Cleveland Solar Co-op: The Forefront of Communal Energy

A few years back, Will Cuneo, Jonathan Welle, and a couple other Cleveland residents found themselves stirring over the same gaping hole in our society’s energy distribution system; why are so many communities consistently alienated from the process of owning and controlling energy? From a common goal of addressing cooperative ownership and energy justice, the Cleveland Solar Cooperative was born.

Cleveland Solar Cooperative (CSC) fully kicked off in 2020 as a collective effort of multiple groups of neighbors in Cleveland interested in engaging people who may not traditionally have access to clean energy. The group cites how white supremacy and colonial-rooted dispossession structures manifest in modern energy access as a form of environmental racism. The history of violence against BIPOC and low-income communities in Cleveland has traditionally included patterns of hazardous waste exposure, high air pollution levels, and inhibited financial access to meaningful climate solutions. Thus, CSC emphasizes the urgent need for community-driven renewable energy distribution structures that extend access to solar beyond socio-economic boundaries.

The co-op currently oversees two project groups in Cleveland neighborhoods and works closely with Cleveland Owns, a group that facilitates cooperative business and helped form the organization. Based upon the concept of energy democracy, CSC aims to establish socially-rooted ownership of energy resources to place power into the hands of lower income communities, communities of color, or working class people. Will Cuneo, the Communications Director throughout development of the co-op, recalls how the group “settled on community solar as a way into fighting climate change and increasing access so that anyone could get involved with building clean energy, bringing it online, and owning it in their community rather than having private developers own it.”The co-op currently oversees two project groups in Cleveland neighborhoods and works closely with Cleveland Owns, a group that facilitates cooperative business and helped form the organization. Based upon the concept of energy democracy, CSC aims to establish socially-rooted ownership of energy resources to place power into the hands of lower income communities, communities of color, or working class people. Will Cuneo, the Communications Director throughout development of the co-op, recalls how the group “settled on community solar as a way into fighting climate change and increasing access so that anyone could get involved with building clean energy, bringing it online, and owning it in their community rather than having private developers own it.”

The team at CSC in a meeting over Zoom.

How Does it Work?

Solar energy has already become cheaper than most non-renewable energy resources, depending on specific regional characteristics. As investment increases and solar storage technology develops, the co-op must ensure that more wealth and opportunity is built along the commons model which prioritizes communal ownership above private ownership. With a one-time payment of $25, anyone can become a member and have a vote in co-op matters. In order to vote in specific project group elections, a co-op member can then invest, or commit to invest, an affordable share as low as $50. Current projects underway include the Detroit Shoreway Solar Investment Cooperative, a neighborhood-pooled investment in urban solar arrays near Detroit Ave and West 65th, and the Lakewood Community Solar Cooperative which plans to develop a solar garden in Lakewood.

In order to bring these projects to fruition, the co-op collects community member-based investments to make a deal, or sign a power purchase agreement, with a subscriber who will in turn let the co-op install solar on their host site property. The co-op owns the array, and the subscriber achieves significant energy and financial savings each month. Extra savings then can serve as revenue for the co-op to fund future solar development projects. As a backup option, the organization may bring in a tax equity investor to bridge any potential cost gaps which operate along a predetermined timeline. The local community then benefits through members’ patronage dividends and controlled, reliable, clean energy access that does not serve to profit a corporation, but to increase the prosperity of the neighborhood. CSC builds feedback into its model of energy democracy by giving members votes in all matters, no matter their share size, ensuring that decisions are locally-informed and representative of the community.

Why Community Owned Energy Now?

The increased momentum of community-owned solar in Northeast Ohio means good news for CFIO’s organizational goals of developing an innovative agricultural cluster in the region and confronting poverty-induced food insecurity. The Cleveland Solar Co-op models itself after other thriving solar cooperative groups across the country including the People Powered Solar Co-op in Oakland, CA and Cooperative Energy Futures in Minnesota. This momentum to advance energy democracy nationally offers an opportunity to grow in conjunction with growth in the Ag-tech industry. As we zero in on the importance of local production systems throughout agriculture to support farmers, communities, and regional environmental health, concurring efforts within the energy realm expose opportunities for cross-sector benefits.

Community solar projects like those of CSC enable a lower input cost over time for owners, allocating more money to serve essential functions such as food production. Furthermore, vertical and indoor farming methods which yield significant promise to deliver reliable, year-round food access are inherently energy intensive. Fostering a tight integration between local food production and renewable energy production will serve as a key piece in providing greater resource security to disadvantaged communities. By placing power into the hands of low-income populations via community-owned solar as the Cleveland Solar Cooperative does, we can expand nutritional access and design long-term, sustainable energy solutions that represent the core values we focus on at CFIO. 

To learn more about energy democracy or advanced agriculture industry clusters, visit Cleveland Solar Cooperative and the Center for Food Innovation at Oberlin sites.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s