The Longer Story…
Its a long story, but a new idea often takes a long time to find home.
"Commons" are a little known tool for economic sharing and community empowerment in the US. Thus we begin the story below with some general examples of commons from around the world before coming to a detailed look at how U.S. commons-making works with the familiar natural resource of water. Based on what we know about managing water as commons, we can explore what it would look like to manage a socio-technical resource like electricity, and more specifically solar-generated electricity, as a commons. This page uses the history of the Solar Commons Project to delve into how commons-thinking can work to bring greater social and ecological equity to the US electricity sector.
THE IDEA OF SOLAR COMMONS WAS DISCOVERED IN A LITTLE LEAGUE BALLPARK...
...when two neighbors—an architect and an anthropologist—found themselves sitting next to each other under the blazing Arizona sun watching their sons play baseball in a first ring suburb of metro Phoenix.
They introduced themselves: the architect specializing in green design and the anthropologist researching “commons,” how people around the world protect and manage shared resources to create commonwealth benefits for the whole community. New to the concept of commons, the architect asked for examples and the anthropologist offered a few: from the Swiss Alps, village rules that have enabled local farmers to share pastureland for the past 500 years; in Bali, thousand-year-old water temples and rituals that help rice farmers manage the "Subak" cooperative irrigation system they have built throughout their mountain watershed. These shared pasture lands and irrigation systems are commons. They are natural-social-cultural systems with cooperative management structures that equitably share the commonwealth of a local resource. There are many ways to define commons, the anthropologist explained. Some like to say that, generally speaking, commons are gifts of nature and society and the rules and traditions that help people equitably share and pass these gifts down to future generations.
Anthropologists study persistent commons traditions like these to better understand how local communities work successfully together to manage local resources and fairly distribute the benefits.
But the architect was still curious. What, he wanted to know, would be considered a “commons” today in metro Phoenix?
WHAT ARE COMMONS?
They pondered the question of natural and social resource sharing against the background hum of ten million air conditioners. Phoenix is the sixth largest city in the US. It sits in the Sonoran Desert on the site of an ancient, elaborate canal system built by ancestors of the Pima and Tohono O'odham peoples whose communities are scattered throughout Arizona today. Since the later twentieth century, global warming has made each summer hotter than the year before. Millions of Phoenix air conditioners draw electricity from greenhouse gas-emitting coal and natural gas power plants as well as the nation’s largest nuclear power station a few miles outside the city. Thousands of Phoenix residents cannot afford the technology to cool their homes. Just as it did seven hundred years ago in the age its great indigenous irrigation civilization, the city today also sits in one of the largest and most complex commons of all: the earth’s climate system. But if the air pollution from fossil fueled industrial societies is not curbed, Phoenix and many southern cities around the globe will be too hot for humans to live in. The first to suffer will be those who cannot afford the cooling technologies and electricity in the first place. Can we imagine governing the earth's vast and complex climate system as a commons with local and global rules and institutions to protect it and share its commonwealth? Perhaps it is better to start small.
Is the air over Phoenix a commons? If so, it is a very badly managed one. Phoenix breathers suffer from inhaling some of the US’s most polluted air and here too, the communities living in the most smog congested areas are the poorest. Phoenix grew up around the automobile with freeways and suburban sprawl. Most Phoenix residents are more familiar with the private property they own in their cars and backyards than with the common property they breathe in their air and share with all residents of the city. To really qualify as “commons,” Phoenix residents would need to feel and understand their stewardship obligation as breathers, drivers, industrial toxin emitters; then the air would need to be managed well on behalf of and with participation from all Phoenix breathers and air users, rich and poor (keeping future breathers in mind as well). Sadly, this is not yet the case.
