We develop Solar Commons demonstration projects with community partners interested in supporting clean energy and social equity for low-income communities. The Solar Commons nonprofit holds a Creative Commons License on the name and concept of Solar Commons so that we can work with community partners over the next few years to prototype and refine the legal structure of low-income community solar trusts. Working with the Vermont Law School Energy Clinic during this period, our plan is to create open source templates of our Solar Commons community trust models that can be freely accessible to the general public. By testing our model in diverse electricity jurisdictions and for varied community benefits, we can lead the way for local nonprofits and solar installers to use the Solar Commons model in new and creative ways that best fit the needs of their specific communities. We use public art in a variety of ways with our Solar Commons demonstration projects. Our aim is to seize the opportunity to "make public" and "make visible" our energy infrastructure as a common good embedded in social and ecological relationships. We believe that, with creative legal and technological thinking, we can move to a renewable energy economy that serves even the poorest among us. Solar technology offers new ways to generate and distribute electricity and new ways to capture the commonwealth benefits of the sun's energy. Solar Commons carries out research & education on community trust ownership models that maximize the economic benefit of solar for low-income communities. As the brainchild of a legal anthropologist, Solar Commons research borrows from culturally and historically diverse forms of community trust ownership to create innovative, iterable and scaleable Solar Commons models for the US public. Read about our demonstrations projects, public art, and research/education below..
TRUSTEES: The Dunbar School Project
Exciting updates on this project will be posted here shortly.
TRUSTEE: The Rural Renewable Energy Alliance (RREAL)
BENEFICIARY: Leech Lake Band of Ojibwe Energy Assistance Program
RREAL is a Minnesota nonprofit solar energy installer working in rural Minnesota since 2000 with a mission to alleviate energy poverty through solar energy. In 2015, RREAL and the Leech Lake Band of Ojibwe (LLBO) received a grant from Minnesota’s Environment and Natural Resources Trust to support RREAL's long standing efforts to deliver energy assistance to low-income households through solar energy. The grant supports 200kW of solar to serve the low-income energy assistance needs of the tribe. Because of restrictions in the jurisdiction of its utility provider, Minnesota Power, RREAL broke the 200kW system into 40kW arrays to be built both on and off the reservation. RREAL asked Solar Commons to consider creating a SC demonstration project with the 40kW array on RREAL's property. As a Solar Commons project, the array would be owned as a trust with RREAL serving as the trustee. The beneficiary would be the Leech Lake Energy Assistance Program which helps pay electricity bills for low-income members of the tribe. For the 20 year life of the solar panels, RREAL would use the revenue stream it receives for net-metered electricity to 1) maintain and insure the system; and 2) deliver an income stream to the Leech Lake Energy Assistance Program. Solar Commons and the Vermont Law School Energy Clinic worked on the legal documents for the trust. In June 2017, Solar Commons completed a Feasibility Study (with support from the University of Minnesota Center For Urban and Regional Affairs [CURA]) to research two specific SC community trust ownership models for RREAL. The feasibility study can be found on CURA's website. The study provides: background information on the legal history that informs the Solar Commons model--from the US community land trust movement to Gandhi's development of the "village trust" model in rural India; an analysis of the public policy that could support Solar Commons trusts in MN and the US; a feasibility analysis of two SC community trust models that the SC nonprofit designed and proposed to RREAL.
Proposed TRUSTEE: The University of Minnesota Duluth Land Lab & a TBD local community development financial institution (CDFI)
BENEFICIARY: American Indian Community Housing Organization (AICHO)
Solar Commons has been working with UMD faculty and administrators to propose building a 40kW demonstration project at the University of Minnesota Duluth (UMD) thirty acre organic farm/Land Lab. How do we envision a UMD Land Lab Solar Commons? Using a SC community trust model similar to what our nonprofit is using in Tucson, UMD and a local community development financial institution would be trustees of a unique community trust solar project which would deliver an income stream to a local beneficiary. AICHO, which provides housing services for Native Americans suffering from long-term homelessness, transitional housing for domestic abuse, and a domestic violence shelter, has affirmed interest in being the beneficiary. As the host and electricity purchaser, UMD and its unique Land Lab could bring additional benefits to the Solar Commons project. University research scientists could conduct studies under the arrays to measure the potential soil remediation, soil carbon sequestration, and soil hydrology benefits of specific plantings. These measurements might later support changes in Minnesota's land use laws governing the way large solar farms are built on rich, flat farmlands. Current land use laws do not sufficiently protect soil and water. Imagine how nutrient rich plantings under the solar arrays that now blanket southern and central Minnesota's industrial ag farmlands might improve soil and water quality over the twenty five year life cycle of the photovoltaic panels. Today, when global markets make it easier for farmers to make a living leasing farmland for solar than planting corn and soybeans, legislators need to be thinking ahead to the day when that land will start producing food again. The UMD Land Lab is a landscape size site of research for climate resiliency. Its 7kW wind turbine offers a perfect opportunity for a researcher to study intermittency with a Solar Commons array; if battery storage were added, researchers could study cost benefits of peak electricity shaving. The Land Lab site offers ideal conditions for the University of Minnesota to demonstrate how landscape scale solar energy can be socially equitable, economic, and ecologically sound. Stay tuned here on the progress of a Solar Commons array at the UMD Land Lab.
