“Green” energy can realize more than a reduction in carbon emissions. Organizations like Toronto Renewable Electricity Co-op (TREC) can make green energy even “greener.” They can fire public interest in demand management, profit recirculation, and governance. They can give residents a stake in responsible resource development. That’s why wind and solar power co-ops have enjoyed so much growth in the last ten years.
How do we increase the role of co-operatives in the renewable energy sector? There are three major factors to address. First, in the race for wind energy sites, co-ops cannot outrun private corporations. Second, economies of scale require massive amounts of capital. Big private corporations can see electrical projects through to fruition whereas community-based organizations run out of time, money, volunteers, and energy.
Partnerships with the private sector can close these gaps, but at the cost of community content and control. A better option is for lenders and governments to offer incentives and supports for co-operative participation. The Feed-In Tariff (FIT) is an excellent way to do this. Another is award the people who stand to be directly affected by a project the “first option” to exercise some control over it – through a co-op.
Finally, we must take into account each provincial energy regime. In Alberta and Nova Scotia, electrical co-ops will make inroads on private, coal-burning energy corporations. In Québec, Manitoba, and B.C., however, co-operatism compromises public hydroelectricity. In these provinces, co-ops essentially open the door of the energy market to private, for-profit companies, and bring lower rates and greener power to very few communities.
When it comes to the development of renewable energy, “one size” does not “fit all.” We must get strategic, and determine exactly where and how co-ops can make electricity generation both more sustainable and more democratic.
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This article is published in partnership with the Canadian Community Economic Development Network (CCEDNet). It is also one of a series of articles sponsored by the Canadian Social Economy Research Partnerships (CSERP) to celebrate its 6-year contribution (2005-11) to our understanding of the importance of Canada’s social economy to the resolution of fundamental social and economic issues.
Finally, we gratefully acknowledge the assistance of the BC-Alberta Social Economy Research Alliance (BALTA) and the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada (SSHRC).