So, what would be considered a “commons” today in metro Phoenix? While some commons--like the earth's atmosphere and high seas--would need rules and monitoring at an international level, most effective commons we know of have local governance structures where people can be held accountable by and to each other. How would this work in Phoenix? Are there resources that belong to everyone with commonly held rules that protect the resource while enabling all Phoenix users to adequately and fairly access it? Are there institutions that manage the resource, so that its commonwealth benefits are equitably shared? Certainly one thinks of the city government and the things it manages on behalf of Phoenix residents. In the US, municipal governments are important sites of local rule-making, different than state and federal legislatures. Water is a good example of a shared resource with local governance. Is water in Phoenix treated as a commons? The city's water services department uses tax dollars and paying customers to treat, deliver, and monitor tap water. It manages sewage and treats wastewater. In Phoenix, management of water is entrusted to city experts who are required to meet federal and state EPA water quality standards. So, does the delivery of good drinking water work equitably in Phoenix? The city's water infrastructure system includes monitoring for contaminants, but many older and poorer homes have lead pipes that leach toxic elements at the most local level, a resident's faucet. Those who can afford to use filters on their drinking water do so. While not perfect, in terms of managing the city's drinking water fairly and effectively, Phoenix does a pretty good job.
Do local water users participate in how water is protected and managed? Most city residents are not well aware of the work and monitoring needed to take care of their water. When a crisis like that in Flint, Michigan occurs, urban residents become aware of risks and question how fairly decision makers act with regard to all water users. Water Protectors today are organizing around threatened sites throughout the US. If Phoenix residents felt obligated and had opportunities to participate in local ways, protection and management of their water commons might be more robust, knowledge of water quality and value might be more common. Nevertheless, imperfect as it is, Phoenix water infrastructure is one kind of contemporary commons.
An important question to ask about any commons is: what are its boundaries? What are the boundaries of the Phoenix water commons? As a desert city, Phoenix needs to get much of its water elsewhere. About half of Phoenix's water is diverted from the Colorado River which nourishes some 40 million people and agricultural fields in an area extending from Boulder to Los Angeles. The Colorado River used to feed towns in northern Mexico as well, but the US has created rules and built infrastructures--damns, reservoirs, canals--that use up most of the water before it gets to its southern neighbors. In fact, the laws that govern how states and cities share the river's flow are famously irrational: they allocate "paper water" use that exceeds the actual water flow. And now, after 16 years of drought, the gifts of snow melt and rain that nourish the Colorado River are also out of sync with how US farmers and cities are allowed to use it. Lake Mead, a reservoir that holds Colorado River water for Phoenix and Northern Mexico, is dangerously low. How Phoenix manages its water is nested in how the western United States governs the Colorado River and how the earth's climate system replenishes that river. And all of this impacts the fair share received by towns and farmers downstream in northern Mexico. This vast interconnected water system requires management at many levels.
From a commons perspective, it is important to create workable boundaries that enable people to protect and manage their commons at the most local levels possible. Keeping in mind the larger web of life, the Phoenix water commons would extend outward to the city's jurisdictional limit and inward to neighborhood communities. Phoenix elected officials and city employees responsible for maintaining water services for all residents are part of the city's water commons. Ideally, Phoenix would also have water representatives involved in the governance structure of the Colorado River, a structure that would include Mexico and all communities in the watershed.
How do residents participate at the neighborhood scale of the Phoenix water commons? Here is where commons thinking can engage with local culture. In Phoenix, local journalists help monitor water by reporting on contamination cases and by regularly revealing outrageous water waste (there is a steady stream of stories confronting the conundrum of water waste among the city's many revenue-generating golf courses). But Phoenix residents are not known to "drought-shame" water-wasting neighbors like they do in California. The cultural landscape of Phoenix is like many postwar cities in the nation's sunbelt: suburban sprawl and lack of public transportation isolate neighbors making them less likely to form neighborhood associations that might get involved in local water governance. Consequently, at these most local levels, Phoenix residents can manage their personal water use, but they will not easily find ways to act collectively for the common good. Nevertheless, on the backstreets of certain neighborhood streets and parks in Phoenix, there are signs of "commoning:" old concrete irrigation standpipes have been covered in beautiful public art that depicts the interconnections of water, wildlife and community responsibility. They are not functional like the Bali water temples that regularly bring local water users together to plan an equitable and sustainable water distribution through the various mechanisms of the sacred Subak irrigation system, but these compelling ceramic cylinders are nonetheless aspects of "commoning" that remind passersby to protect and value water in the city.
