While many people associate cooperatives with a place for hippies to buy organic food, the cooperative movement has actually grown far and wide, creating sustainable enterprises that generate jobs and strengthen local economies. Today, there are nearly 30,000 cooperatives in the U.S., with more than 100 million members. From day care centers to hardware stores, cooperatives seem to be permeating every sector of society.
So it’s no surprise that cooperatives are making their way into the renewable energy field as well.
A cooperative is a group of people acting together to meet the common needs and aspirations of its members, sharing ownership and making decisions democratically. Co-ops can be owned by workers, residents, consumers, farmers, the community, or any combination of the above. What they have in common is that they are not about making big profits for shareholders, but rather circulating the benefits back to their member-owners and these benefits ripple out to the broader community.
Solar cooperatives are helping independently-owned solar integrators share best practices, allowing homeowners to install photovoltaic (PV) systems more economically and giving renters or people living in apartments a simple way to join the solar revolution.
Small businesses banding together
Cooperatives come in various forms, from consumer-owned to worker-owned to purchasing cooperatives. In a purchasing cooperative individual businesses band together to enhance their purchasing power. Two of the better-known purchasing coops are Ace Hardware and Best Western hotels. One example of a solar energy purchasing cooperative is Amicus, founded in 2011 when a small group of solar installation companies decided to support each other by sharing best practices and pooling their buying power.
Amicus is jointly owned by its 30 independently owned and operated PV installation member companies from across the United States. Member companies range from California’s oldest solar company, Sun Light & Power, to the small solar integrator Radiance Solar in Atlanta, Georgia. Amicus members get lower pricing on products as well as distributed cash dividends based on the amount of total purchases each member makes. And they share expertise and information that often cannot be found at any industry trade show or vendor conference.
“Being a member of a purchasing cooperative with a like-minded and dedicated group of quality solar professionals was an easy sell,” says Scott Ely, founder and president of Sunsense Solar, a small solar integration company based in western Colorado that joined Amicus in 2011. Besides the purchasing power gained from being a member of a larger group, Ely claims the pooling and sharing of ideas, best practices and business strategies from companies nationwide has been a huge benefit. “But perhaps most valuable is the camaraderie among the Amicus member companies and the knowledge that we all share a common vision with regard to customer service, company culture and a passion for the technology,” he says.
Consumers pooling their purchasing power
Consumer-owned cooperatives, owned by the people who buy the goods or use the services of the co-op, are the most common form of cooperative. Some well-known examples are credit unions and the outdoor retailer REI. There are quite a number of consumer-owned solar cooperatives around the country as well. The Mt. Pleasant Solar Cooperative is a group of over 300 households in the Mt. Pleasant community of Washington, D.C. The founders of the co-op wanted to put solar on their roof and decided if they were going to go through all the work to figure out how to install photovoltaics, they would have more impact by including more people in the project. They also wanted to reduce the costs of the solar systems and figured that a bulk purchase, along with sharing expenses and expertise, would significantly bring down the price.
Over 100 households in Mt. Pleasant now have solar on their roofs thanks to the co-op, which has also supported the creation of other solar co-ops across the region. Louise Meyer, a Mt. Pleasant co-op member with a 2.85 kilowatt (kW) system on her roof, tried to install solar years before the co-op existed when the D.C. government offered a subsidy for PV systems. She was one of the many people who didn’t get selected, so she was ecstatic when the co-op was founded. “I felt like I was part of a team, it made much more sense, you could compare notes and not feel so stranded,” she says. “It was such a new area for many people and the paperwork is such a hassle, being part of the cooperative made it so much easier.” The cooperative has also become a major force for solar advocacy and is pushing for legislation to enable more solar in the greater D.C. area.
DC Solar United Neighborhoods (DC SUN), an umbrella organization for 11 neighborhood solar co-ops located throughout Washington, D.C., including Mt. Pleasant, started offering solar bulk purchases when the Renewable Energy Incentive Program (REIP) was no longer available. A group of twenty or more cooperative members who wanted solar systems bid out their collective jobs to at least three solar installers. Representatives of the group made the selection of an installer based on criteria and values they set. “In less than one year, we've signed up more installations in D.C. than were completed in any two years of REIP,” says Robert Robinson, vice president for solar outreach at DC SUN. “We are now seeing bids that are going below $3 per watt installed.”
