Spotlight: Cooperative Energy

Timothy DenHerder-Thomas, of Cooperative Energy Futures, is co-creating a collective that puts the Community into solar gardens in Minneapolis and St. Paul.

Timothy DenHerder-Thomas

Timothy DenHerder-Thomas, Cooperative Energy Futures general manager

In a recent series of discussions with Minneapolis neighborhood and business advocates, hosted by Xcel Energy to talk about engaging community with energy efficiency and pending solar, one of the many voices at the table was Timothy DenHerder-Thomas, a bright, insightful East Coast transplant who has mobilized youth leaders around sustainability, economic revitalization, and social justice since his undergraduate days at Macalester College.

As a Macalester senior in 2009, then 22-year-old DenHerder-Thomas was one of two students in the nation to win the Mario Savio Young Activist Award. He was given the award for his role in the climate debates, said the Berkeley-based award chairperson at the time, for being “exceptionally creative and ingenious in developing new, self-sustaining projects” that “builds bridges across class divides and challenges the system from within.”

Since then, DenHerder-Thomas has co-founded the local Cooperative Energy Futures, whose mission is to “empower people to participate in simple climate and energy solutions that work for everyone.”

Backstory: Minnesota’s energy future

At the recent CERTS conference, where solar energy was a primary topic of conversation, someone in the audience pointed out that it would be nice to put “community” back into the concept of Community Solar Gardens.

Some very hard-working people have helped Minnesota become a leading state for solar power. Now with legislated mandates, solar developers who have worked in places from Florida to Colorado to California are setting up shop to secure some of the large investment – and tax break incentives – that are in play until the end of 2016.

Many developers are aiming their energy, so to speak, at the commercial business – it is easier to fill a subscribed array. But some are courting residential subscribers for the benefits and cost savings of Community Solar Gardens (CSGs).

Cooperative Energy Futures (CEF) is one early, local player that intends to bring the benefits of solar to the community – especially the reduction of personal energy costs.

CEF has a particularly community-minded mission: Its members believe cooperative ownership of community solar will create broad access for all communities, and engage subscribers not just as customers, but as member-owners of community-power energy.

How CEF Stands Out

  • Local grassroots organizer: The Minnesota-based cooperative offers do-it-yourself weatherization trainings, bulk purchasing of home efficiency products for members, and group contracting for advanced home insulation and air sealing services. Since 2012, it has innovated residential solar bulk-buying with financing models that reduce or eliminate upfront costs. It has been working since 2013 to educate communities – particularly low-income families and renters – about the benefits of CSG.
  • Low-income workforce: It partners with local workforce organizations – including Renewable NRG Partners – to create training and jobs for low-income communities and communities of color.
  • Affordability: Says DenHerder-Thomas, CEF General Manager: “We are concerned about the prices for residential subscriptions to date. CEF is dedicated to creating much more meaningful savings for subscribers and putting community solar within the reach of residents concerned about energy affordability. Many developers rely on credit scores to determine eligibility. This largely blocks participation by the low-income families that are most in need of the savings. We are working with community organizations, cooperative financing partners, and local governments to create a simple, low-risk monthly payment system that will make community solar accessible without a credit check.”
  • Local development: CEF focuses on 200-250kW arrays on large roofs, to “increase visibility, opportunities for local job creation, and a sense of direct ownership by cooperative members.” While this kind of medium-sized projects is slightly more expensive per watt installed, the higher Renewable Energy Credit rate and reduced construction and interconnection costs makes the project viable. It also is working toward sites for larger ground-mounted CSGs at or near 1MW. It does not plan to group multiple 1MW projects around a single interconnection, as has become common.
  • Rooted Community Partnership: CEF focuses on serving communities — geographic, cultural, or faith-based — that wish to develop CSGs. Says DenHerder-Thomas: “Our primary goal is to empower communities as members of a shared clean energy enterprise, and design projects that help them achieve their goals and visions. CEF supports communities as a project developer and long-term facilities manager that is owned and controlled by the subscribers who are our members.”
  • Subscription Method: CEF uses both upfront and pay-as-you-go subscription models depending on the community served. It encourages the use of upfront subscription models that reduce financing costs and maximize long-term savings to subscribers. For smaller projects serving low-income communities, it uses a hybrid model in which some subscriptions are sold upfront and others, targeted for low-income families, are pay-as-you-go. CEF works with communities to structure subscription options to meet needs and provide transparency of the long-term costs and benefits of each option. Its intention is to achieve savings for upfront subscribers equivalent to at least a 5% return on investment, and average savings for pay-as-you-go subscribers equivalent to 8% or more discount on energy costs.
  • Community Wealth: As a cooperative, CEF does not have an incentive to generate excess profits beyond development, operation, and administrative costs and operating reserves. Any excess profit is distributed to members based on their share of subscriptions.

To reach its goals, CEF is developing partnerships with community developers, local government, financial investors, and outreach coordinators.

Once elements are in place, it will develop community solar in the range of 200-250kW, or 500-1,000kW. Contact CEF for up-to-date information about progress towards the model and how to get involved.

As DenHerder-Thomas says, anyone can also become a member of the cooperative (a one-time $25 share) “to be a part of a democratic, member-owned business leading the way towards community powered energy.”
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