of certified peer advisors that provide technical assistance services to worker cooperatives. 

Sample Documents