The Sun Shines for Everyone

A small group of innovative commoners in Phoenix is closing in on an innovative breakthrough:  a commons-based revenue model for photovoltaic solar energy development in cities.  It’s called the Solar Commons, which sports the tagline, "The sun shines for everyone." 

The idea is to use the public rights of way in cities and towns to collect solar energy, and then channel the revenue to a community trust.  The trust will manage the solar panels and electricity sales, and distribute the revenues to help the community.  In this case, the Solar Commons will support low-income housing and commons education efforts in Phoenix. 

It sounds simple enough, but the Solar Commons has taken considerable out-of-the-box thinking and operational innovation to get on track as a demonstration project.  Among the challenges:  the city-commons relationship, legal liability and project maintenance and management.  At this stage, the Solar Commons is on track to becoming a demonstration project.

Its stated goal is to build an efficient solar energy system that produces green energy in a small-scale, distributed fashion and that can produce a reliable, modest revenue stream for the local community.  By structuring the project as a commons -- and not as the bureaucratic responsibility of a city agency – the project also aims to signal the economic and social benefits of the commons.  The design, signage, day-to-day management ad revenues will all be overseen by the Solar Commons.

The initial project is expected to produce an estimated 18,300 kWh of clean, renewable electricity that will displace 27,450 pounds of annual carbon dioxide emissions.  The project will also produce $1,830 in revenue, of which $183 will be reserved for maintenance expenses.  An estimated $1,647 will be available for investment in energy-saving improvements on low-income housing.  Eventually, it is hoped that the demonstration project will scale up to around 30kW to efficiently produce many more times the energy and revenue benefits.

As the project’s website explains, the solar panels will sit on “a prominent site in downtown Phoenix, next to the city's Science Center, visible from the light rail that provides efficient mass transportation to citizens of the sixth largest city in the U.S.  Through signage and design, Phoenix pedestrians and transit riders will be able to note their city’s first Solar Commons.  They will come to understand that it belongs to them, is managed by commons principles, and benefits their city.”

Much of the leadership for the Solar Commons has come from Kathryn Milun, a professor of anthropology and cultural studies at the University of Minnesota Duluth.  Milun conceived of the idea several years ago when she lived in Arizona.  She has since helped incubate the vision (despite now living in Duluth) by working through the issues with a team of lawyers, architects and solar energy experts that she assembled, and with On the Commons.

Milun explains that the Solar Commons project “shows us how to apply commons principles to own and co-manage solar energy and how to work with our city government, regulatory agencies, and financial institutions to create a community-owned source of green energy income to benefit the city’s affordable housing community.”  She noted that the project has the grander ambition of showing how a local commons can work “with municipalities and market entities to build and co-manage a green economy that is both efficient and equitable.”

The Solar Commons will have a split ownership model.  A Solar Commons Community Trust will own the license/easement to use city property and the revenue stream generated by its contract to sell solar electricity to the adjacent building.  The Trust will then donate the photovoltaic hardware to the City of Phoenix and use part of the revenue stream to pay Phoenix for maintenance and insurance costs on the hardware.  For its part, the City of Phoenix will own the hardware and assume the legal liability for the project.  It will also reap the reputational benefits of supporting innovative and green urban design.

In many respects, the Solar Commons Community Trust resembles an urban land trust, which holds land assets on which low-income families can buy houses.  Both types of trusts hold common assets on behalf of the community, and then keep the value of those assets circulating throughout the community over time.

The Solar Commons has already gotten some prestigious recognition.  Based on its design demonstration for a 10kW solar project, the U.S. Green Building Council honored the Solar Commons as its “2009 Legacy Project.”  In an earlier time, cooperatives in small towns developed grain elevators for farmers to help meet food storage and distribution needs.  Here’s hoping that the Solar Commons proves to be a hardy, replicable model for local communities and commoners to share the benefits of solar energy.