Commons are good to think with
Back on those hard, sun-burnt Little League bleachers, the architect and anthropologist arrived at an understanding that the Phoenix water commons is formed by natural, social, and cultural systems: water, laws & institutions, and values & everyday practices. The Phoenix water commons has complex levels of management, mostly by state employees and less so by civic associations. But a key trait of any commons-managed resource is that it is not managed by market entities and market principles. It may be cheaper to deliver water by a private corporation; it may be more efficient to raise water rates in order to raise the salaries of city water employees. These market-based practices are not generally done in the US because water is a public good and not a private good or market commodity. In other places around the world water has been privatized. Water users have often contested this. From a commons perspective, water is a precious gift of nature. It must be managed equitably and sustainably on behalf of all water users. The Phoenix water commons does this with municipal government workers and, more recently, local residents who are becoming more aware of the local value of their water.
But why bother to use the term "commons" when talking about sharing and managing water in Phoenix? The Phoenix water commons is quite different than the commons found in Swiss alpine pastures and Indonesian irrigation systems of Bali. Yes, "commons" is a useful term to describe how small scale societies shared resources in the past. And yes, commons are still strong in places where colonization and industrialization have not radically disrupted the lifeways of local peoples. But to describe the diverse ways that water is managed as a public good in cities like Phoenix today? For the architect, it remained unclear. What good can it do to think about Phoenix water management as a commons?
Anthropologists like to say that "culture is good to think with." The same can be said about commons. Commons thinking should be good for problem solving when the problem involves managing natural resources that belong to everyone like air and water or managing socio-technical resources that everyone shares like the internet or the electricity grid. Commons thinking should also be helpful for addressing problems of economic inequality. It should contribute solutions that look different than what we see from states and markets.
Using ideas from their discussion of water as a commons in Phoenix, the anthropologist and the architect embarked on a thought experiment: think of another resource--natural or social--that could qualify as a commons and see if it helps solve a problem.
After looking around from his bleacher perch, the architect offered, "What about right-of-way? Could right-of-way be considered a modern commons?"
Putting their heads together, they assumed a commons perspective and started noodling the possibilities of using right-of-way to address the dual problems of environmental degradation and social inequality in Phoenix. Their thinking went like this:
Right-of-Way: A Social Resource Commons
Right-of-way is a common set of rules you use when you come to a stop sign while driving. But right-of-way is not just a pathway created for cars. Just as rivers are natural resources for common use, right-of-way (ROW) is a social resource for common use. ROW allows railroads, gas pipelines, electricity transmission grids to move wherever they need to go--through farmers' fields and county forests; into neighborhood parks and even across a neighbor's backyard. States and cities use right-of-way to create highways and streets. Corporations use right-of-way to place place commercial billboards, cell phone towers, and gas and oil pipelines. States issue permits to use right-of-way. They are given to those who prove they are delivering a public good that meets a public need and is done in the public interest. Because it is socially designed to work for a common good, we can say that right-of-way is a social resource commons and a tool for commons-making.