Solar Commons aims to build upon and expand the work of the US community land trust movement by helping community land trusts across the country add solar arrays to their trust property portfolios. We are currently working with CLTs in Minnesota, Arizona, New Mexico, and Vermont to develop Solar Commons demonstration projects that can prove the creative capacity of community trust-owned solar energy to deliver benefits to underserved neighborhoods. In one proposed project, we are creating an experiment to see whether the Solar Commons trust might help prime local currency for job guarantee programs. More details will be forthcoming on our CLT projects on this website.
How can the Solar Commons model serve the needs of the many tribal communities--rural and urban--across the United States? What benefits can Solar Commons bring to low-income communities generally throughout the US? The Rocky Mountain Institute is producing a study of the Solar Commons model in the US and on tribal lands. We will post it here on our website when its done.
The goal of our demonstration projects is to provide you with lessons and legal templates so you can build your own Solar Commons. We test and refine the Solar Commons model of low-income community trust solar so that others, eventually, can build them in their communities. In our research section below, we will post white papers on our demonstration projects in the form of feasibility studies, case studies, and open source legal templates.
Solar Commons demonstration projects need public art that can tell the story of community trust-owned solar energy as a social-technology embedded in people's values, communities' livelihoods, and the earth's biosphere. As they becomes available, we will be posting images of the art created with local artists to support our demonstration projects in the US. (HERE)
We also host workshops and events that use art to educate by "making public" and "making visible" the socially and ecologically embedded relationships of community trust solar energy. We understand that the bigger picture of community-owned solar is a planetary one: many of our neighbors in the global commons of the earth's atmospheric carbon space are still without electricity and will be coming on line in the near future. Art can also help us see our local community solar efforts in the context of the social needs and ecological consequences of electricity generation in the global North and global South.
A current workshop we are hosting includes an exhibit of three paintings commissioned by Solar Commons from indigenous artists with the Warli Art Cooperative in Maharashtra, India. The paintings are hanging in a local tea shop (The Snooty Fox) in Duluth, Minnesota. We plan to hold the workshop there soon with the help of local indigenous artists who have been helping us see the ecological and social consequences of fossil fuel energy infrastructure that is being built in pipelines across their reservations. Below is some background to the exhibit and workshop.
The Warli are one of India’s most ancient and earliest agricultural peoples. “Warla” means “piece of land” and Warli art is made using the sustaining elements of their rural lifeworld: white rice paste against the red soil fertility of earth. The stick figure art form, still visible on 10,000-year-old petroglyphs in central India, depicts sacred relationships among Warli and the natural world as well as scenes of everyday life. Warli painting was traditionally done by women on inner walls of village huts for important rituals like marriage and harvest festivals. In the 1970s village men applied the form to canvas so it could be sold in art markets and bring income to forest communities experiencing the encroaching impacts of India’s industrialization. Like many indigenous peoples in South Asia, the Warli live in remote, mountainous forest areas and are among the 300 million Indians—one third of India’s population--who do not yet have electricity.
THESE PAINTINGS were commissioned in the summer of 2016 from a Warli Art Cooperative of men living in Maharashtra villages recently electrified by solar microgrids. I heard that the Warli were using a strategic community solar ownership model aimed, like the Solar Commons model we are building in Duluth, to link solar electricity to social equality. The Warli are experimenting with owning their solar array as a community trust requiring half the Board of Trustees to be women and thus empowering women’s role in village governance. Knowing this, I requested that the artists show us how the new force of electricity is impacting village life. These three paintings are their response. Before and after scenes show women who used to walk up and down the mountainous terrain for hours everyday fetching water for their families and crops; the women now fill their water jugs at a central village pump. Children can be seen reading and watching internet and TV screens at home. Villagers socialize outside at night beneath a lamp without fear of unseen forest predators. The artists help us see the energy infrastructure, where the electricity comes from as well as the work, life ways, social change and social equality it enables—all of it embedded in a world filled with the diverse animals and plants that the Warli revere.