On the other side of the country is California’s Cooperative Community Energy. Members join CCEnergy for $300, becoming part owners that gives them a voice and a vote in the direction and activities of the organization, the ability to purchase a solar PV system at a discounted rate and a dividend check if CCEnergy makes a profit. With over 1,000 members, CCEnergy has already helped put solar on a lot of California rooftops.
And similar to the Mt. Pleasant Solar Cooperative, CCEnergy uses its collective strength to advocate for renewable energy policies that benefit all segments of the market.
A similar type of cooperative can be found in community solar arrays, also known as solar gardens. Community solar has overcome the barriers for people who want to invest in solar energy but rent their home, live in an apartment, or have too many trees shading their roof. Customers can own or lease solar panels in a large community array and receive the credit on their electric bill. The Clean Energy Collective (CEC) was one of the first organizations to offer shares in solar gardens. In the CEC model, customers can purchase as little or as much solar energy as they’d like and actually own the panels, without having to deal with any installation or maintenance issues.
CEC operates 26 megawatts of solar gardens from Colorado to Vermont, purchasing large amounts of equipment at a time, enabling its customers to get bulk prices that would be impossible to secure on their own. For renters or anyone whose roof isn’t suitable for rooftop solar—whether they want to lower their carbon footprint, save money, or hedge against future rising utility prices—solar gardens can be an appealing solution. They’ve certainly been extremely popular for CEC; shares in the first solar garden CEC built, located in Carbondale, Colorado, sold out in the three months of construction before the array was even completed. “I found [community solar] quite simple to participate in, which overcomes what I see as one of the biggest hurdles for solar today,” Brendan Miller wrote on the CEC website. Miller and his wife Robin purchased 11 panels (2.75 kW) in the Denver/Lowry Community Solar Array. “For end users, solar has become very cost competitive with traditional power but still requires some effort on the part of individuals to set up.”
Solar cooperatives allow people and companies to work together to help each other succeed. The growing number of solar cooperatives around the country are making solar more affordable and accessible and proving that cooperatives aren’t just for hippies anymore. In fact, a recent study estimates that U.S. cooperatives account for nearly $654 billion in revenue and over 2 million jobs.
And as Stephen Irvin, the president of Amicus Solar Cooperative told SolarPro magazine, “the great collaborators of the world will lead the way to a healthier and more vibrant future.”
EcoWatch Daily Newsletter
By Alexandra Rowles
Oregano is a fragrant herb that's best known as an ingredient in Italian food.
However, it can also be concentrated into an essential oil that's loaded with antioxidants and powerful compounds that have proven health benefits.
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By Emily Grubert
Natural gas is a versatile fossil fuel that accounts for about a third of U.S. energy use. Although it produces fewer greenhouse gas emissions and other pollutants than coal or oil, natural gas is a major contributor to climate change, an urgent global problem. Reducing emissions from the natural gas system is especially challenging because natural gas is used roughly equally for electricity, heating, and industrial applications.
