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Cooperative Co-Production of Solar Power in a Small Town

A vexing problem for many potential commons is the lack of startup capital to get a project going while nurturing the social structures to organize participation and work.  I recently learned of an ingenious solution developed by a group of “time banking” commoners in West Virginia.  They adapted a traditional Time Bank system of barter-exchange and combined it with common pool of funds, which in turn served as an engine of development for DIY solar power installations -- in the heart of coal country, West Virginia!

Greg Bloom of Washington, D.C., who has a keen interest in cooperatives and commons, alerted me to his case study of the project.  (Thanks, Greg!)  As he tells the story at the Community Power Network website, the tax incentive approach to promoting solar power has distinct limits.  It is too geared to people who already earn enough to benefit from the tax breaks.  But what if you are low-income and have trouble paying your utility bills?  You don’t earn enough to be incentivized, and you don’t have enough to pay for the upfront costs of a solar project.

In the town of Philippi, West Virginia, a local engineer, John Prusa, known locally as a “benevolent mad scientist,” had “designed and built his own home’s solar power array, and then shared his designs with neighbors and helped them develop their own,” writes Bloom.  Prusa and a local minister, Ruston Seaman, of People's Chapel Church, found each other, and decided to start a new group, New Vision Renewable Energy

The Church had once been the host of a flourishing Time Bank system with over 300 members, and even a store that accepted the Time Bank credits.  But the system had fallen into disuse for a variety of reasons.  Time Banks are a system by which members can earn credits for work they do for each other, at a rate of one credit, one hour of work. The systems are especially valuable for people with more time than money, such as low-income people and the elderly.  It helps them get their needs met, without money, outside of the marketplace.  Time Banks can serve important needs in areas that banks and markets have abandoned or ignored. 

The pastor and the engineer developed a vision for using the Time Banking system to recruit people to participate in assembling and installing solar power equipment -- while blending it with a small micro-financing pool of money to pay for the equipment.   

The group figured that it costs about 99 hours of labor and $6,000 to $8,000 in equipment to install a solar array for one house.  By relying on community participation, the project could make solar energy affordable.  If a person helps install other people’s solar panels, he or she could then earn credits in the Time Bank.  Once he or she had accumulated 99 hours of credits, a Time Bank member could schedule an installation for his or her own home. 

Bloom writes:  “When a home is ready to move forward with its project, everyone mobilizes in a kind of ‘barn-raising’ event over the course of a day: folks will gather, work, eat, work, and celebrate. All of it earns credit, handed out (usually by Seaman himself) as a specially-designed paper scrip.” (The scrip actually seems to work better than a software-tracking system, which requires administrative oversight.)

The cost of the solar equipment can be financed, even 100% of it, through a pool of funds initially raised from foundations and corporate donors.  The loans are paid off over time by the cost-savings that the solar panels make in the family’s utility bills. 

So far, New Vision Renewable Energy has installed solar power at the Church and eight other structures, for about $6,000 per project.  The whole enterprise is a small but hardy project, filled with expansive hopes for the future. 

Greg Bloom considers the New Vision Renewable Energy model “a promising example of a cooperative co-production initiative that can build resilient community infrastructure with relatively low levels of capital investment.  But to the extent that they have been successful so far, several unique factors are at play.”  He cites the “generally high level of technical skill among working class residents of Philippi” and “the community’s relatively strong social fabric,” which is important for a successful Time Bank. 

The project has also thrived because of the technical skills of Prusa, the solar engineer, and the community reputation of pastor Seaman –- and the leadership of both.  Bloom cautioned that “community initiatives without a 'benevolent mad scientist' on board might need the involvement of paid engineers to make this kind of co-production a success.”

Still, the project shows what can be done with a clever organizational structure that leverages the social energies, talents and commitment of people –- and combines that with a micro-financing fund.  Cooperative co-production that blends commoning and market purchases, while minimizing reliance on the latter!  If a small community in West Virginia can come up with this kind of socio-technical-economic innovation, why not elsewhere?

You can learn more about the project at the Community Power Network website and at New Vision’s YouTube channel and its website

What do you think? Leave a comment below.

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