INDIA is in the process of bringing electricity to all its 1.3 billion people and as it does, it will use the resources it has at hand. Solar is a good and clean source of electric power for remote villages, but coal is abundant in India and will play a big role in powering India’s expanding electric grid just as it has in Europe and the US. New coal-burning power plants now send electricity through India’s transmission grid expanding high and low across the countryside to run industrial cities, bring light to towns, pump water from distant wells, cook food without dangerous fumes, and connect hamlets to the global internet. Coal often lies beneath the forested hills of indigenous peoples’ villages. Just as we have seen in the US with the Dakota Access Pipe Line, gaining access to new fossil fuel sources often makes electricity producers part of an extractive industry reaching further into parts of the earth where indigenous peoples and their worldviews hold a tenuous sovereignty.
SEEING ELECTRICITY in the world around us means seeing the coal mines, oil & gas pipelines and overhead wires as well as the places, peoples, lifeways, worldviews, ownership structures and social justice issues that give form to our modern electrified planet. In the mountains and hills of both Maharashtra and Appalachia, taking coal out of the ground brings pollution and health problems along with jobs for local peoples. Burning coal for electricity is also the single greatest threat to the earth’s climate system: emissions from coal-powered plants fill the earth’s atmosphere and fuel global warming; methane from coal mining is one of the most potent global warming gases.
THERE IS ONLY SO MUCH CARBON SPACE LEFT IN THE EARTH'S ATMOSPHERE if we want to hold on to the stable climate that has supported human agriculture and societies for tens of thousands of years. As India electrifies, the US will be sharing the earth’s carbon space with millions more earth citizens. Americans, the second largest consumers of electricity after China, currently use 1843 watts of electricity per person--compared to China which uses 474 watts and India which uses a mere 152 watts per person.(1) In the US, our high-energy lifestyle uses climate-changing fossil fuels to produce most of our electricity. Coal, the most harmful fuel, powers thirty-three percent of the US electric load. In Duluth, however, we are significantly above the national average: we use coal to make nearly seventy percent of our electricity!
COMING SOON: SEEING ELECTRICITY IN DULUTH: WHERE IT COMES FROM, WHAT IT MEANS FOR OUR WORLD A public art project collaboration of Snooty Fox and Solar Commons learning through Warli art to see into our energy infrastructure--where Duluth’s electricity comes from as well as the work, life ways, social change and social equity it enables. This invitation to public art will provide a way for Duluthians to see ourselves and our electricity system living next to our generous Lake Superior and among the diverse animals and plants that we so value.
*This exhibit note is by Kathryn Milun ©
(1) Information on American electricity use comes from US government’s Energy Information Administration (http://www.eia.gov/energyexplained/index.cfm?page=electricity_in_the_United_States ); world figures on electricity use are from public domain material from the CIA World Factbook website (https://www.cia.gov/library/publications/the-world-factbook/index.html ). Information on fuel sources of Duluth’s electricity come the website of our investor-owned utility, Minnesota Power at (http://www.mnpower.com/CustomerService/CostDisclosure?TargetFrame=_blank ) Minnesota Power reports coal at 56.8 % of its fuel mix but also notes that an additional 16.2% of its fuel sources come from purchases from other coal, nuclear and natural gas power plants throughout the region.
In partnership with the Vermont Law School Energy Clinic, Solar Commons is creating a robust business model for low-income community trust-owned solar in the United States. Based on analysis of our demonstration projects, we will present our findings in several public venues: on this website you will find our white papers, case studies, and feasibility studies. There will be a law review article by the faculty and students who have innovated the Solar Commons community trust ownership model. A short book of public scholarship will tell the broader story of Solar Commons and community trust ownership for the poor.
Solar Commons recognizes that community-owned solar is an important but often overlooked area in our energy transition. Individual rooftop and utility scale, investor-owned solar are and will be part of our clean energy landscape. However, the diverse benefits that can come from capturing solar commonwealth for the poor through the ancient and contemporary tool of community trust ownership remains to be explored.
In the fall of 2016, Solar Commons sponsored a conference entitled Social Change Through Community Solar. We hosted a speaker from India to talk about his work installing community trust solar for remote, indigenous villages in Maharashtra. And we invited local community solar developers and installers and a public artist who is also a trained solar installer to speak about their work.