In fact history supports the connection between right-of-way and commons. The idea of a right-of-way arose in the English common law tradition around the time of the enclosure movement, when English landowners began fencing off lands on their property that had long been set aside as “commons,” open agricultural fields and pastureland for the landless peasants who made up the majority of England's feudal population. Commons were a subsistence right of landless "commoners" to grow their own crops and graze their household animals. As enclosure laws threw fences and new forms of exclusive private property across the countryside, peasants and villagers needed a way to get to relatives and neighbors who suddenly found themselves on the other side of new pockets of private land. Thus there arose throughout England the idea of a “right-of-way,” a cut-across pathway for people to pass through the now privatized, former commons. Today, modern England is crisscrossed by right-of-way paths. Former crown lands like the US, Canada, and Australia also have rights-of-way protected in the common law tradition. At various times in history, when commoners felt private interests were encroaching on their rights-of-way, right-of-way movements arose and people re-established their rights. In 2000, for example, a UK organization called “The Ramblers” helped created the Countryside and Rights of Way Act that protected new generations of right-of-way users throughout the UK. So, yes. Right-of-way is a kind of "residual" commons in modern landscapes like the US where English common law tradition operates.
Putting on Our Commons Thinking Cap: Right-of-Way, Phoenix Air Pollution and Poverty
THE PROBLEMS Phoenix is plagued by air pollution and faces a precarious future in a warming climate where water resources will dwindle and greater electricity needs for cooling the city would contribute to more global warming if the current fossil fuel energy infrastructure remained in place. Moreover, like other cities in the US, Phoenix has experienced greater economic insecurity for its shrinking middle class and its growing population of poor and destitute. Accessing solar energy could address all of these problems: air pollution (moving transportation from dirty fossil fuels to clean solar power); increased electricity needs (solar power is local and does not need gas and petroleum pipelines nor coal burning power plants--around one third of Arizona's electricity generation came from coal in 2015; gas and nuclear each supply a third of the state's remaining electricity) and poverty (the wealth from locally generated solar electricity can be kept in and shared with the local community).
As of 2015 only one tenth of Arizona's electricity comes from renewable energy and most of that comes from the hydro-power stations along the Colorado river. Only four percent of Arizona's net electricity production comes from solar energy and yet Arizona's solar energy resource is one of the largest of any state. Solar energy is a commons resource. The sun shines for everyone. Why is the state not using more solar energy? Sadly, Arizona only requires that 15% of its energy come from renewable resources by 2025 (compared to neighboring California which requires that 50% of its energy be renewable by 2030). Already we can see that, unlike with water in Phoenix, Arizona is not doing a good job of managing its commons resource in solar energy. How might "commons thinking" work through the commons resource tool of right-of-way to help Phoenix residents access and use solar energy to address the dual problems of economic inequality and ecological peril?
COMMONS ACCESS SOLUTIONS The sun shines for everyone and Phoenix has more sunshine than most cities. Right-of-way is a key access point for Phoenix residents to use their sunshine commons for electricity generation. In fact, three commons resources can be brought together to help address the problems of Co2 air pollution and poverty in Phoenix: one resource is natural (sunshine) and the others social (solar electricity technology and right-of-way rules). Well managed-access to these commons resources should be available to all Phoenix residents. While only one of these commons resources (sunshine) is free, equitable access to all of them is part of what city rule-making (i.e. government) in Phoenix is for.
MAKING ACCESS RULES The city of Phoenix has authority to create rules to equitably lease (share) the right-of-way belonging to Phoenix residents. If it treated its social resource of right-of-way like it treats its natural resource of water--like a public good-- then city government would be managing the people's right-of-way as a commons and residents should see a diverse group of citizens accessing and using those commons to produce solar energy. Right now, however, there are only two large electric utility corporations "drinking from" the social resource of Phoenix's electricity enabled right-of-way: one investor-owned (APS) and the other publicly-owned (SRP). They enjoy monopoly ownership of the distribution grid that takes up all the city's right-of-way space for delivering electricity. The city has leased APS and SRP all this space so that they can sell the electricity they generate in their large centralized and remote coal, nuclear, gas and hydro-power stations. Decades ago, it would have made sense, from a commons perspective, to create rules that shared the city's electricity right-of-way space with only two large players. No one would want the poles and wires and fumes of the coal-fueled generators of that era on every city block. It made sense to locate them and their CO2 emissions outside the city. It made sense to make rules that give utilities like APS and SRP monopolies in the county right-of-way that brings the electricity in to Phoenix on massive transmission lines. It made sense to keep those monopoly rules going for the right-of-way that passes through city neighborhoods on the APS and SRP-owned distribution grids. At the time, it was a very good act of rule-making by counties and cities who have authority to manage the right-of-way commons for their electricity-using residents.
