Renewable Energy Co-op Races Toward Milestone Project


An innovative renewable energy cooperative in the Northeast is racing toward a June 1 deadline to finish the financing needed to build Northeast Biodiesel, a refinery that will make liquid fuel from waste vegetable oil collected from area restaurants and institutions.

Co-op Power is a member-owned cooperative that helps launch renewable and energy efficiency businesses that are owned in part by its 475 members.

Co-op Power is a member-owned cooperative that helps launch renewable and energy efficiency businesses that are owned in part by its 475 members (in full disclosure, I’m one) from five states in the Northeast. Its clever hack of the cooperative structure has given rise to a dozen plus such businesses in the last 10 years, from large solar arrays on food coops to crews of workers who tighten up homes and businesses against the elements, creating over 100 new green jobs in the region to date.

Its business model that roots equity in local economies has been written up widely and highlighted by authors like Michael Shuman in his great Local Dollars, Local Sense and in the community-owned power manual Power from the People by Greg Pahl (both essential reading published by Chelsea Green). Groups around the nation have since taken up the coop’s blueprint that leverages member equity with grants, loans and other financial instruments to create member and community-owned renewable energy assets.

The keystone project for Co-op Power is certainly the biodiesel refinery, which will make diesel and home heating oil from recycled vegetable oil collected in the area.

Refusing offers of venture capital and its attendant loss of ownership, the coop has soldiered on in grassroots fashion, raising the needed funds largely from members, friends and angel investors.

As reported this week, the coop “has raised and spent more than $2 million to date for the land, site work, foundation and building, installed tanks, equipment and a biodiesel processor. The group has received a building permit to complete construction. In the past few months, Co-op Power has hired a general manager and has completed final engineering designs and received construction bids. Once funds have been secured, final plans will be submitted to the town for the final permit.”

It needs a final $850,000 to close that deal, which itself is a case study in ‘patient capital.’ Originally projected to be operational in 2006 or 2007, the Wall Street-generated economic crash of 2008 set the bio-refinery plans back by many years when grassroots supporters lacked cash to invest and traditional partners like banks became allergic to new ideas.

Refusing offers of venture capital and its attendant loss of ownership, the coop has soldiered on in grassroots fashion, raising the needed funds largely from members, friends and angel investors. With a startup capacity of 5,000 gallons of biodiesel a day created from used cooking oil, Northeast Biodiesel will sell to the transportation and home heating markets (the fuel is identical to home heating oil and can be blended to a high degree with its fossil-based counterpart). Once operational, the plant should be able to add a second processor within a year, for a total capacity of 3.5 million gallons a year.

Now Co-op Power is looking for new members and partners as it brings its signature project to the next level. While I feel that one shouldn’t use overuse the term ‘amazing,’ this project and the huge community effort it’s taken to get it to this point certainly is.


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An alarming sign of an impending drought is the decreased snowpack in the Sierra Nevada Mountain range, as seen here in Christmas Valley, South Lake Tahoe, California on Feb. 15, 2020. jcookfisher / CC BY 2.0

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The last time San Francisco did not record a drop of rain in February was in 1864 as the Civil War raged.

"This hasn't happened in 150 years or more," said Daniel Swain, a climate scientist at UCLA's Institute of the Environment and Sustainability to The Guardian. "There have even been a couple [of] wildfires – which is definitely not something you typically hear about in the middle of winter."

While the Pacific Northwest has flooded from heavy rains, the southern part of the West Coast has seen one storm after another pass by. Last week, the U.S. Drought Monitor said more Californians are in drought conditions than at any time during 2019, as The Weather Channel reported.

On Thursday, the U.S. Drought Monitor said nearly 60 percent of the state was abnormally dry, up from 46 percent just last week, according to The Mercury News in San Jose.

The dry winter has included areas that have seen devastating fires recently, including Sonoma, Napa, Lake and Mendocino counties. If the dry conditions continue, those areas will once again have dangerously high fire conditions, according to The Mercury News.

"Given what we've seen so far this year and the forecast for the next few weeks, I do think it's pretty likely we'll end up in some degree of drought by this summer," said Swain, as The Mercury News reported.

Another alarming sign of an impending drought is the decreased snowpack in the Sierra Nevada Mountain range. The National Weather Service posted to Twitter a side-by-side comparison of snowpack from February 2019 and from this year, illustrating the puny snowpack this year. The snow accumulated in the Sierra Nevadas provides water to roughly 30 percent of the state, according to NBC Los Angeles.

Right now, the snowpack is at 53 percent of its normal volume after two warm and dry months to start the year. It is a remarkable decline, considering that the snowpack started 2020 at 90 percent of its historical average, as The Guardian reported.

"Those numbers are going to continue to go down," said Swain. "I would guess that the 1 March number is going to be less than 50 percent."

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) Climate Prediction Center forecast that the drier-than-average conditions may last through April.

NOAA said Northern California will continue deeper into drought through the end of April, citing that the "persistent high pressure over the North Pacific Ocean is expected to continue, diverting storm systems to the north and south and away from California and parts of the Southwest," as The Weather Channel reported.

As the climate crisis escalates and the world continues to heat up, California should expect to see water drawn out of its ecosystem, making the state warmer and drier. Increased heat will lead to further loss of snow, both as less falls and as more of it melts quickly, according to The Guardian.

"We aren't going to necessarily see less rain, it's just that that rain goes less far. That's a future where the flood risk extends, with bigger wetter storms in a warming world," said Swain, as The Guardian reported.

The Guardian noted that while California's reservoirs are currently near capacity, the more immediate impact of the warm, dry winter will be how it raises the fire danger as trees and grasslands dry out.

"The plants and the forests don't benefit from the water storage reservoirs," said Swain, as The Mercury News reported. "If conditions remain very dry heading into summer, the landscape and vegetation is definitely going to feel it this year. From a wildfire perspective, the dry years do tend to be the bad fire years, especially in Northern California."

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