Owning our Power through Permanent Community Energy Cooperatives

People should *own* their power, not buy it; our cooperative model creates long-term energy independence and asset-building for communities.

Photo of Janelle Orsi
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Written by


  • I am not an employee of BNY Mellon, or an immediate family member of a BNY Mellon employee
  • I am over 18 years of age
  • My organization is incorporated as a non-profit, for-profit, or hybrid organization, or I have a partner that is incorporated and could accept funds on my behalf
  • I have already piloted my initiative and have some initial evidence of impact
  • My organization is headquartered and creating impact in the United States


  • Woman

Where are you making a difference?

California: Oakland (94612), Richmond (94802), likely to expand statewide and beyond

Focus Areas (required)

  • Business & Social Enterprise
  • Development & Prosperity
  • Environment & Sustainability
  • Human Rights & Equality

Date Started


Organization Type

  • nonprofit/NGO/citizen sector

Project Stage: Select the description below that best applies to your approach.

  • Start-Up (first few activities have happened)


  • $250k - $500k

Website or social media URL(s) (optional)


Twitter URL


Facebook URL


1.Founding Story: Share a story about the "Aha!" moment that led the founder(s) to get started or the story of how you saw the potential for this to succeed.

We strung together 3 “Aha” moments: 1. Strategic Aha: For 5 years, we watched countless groups hit barriers creating community-owned energy projects. We learned that our legal system privileges the wealthy in renewable energy development. It hit us: We HAVE TO develop an inclusive and replicable model that overcomes that systemic bias! 2. Legal Aha: We solved a legal puzzle and created “Cooperative Net Metering,” which allows anyone to own a share of the energy and receive proportionate financial returns or energy bill credits. Average people may even be able to access the 30% solar tax credit – a major legal and economic justice breakthrough! 3. Tactical Aha: Solar development is a bit boring, so we are making it fun and social!

2. The Problem: What problem are you helping to solve?

It’s now or never. Low-to-moderate income households and renters lack opportunity to own and get financial benefits from solar energy. We need replicable and scalable models for community ownership of solar, or we risk a divided society where most people are dependent on a wealthy class that owns and controls energy. Current legal and financial barriers mean that few models exist for community-led, community-financed, and community-owned energy.

3. Your Solution: How are you planning to solve this problem? Share your specific approach.

With seed funding from the CA Energy Commission, we’re launching the first Permanent Community Energy Cooperative (PCEC) to enable ordinary people – especially renters and low-income households – to have an ownership stake in our clean energy future. Economic and environmental justice groups across the U.S. have come to the same conclusion: We need community-owned energy! However, because of the barriers, no one has successfully combined the PCEC model’s three core elements: 1. Our Community: Everyday people can get involved, have fun, and build community while creating solar projects. 2. Our Money: Everyday people can invest, earn returns, and access tax benefits! 3. Our Power: Everyday people will own and control the energy in the long term. To enable scaling, we’re creating a “plug-and-play” model. Similar to nonprofit “fiscal sponsorship,” the PCEC enables grassroots groups, neighborhood groups, and others to organize and co-own solar projects. The PCEC serves as an administrative backbone, facilitating regulatory compliance, billing, contracting, tax, and more. The PCEC also serves as an anchor for economic democracy, ensuring long-term community ownership.

4. Example: Please walk us through a specific example of how your solution is working to solve the problem.

For the past 6 months, 12 local community members have met every other week, shared meals, learned, laughed, and made steady progress toward building the pilot solar project. It will likely be on the roof of a community activist in Richmond, CA. By August, members of her community will be able to buy shares for between $100 and $1,000 per person. Once the solar project is built, the Cooperative will allocate the financial benefits among everyone involved. Going forward, each solar project will be spearheaded by a small group that will do the fun stuff: Choose a site, get the community excited, and raise money by urging the people to buy shares. The Cooperative staff will handle the dry technical stuff and long-term management of the project. Already, two other local groups are ready to “plug-and-play,” and will likely use the PCEC umbrella to organize their community solar projects.

5a. Too many people in the U.S. have unmet needs for financial products and services. How is your work reaching a population(s) that is currently underserved? If it is not reaching an underserved population yet, how might it in the near future?

If you are a renter or low-income homeowner, there is almost no way that you can use your own money to build and benefit financially from even a small amount of solar. And you can’t access public incentives and tax credits. The PCEC changes that! To reach diverse communities, we partner with grassroots groups like People of Color Sustainable Housing Network, Bay Area Organization of Black Owned Businesses, Asian Pacific Environmental Network, and others to build PCEC solar power.

5b. Please specify if the population you are reaching is underserved due to any of the following characteristics:

  • race/ethnicity
  • socio-economic class

6. Marketplace: Who else is addressing the same problem? How does the proposed project differ from these approaches?

Very few alternatives address the problems our model aims to solve. RE-volve empowers “people and communities to invest collectively in renewable energy,” but their model is donation (not investment and ownership) based. And while Sunbanc helps “organize and operate solar loans between individuals,” it’s not a platform for communities to develop community-owned projects. Other models, like Coop Power (MA) and Cooperative Energy Futures (MN), come close, but rely on unique state regulations, making the model difficult to replicate in most states.