CHANGING ACCESS RULES But today things have changed and so must our rule-making. CO2 is an ever more widely produced greenhouse gas, saturating the earth's dwindling carbon space commons. Just as the industrializing cities of the global North did decades ago, today more and more of earth's communities in the global South are using that shared carbon space as they become electrified with the coal that is at hand in their landscape. But fortunately for all of us, technology has also changed. Solar technology can generate clean electricity. And it can do so most efficiently at local points of use in the city--on rooftops of homes and big box stores; on hospitals, waste water treatment plants, churches, schools, covered parking. In Phoenix and many other US cities, right-of-way rule-making no longer needs to accommodate new transmission lines and other costly assets delivering dirty electricity from distant fossil fuel power plants. Local solar generation can add clean electricity to city distribution grids as long as cities change their right-of-way access rules. (Hamburg, Germany and Boulder, Colorado have both done this. And Minneapolis, Minnesota has similarly changed their rules.) How would this work in Phoenix? How would Phoenix change their access rules?
Market, State, and Commons Players Changing the Access Rules
Solar electricity could cool everyone without increasing global warming. Solar electricity could fuel cars and lessen the air pollution over Phoenix. And, solar energy could be owned by communities in ways that keep the wealth of electricity sales local. Since 2010, the installed price of solar energy has been cut in half. Why, then, are we not seeing all the right-of-way in Phoenix filled with solar arrays? Why don't solar energy panels line the highways and boulevards just as the city's electric lights do? Why are there no solar shade structures covering the city's many canals, protecting precious water from evaporating as a matter of public infrastructure? Why haven't private markets stepped in and used Phoenix right-of-way for solar? Why haven't city and state government agencies also used the right-of-way opportunity to work with solar in the public interest for the common good? This is a failure of both markets and governments.
Market and State Failure: Why is it that markets and states have failed us in the area of clean electricity? They work well in other areas of modern life, why not here? A private investor-owned utility like APS has little incentive to see their monopoly right-of-way access rules changed. They have massively invested in gigantic fossil-fuel and nuclear power assets. Those distant assets are connected to paying customers through distribution grids that have exclusive right-of-way. If other, clean electricity producers can access that right-of-way, APS's carbon intense assets will be stranded. Private corporations cannot act against their own best interests. That would make no sense. APS cannot support changing the access rules. But what about SRP? Here is a publicly-owned utility, an agency of the state of Arizona. Voters in the SRP district elect SRP's board of directors who, in turn, manage the electric utility. Why would voters not wish to change the current system? Are voters voting against their own interests as breathers and users of the earth's climate system? Where do voters get the information they need to responsibly vote on an issue like this? Are voters encouraged by a broader culture in the state of Arizona that tells them climate change is not real; that the public health costs of dirty air and hotter summers are not their immediate concern? For whatever their reasons, the majority of these voters and this state-managed monopoly utility have not shown themselves to be capable of supporting competition in their right-of-way from locally generated solar energy. So, neither the market-based nor the state-run monopoly utilities that serve Phoenix are currently, structurally capable of solving the right-of-way access problem that would bring more locally owned solar energy to Phoenix. Even if the city of Phoenix wanted to allow more competition in their right-of-way from local solar producers, they would not likely have the support of these powerful state or market owners.
Could there be a commons solution for this problem of state and market failure?