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What RNG Is and Why it Matters<p>Most equipment that uses energy can only use a single kind of fuel, but the fuel might come from different resources. For example, you can't charge your computer with gasoline, but it can run on electricity generated from coal, natural gas or solar power.</p><p>Natural gas is almost pure methane, <a href="https://www.eia.gov/energyexplained/natural-gas/" target="_blank">currently sourced</a> from raw, fossil natural gas produced from <a href="https://www.eia.gov/energyexplained/natural-gas/where-our-natural-gas-comes-from.php" target="_blank">deposits deep underground</a>. But methane could come from renewable resources, too.</p><p><span></span>Two main methane sources could be used to make RNG. First is <a href="https://www.epa.gov/ghgemissions/inventory-us-greenhouse-gas-emissions-and-sinks" target="_blank">biogenic methane</a>, produced by bacteria that digest organic materials in manure, landfills and wastewater. Wastewater treatment plants, landfills and dairy farms have captured and used biogenic methane as an energy resource for <a href="http://emilygrubert.org/wp-content/uploads/2019/02/eia_860_2017_map.html" target="_blank">decades</a>, in a form usually called <a href="https://www.eia.gov/energyexplained/biomass/landfill-gas-and-biogas.php" target="_blank">biogas</a>.</p><p>Some biogenic methane is generated naturally when organic materials break down without oxygen. Burning it for energy can be beneficial for the climate if doing so prevents methane from escaping to the atmosphere.</p>
Renewable Isn’t Always Sustainable<p>If RNG could be a renewable replacement for fossil natural gas, why not move ahead? Consumers have shown that they are <a href="https://www.nrel.gov/analysis/green-power.html" target="_blank">willing to buy renewable electricity</a>, so we might expect similar enthusiasm for RNG.</p><p>The key issue is that methane isn't just a fuel – it's also a <a href="https://www.eia.gov/environment/emissions/ghg_report/ghg_overview.php" target="_blank">potent greenhouse gas</a> that contributes to climate change. Any methane that is manufactured intentionally, whether from biogenic or other sources, will contribute to climate change if it enters the atmosphere.</p><p>And <a href="http://doi.org/10.1126/science.aar7204" target="_blank">releases</a> <a href="https://doi.org/10.1016/j.wasman.2019.07.029" target="_blank">will happen</a>, from newly built production systems and <a href="https://theconversation.com/why-methane-emissions-matter-to-climate-change-5-questions-answered-122684" target="_blank">existing, leaky transportation and user infrastructure</a>. For example, the moment you smell gas before the pilot light on a stove lights the ring? That's methane leakage, and it contributes to climate change.</p><p>To be clear, RNG is almost certainly better for the climate than fossil natural gas because byproducts of burning RNG won't contribute to climate change. But doing somewhat better than existing systems is no longer enough to respond to the <a href="https://doi.org/10.1038/nclimate2923" target="_blank">urgency</a> of climate change. The world's <a href="https://www.ipcc.ch/sr15/chapter/spm/" target="_blank">primary international body on climate change</a> suggests we need to decarbonize by 2030 to mitigate the worst effects of climate change.</p>
Scant Climate Benefits<p><a href="https://iopscience.iop.org/article/10.1088/1748-9326/ab9335/meta" target="_blank">My recent research</a> suggests that for a system large enough to displace a lot of fossil natural gas, RNG is probably not as good for the climate as <a href="https://investor.southerncompany.com/information-for-investors/latest-news/latest-news-releases/press-release-details/2020/Southern-Company-Gas-grows-leadership-team-to-focus-on-climate-action-innovation-and-renewable-natural-gas-strategy/default.aspx" target="_blank">is publicly claimed</a>. Although RNG has lower climate impact than its fossil counterpart, likely high demand and methane leakage mean that it probably will contribute to climate change. In contrast, renewable sources such as wind and solar energy do not <a href="https://www.eia.gov/environment/emissions/carbon/" target="_blank">emit climate pollution directly</a>.</p><p>What's more, creating a large RNG system would require building mostly new production infrastructure, since RNG comes from different sources than fossil natural gas. Such investments are both long-term commitments and opportunity costs. They would devote money, political will and infrastructure investments to RNG instead of alternatives that could achieve a zero greenhouse gas emission goal.</p><p>When climate change first <a href="https://www.nytimes.com/1988/06/24/us/global-warming-has-begun-expert-tells-senate.html" target="_blank">broke into the political conversation</a> in the late 1980s, investing in long-lived systems with low but non-zero greenhouse gas emissions was still compatible with aggressive climate goals. Now, zero greenhouse gas emissions is the target, and my research suggests that large deployments of RNG likely won't meet that goal.</p>
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The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) recently issued a list of 431 products that are effective at killing viruses when they are on surfaces. Now, a good year for Lysol manufacturer Reckitt Benckiser just got better when the EPA said that two Lysol products are among the products that can kill the novel coronavirus that causes COVID-19.