7. Impact: How has your project made a difference so far?

This project is part of Sustainable Economies Law Center’s larger endeavor to implement “permanent cooperative” models in all sectors of the economy. Permanent cooperatives spread wealth and power by engaging everyday people in the development and stewardship of critical assets like energy, housing, farmland, and technology. The PCEC is one of four cooperatives we’re incubating. This model has struck a chord with many people across the US, with countless groups now exploring the model for real estate, in particular. Permanent cooperatives are now a prominent part of the narrative of economic justice, with at least two sessions at the New Economy Coalition national conference this month addressing permanent cooperatives. Thus, our biggest impact has been to give economic justice groups a viable model that can be implemented now to advance long-term asset-building and community ownership.

8a. Spread Strategies: Moving forward, what are the main strategies for scaling your impact?

This summer, we’re participating in Cleantech Open, the world’s largest clean-tech accelerator, and we are raising funds to grow the PCEC. Because of our “plug-and-play” design, our vision is for the PCEC to have hundreds of groups building solar projects in California (and quite possibly beyond), with tens of thousands of individual members. We are also supporting replication by open sourcing every part of the model, sharing lessons learned, and providing legal support to other groups. We have already offered support to groups in Pennsylvania and Puerto Rico interested in the model.

8b. If applicable, which of the following scaling strategies have you launched?

  • Organizational Growth
  • Large Scale Partnerships
  • Trainings, Consultation
  • Federations, Associations
  • Open Sourcing
  • Campaigns

9. Financial Sustainability Plan: What is this solution’s plan to ensure financial sustainability?

The PCEC model is self-sustaining, because it generates electricity, which in turn generates income. By 2020, we aim to have the PCEC building at least 3 MW of solar projects per year, the income from which will sustain three staff. Until then, Sustainable Economies Law Center aims to raise $225,000 per year in grants and donations to fulfill the necessary research, development, educational, community outreach, movement-building, and other needs unique to the start-up phase of the model.

10. Team: What is the current composition of your team (types of roles, qualifications, full-time vs. part-time, board members, etc.), and how do you plan to evolve the team’s composition as the project grows?

We have a dream-team of 12 diverse and talented people! Three staff, two volunteers, and seven paid contractors from six local grassroots groups collectively meet the technical, software, financial, legal, community organizing, communications, and educational needs of the project. At least two team members are ready to step into longer term staff roles for this project, and we will need to hire one more person for administrative/technical support as we grow the number of solar projects.

Help Us Support Diversity! Part 1 - Which of the following categories do you identify with? (optional)

  • Self-identify race, ethnicity, or origin

If you replied "Self-identify race, ethnicity, or origin" in the question above, please specify. (optional)

Our team of 12 is diverse: 3 Asians, 2 White, 4 African Americans, 2 Latinas, 1 Middle Eastern

Help Us Support Diversity! Part 2 - Do you identify as part of any of the following underrepresented communities? (optional)

  • Other

If you replied "Other" in the question above, please specify. (optional)

Our team of 12 is predominantly people of color and includes people who are low-income and LGBTQ

How did you hear about this challenge?

  • Ashoka page or contact
  • Email

Evaluation results

3 evaluations so far

1. Overall, would you champion this entry as a excellent example to move forward to the next phase of the challenge and become a semifinalist?

Yes, absolutely! - 100%

Yes/maybe - 0%

Maybe - 0%

Maybe/no - 0%

No - 0%

2. Is this entry INNOVATIVE?

Yes, absolutely! - 100%

Yes/maybe - 0%

Maybe - 0%

Maybe/no - 0%

No - 0%

3. Is this entry IMPACTFUL on financial wellbeing?

Yes, absolutely! - 66.7%

Yes/maybe - 33.3%

Maybe - 0%

Maybe/no - 0%

No - 0%

4. Is this entry SUSTAINABLE?

Yes, absolutely! - 100%

Yes/maybe - 0%

Maybe - 0%

Maybe/no - 0%

No - 0%

5. What are some of the HIGHLIGHTS of strengths of this entry?

Connection to underserved community - 66.7%

Clarity of Model - 0%

Clarity of Writing - 0%

Idea Originality - 66.7%

Understanding of the marketplace or sector - 100%

Impact measurement - 66.7%

Impact Potential - 100%

Financial Sustainability - 0%

Team - 0%

Partnerships - 33.3%

Potential to scale - 33.3%

6. What are some of the areas for IMPROVEMENT of this entry?

Connection to underserved community - 0%

Clarity of Model - 100%

Clarity of Writing - 0%

Idea Originality - 0%

Understanding of the marketplace or sector - 0%

Impact measurement - 0%

Impact Potential - 0%

Financial Sustainability - 50%

Team - 0%

Partnerships - 0%

Potential to scale - 0%

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Attachments (2)

Permanent Conmmunity Energy Cooperative-Putting Energy on Your Roof- One-pager for Sites 06.13.18.pdf

Describes the benefits of Building Community Power on Your Roof with the Permanent Community Energy Cooperative model, a community led, crowd-financed model for solar power that allows everyone in communities everywhere to build, own and benefit from solar power.

Permanent Community Energy Coop One-Pager 06.13.18.pdf

Describes a community-led, crowd-financed, solar development model, the Permanent Community Energy Cooperative, that is scaleable and replicable, giving everyone (not just the wealthy) the opportunity for an ownership stake in our energy future!

1 comment

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Photo of Brittany Corner

I love the model!