The 2009 Nobel laureate in economics, Elinor Ostrom, would say yes. There are some resources, Ostrom proved, that are better managed by commons rules and commons institutions than by market and state sector ones. Ostrom won the Nobel prize for her work on commons as effective economic tools. For Ostrom, in solving social problems, it was always important to ask whether the commons tool of local, cooperative ownership might be a good answer. But Ostrom also noted that commons ownership required another legal tool that had long been important in managing commons: community TRUST. Ostrom had studied how Swiss farmers built trust into their rules for managing alpine pasture lands by ensuring that the farmers who used the rules had authority to change the rules if circumstances changed; to gain trust, rule-making should also be transparent, Ostrom said, and all who benefit from the resource should be part of its management. Ostrom studied the role of "trust" in communities around the world that effectively managed shared resources at both local and global scales. From local fisheries and community policing to global climate accords and regional river treaties. Whether trust was formed in face to face encounters of villagers sharing a common water hole or by representatives of nation states creating a world heritage trust for deep sea resources and farmer's seeds. Most importantly, Ostrom's Nobel prize work encouraged others to come up with their own solutions to contemporary resource problems by making creative use of the commons tools of community trusts and cooperative ownership. Our Children's Trust project is a powerful, creative interpretation of Ostrom's ideas: US children, state by state, taking the US government to court for not fulfilling its trust responsibility to take care of the earth's atmosphere.
Community Trust Ownership For Solar Energy
How might trust ownership be applied to right-of-way and solar energy? Inspired by Ostrom's work, the anthropologist further brainstormed the problem. Yes, Phoenix's two gigantic utilities enjoy monopoly ownership of the electricity distribution grid that runs in Phoenix right-of-way. But that very day the headline in the Phoenix paper showed irate homeowners protesting against one of those utilities for putting new high-voltage power lines in the greenbelt behind their backyards. The neighbors were angry. Perhaps these angry electricity customers were ready to organize more forcefully to bring change. After all, why build high-voltage power lines to bring electricity in from distant power plants when local rooftop and community solar installations could add electricity to the local grid?
From a commons perspective, it is clear that the new distributed solar technology creates an opportunity that can only be accessed if right-of-way rules are updated to allow local communities to share the electricity grid right-of-way with the investor and state-owned monopoly utilities. How would this be done? It would not make sense to add more distribution wires to the right-of-way, but it would make sense to create new rules that shared those wires that were already in the people's right-of-way with the people who wanted to use it for solar energy. So, making the electricity grid right-of-way shareable is one part of a commons solution to the problem of market and government failure to generate local solar electricity.
But a commons solution should also bring greater economic equality to the solution. How would low-income communities be able to participate in this new right-of-way commons? Ostrom's idea of community trust ownership could be creatively applied to make sure that right-of-way access was functional for everyone who wanted to benefit from the common wealth of solar electricity. How would this work? Arizona has a strong tradition of community trust ownership: conservation trusts hold wetlands and other habitat areas on behalf of plants & critters to protect them from urban and industrial development; community land trusts hold urban & rural land on behalf of low-income residents to protect them from rising property prices that come with gentrification. In fact, these community trust institutions exist around the US and the world. With a twist on the popular community trust idea, local donors (or local financiers) with social missions to help the poor could fund a solar array that could be placed in a "solar" community trust. The trust could collect money from selling "solar services" such as electricity, and the money could be dispersed to beneficiaries in low-income communities through energy assistance programs, homeless shelters, community gardens, and a whole variety of creative ways to serve community need.