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For all its posturing on climate change, the Democratic Party has long been weak on the actual policies we need to save us from extinction. President Barack Obama promised his presidency would mark "the moment when the rise of the oceans began to slow," and then embraced natural gas, a major driver of global temperature rise, as a "bridge fuel." Climate legislation passed in the House in 2009 would have allowed industries to buy credits to pollute, a practice known to concentrate toxic air in black and brown neighborhoods while doing little to cut emissions.
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Bayer's $10 billion settlement to put an end to roughly 125,000 lawsuits against its popular weed killer Roundup, which contains glyphosate, hit a snag this week when a federal judge in San Francisco expressed skepticism over what rights future plaintiffs would have, as the San Francisco Chronicle reported.
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By Charli Shield
When an elephant dies in the wild, it's not uncommon to later find its bones scattered throughout the surrounding landscape.
Elephant Burial Grounds<p>Highly social creatures that form deep familial bonds, elephants have long been observed gathering at the site where a peer or family member has died — often spending hours, even days, quietly investigating the bodies or the bones of other dead elephants.</p><p>Although the popular idea that dying elephants are instinctively drawn to special communal graves — so-called "elephant graveyards" — is a myth, their tendency to go out of their way to visit the bones and tusks of the deceased isn't unlike human rituals at graveyards, says animal psychologist Karen McComb.</p><p>"They spend a lot of time touching and smelling skulls and ivory, placing the soles of their feet gently on top of them, and also lifting them up with their trunks," McComb, who's been studying African elephants for 25 years in Kenya's Amboseli National Park, told DW.</p><p>The most striking part of watching an elephant experience loss, Poole recalls, is the quietude. She still remembers one of the first elephant deaths she witnessed; a mother who birthed a stillborn calf. That elephant stayed with its baby for two days, trying to lift it and defending it from vultures and hyenas.</p><p>"I was so struck by the expression on her face and her body. She looked so dejected. It was really like, 'Oh God, these animals grieve…'. It was just so different," Poole told DW. </p>
Witnessing Emotions in Animals<p>Not all scientists are comfortable concluding that elephants grieve. Among the more than 30 reports of elephant reactions to death that Wittemyer co-reviewed in <a href="https://link.springer.com/article/10.1007/s10329-019-00766-5" target="_blank">a study published in November 2019</a> were accounts of "enormous variation and nuance" he says. "It can be incredibly involved and intricate for extended periods or can be relatively cursory checks."</p><p>In Wittemyer's own experience, it can be difficult not to attribute some kind of emotional experience to the more involved interactions between elephants and their dead.</p><p>He shares the story of an "extraordinary event" involving the death of a 55 year-old matriarch in Kenya in a protected area that happened to be near his place of work. She was visited by multiple unrelated families while she was dying, including another matriarch that exerted such enormous effort attempting to lift her to her feet that she broke her tusk, which Wittemyer says, is "like breaking a tooth." </p><p><span></span>"It was a remarkable example of this heightened emotional state, it was very clearly a very stressful interaction," he says.</p>
A Different Sensory World<p>One factor that limits our ability to fully grasp the way elephants process and respond to loss is our markedly different sensory experiences of the world.</p><p>An elephant's world is fundamentally olfactory — based on smell. Ours is visual. Previous <a href="https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/25053675/" target="_blank">research</a> has shown elephants possess the most scent receptors of any mammal, and can <a href="https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/17949977/" target="_blank">use smell</a> to discern the difference between different human tribes from the same local area.</p><p>That could explain why elephants exhibit such interest in sniffing the bones and tusks of others, as a <a href="https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC1617198/" target="_blank">2005 study</a> from McCombs highlighted. When presented with the skulls and ivory of long-dead elephants and those from other large herbivores, including rhino and buffalo, McCombs and her team found elephants approached and were specifically attracted to the remains of their own species. </p><p>Without access to the smells an elephant picks up on, Wittemyer says "an enormous amount of stuff" could be missed by humans when studying these behaviors.</p>
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