Imagining the First Solar Commons
Using the commons tools of right-of-way and community trust ownership, the architect and anthropologist came up with the first idea for Solar Commons: place solar photovoltaic panels in right of way along new areas planned for the Phoenix light rail corridor. These areas would need more electricity to run the proposed trains. The areas were also home to many moderate and low-income homeowners and small businesses who were afraid of seeing their neighborhoods gentrified as the new light rail made property taxes and rents go up and attracted new chain stores and upscale condos to replace the older neighborhoods. The solar panels could be mounted atop shade structures at light rail stops. They could feed locally generated clean electrons directly to the grid. The solar arrays would be owned as a community trust which would sell the solar electricity to the grid or, behind the meter, to an adjacent user. The trust would earn a twenty year revenue stream from solar purchase agreements that would last for the twenty year life of the solar panels. The revenue from solar energy sales would pay for maintenance and insurance of the panels and it would create a remaining income stream for a local beneficiary--a neighborhood nonprofit who could maximize the twenty year income stream to serve the needs of the area’s low-income residents. The income stream could be transformed into energy assistance on an electricity bill, meals for the isolated elderly and homeless, community gardens, innovative job programs. Like the agricultural commons of medieval England, these “Solar Commons” would provide livelihood assistance to those in need. Just as the labor of the landless peasants captured the sun’s commonwealth by growing and harvesting plants in local common fields, the solar technology would capture the sun’s commonwealth by turning it into electricity and an income stream for those in need who lived along the new light rail corridor. Medieval commons were owned in “trust” and managed by Church organizations (trustees) for the benefit of the landless poor; Solar Commons would be owned as community trusts and managed by nonprofits for the benefit of low-income neighborhoods.
To help make their thinking more real, the architect and anthropologist had some renditions drawn of the first Solar Commons they imagined along the Phoenix Metro Light Rail. Because neither sunshine, nor distributed solar technology, nor right-of-way were thought of as "commons" by residents of twenty-first century Phoenix, they knew that Solar Commons would need not only the creative ownership strategy of community trust, but also public art and signage to help passersby recognize and normalize the new values being created in their city. Thus the architect proposed a mosaic inlay on the light rail platform telling metro riders: Your Right of Way, Working For You.
Building Actually Existing Solar Commons
Realizing the Solar Commons was a wholly other initiative. To do that, the anthropologist enlisted community partnerships. She raised the money for a Solar Commons demonstration project that could test the idea and, in the testing, create a valuable community asset. The new ideas behind Solar Commons were complex legal intricacies that would eventually be spelled out in an obtuse academic paper. But the anthropologist also wanted to continue in the commons tradition and communicate its value in a way that everyone could understand. Thus was born the idea that Solar Commons would use the emotional techniques of public art to signal how solar technology, owned as a community trust, could deliver ecological and social good. The first community partner to join the Solar Commons project was the city's only community land trust, Newtown Community Development Corporation. Newtown served the affordable housing community in Phoenix and eventually embraced the innovative idea of owning a solar asset as trust property on behalf of low-income communities. The nonprofit On The Commons agreed to be the project's fiscal agent.
It took years of work to prototype the first actually existing Solar Commons. Community trust-owned solar did not exist in the United States. Even after raising the money for a 10kW demonstration project and winning an award from the US Green Building Council (USGBC) that would make this first Solar Commons a USGBC Legacy Project in Arizona, the obstacles to working in public right-of-way were enormous. The Phoenix Metro Light Rail authority wanted two million dollars of insurance to site the solar array in the Metro right-of-way. Looking for another low-income area public site with less of an insurance burden, the project was moved around several city parks, supported initially by several city councils, and reviewed by several public works departments. Each time, the project was welcomed; it inspired generous labor from city employees and Solar Commons consultants and volunteers. But, even when the donated project showed that it posed no burden and brought low-income community benefit, the public process that required competitive bidding and lengthy reviews proved too time consuming for a demonstration project on a shoestring budget.
In 2017, the decision was made to leave the public right-of-way and locate Solar Commons on lands owned privately by nonprofits serving low-income communities. Suddenly enthusiastic nonprofits were offering to be Solar Commons trustees and solar electricity purchasers. The Solar Commons thus continued as the community-engaged, academic research project of the anthropologist, Kathryn Milun, who gathered a research team and set out to build Solar Commons prototypes and share best practices with a broader public: The first actually existing Solar Commons prototype was built behind-the-meter in Tucson, Arizona in 2018 with a gift of 14.5 kW solar panels on the roof of the Dunbar School . The monetary savings on the Dunbar Coalitions' electric bill are placed in trust with a local community development finance institution which delivers the money to the trust's beneficiary, the Tucson Urban League's low-income household weatherization and energy assistance programs; a second Solar Commons prototype is being designed in-front-of-the-meter in partnership with Greenway Solar in Minneapolis, Minnesota. This Solar Commons 2.0 will test the Solar Commons concept in a 500kW, third party owned, subscription-based community solar [solar garden] model. It will send monetary benefits into local, teen peer journalism programs in the historically underserved, African-American community of North Minneapolis. The Vermont Law School Energy Clinic (VLS) is collaborating on Solar Commons Project research to create a robust community solar trust ownership model. Using the Solar Commons prototypes, VLS's Energy Clinic is creating legal templates that will help standardize the ownership structure so that it can be used in all US states. These Solar Commons prototypes are also part of the US Department of Energy's Solar In Your Community Challenge which is lending technical assistance to the projects. While these prototypes remain Milun's academic research, their success takes a village of partnerships. Together these researchers and community collaborators are creating new access rules and ownership models for low-income communities throughout the US to benefit from solar energy as a form of commonwealth and a source of community empowerment, demonstrating that solar energy can produce more than savings on individuals' electricity bills.
In 2017 the Solar Commons nonprofit organization was created to facilitate, grow and institutionalize Solar Commons in the US. The nonprofit will showcase the work of Solar Commons Project researchers and, by acting as a trust protector for new Solar Commons projects, facilitate Solar Commons to become an institution of twenty-first century energy democracy. Like the Community Land Trust Movement in the 1980s, Solar Commons aspires to show the way for solar technology to also capture wealth for low-income communities through community trusts, demonstrating that social equity and a balanced earth ecology are values worth achieving together.
Do-It-Yourself Solar Commons: Play Ball!
Beginning years ago as a conversation in a Little League Baseball Park in Phoenix, Arizona, it is not a coincidence that Solar Commons continues to draw its inspiration from those Little League bleachers and the days when kids and parents in a Phoenix neighborhood used the rules and institutions of Little League Baseball to come together to create an inter-generational community place to gather, play, talk, and create solutions for a better world. The parks, the neighbors, the picnics & bonfires, the yearly spring festival, the inclusion of all kids—citizens or not, English speakers or not, rich and poor, brown, black and white, boys and girls—constitute primordial commons-making.
The Solar Commons nonprofit will assist academic researchers and community partners in showcasing a playbook of community trust solar rules and legal templates that will enable future communities to build their own Solar Commons. But, to paraphrase the philosopher Wittgenstein, knowing the rules is not the same as playing the game. The ultimate goal is for communities to play their own version of the Solar Commons: gather partners who share the mission of low-income community development/empowerment and can take on the roles of donor/financier, trustee, and beneficiary; learn best practices from the prototypes and use legal templates to create Solar Commons community trusts; imagine what community project or service can maximize the 20 year income stream that will flow for the duration of the solar panels; make sure your trustees are reimbursed for the small tasks of managing the system (solar arrays are low to no maintenance); deliver Solar Commons benefits to those who are most vulnerable in your community; add public art so your neighbors will see what is happening and how it works. The vision of the Solar Commons nonprofit is to see, in each community of need, Solar Commons that look and act differently, just like the communities they serve.
Thanking All Those Who Are Helping Along The Way
This website page is dedicated to the architect who was the Solar Commons' first supporter
Neighborhood architect, fellow Little League benchwarmer, and Tempe community builder who pounded the pavement in the early days as Collaborator-in-Chief, looking for sites and partnerships for the first Solar Commons demonstration project.
(Please see other collaborators and sponsors on our sponsors page.)