Solar panels, wind turbines and hydroelectric dams are not cheap. Countries can afford them, but national ownership does not tend to foster local pride. Individuals, organizations or corporations can purchase smaller systems, but they need a bunch of money up front.

Communities, on the other hand, may be just the right size to afford renewables. With a bundle of local investors to share the financial burden, communities are finding that they can own the source of their own energy, and reap the rewards.

Renewable energy co-operatives represent over half of all new co-operatives in the UK, and already account for a significant portion of all renewable energy production in Denmark and Germany. They are starting to pop up in Canada as well.

This trend is part of a paradigm shift in the way communities receive services. The local food and energy movements are both part of a larger citizen-led desire to promote sustainability while maximizing the financial benefits to their communities. Indeed, by dictating the terms of local power generation, many co-ops have created local jobs. In contrast to projects such as the Alberta tar sands, which pump oil to consumers far away from the site of extraction, part of the appeal of renewable energy co-ops stems from a desire to produce and use energy in the same place.

There is evidence that small, locally owned renewable energy projects are five times more efficient at retaining economic benefits for the project-site community than are more conventional larger projects.

The ability to see these benefits makes a big difference. Climate change is such an enormous problem in scope and scale that the search for solutions can occasionally lead to decision paralysis. The international development community has dealt with this problem for years while trying to solve Africa’s endemic woes. What aid organizations have found is that calls for donations to take on vast problems like hunger in Sudan – where any donation is going to be a mere drop in the bucket – are not as effective as programs that allow donors to affect tangible change, and to see that change in action. Sponsoring a child, for example, has been extremely popular, because it is relatively easy to demonstrate an impact on an individual child.

Renewable energy is moving toward a similar model by allowing communities to benefit directly from their support of windmills, solar panels and the like. Many people support green energy, but have not had either the means to invest in it or the potential to see their investment in action. I’ve written before about how the not-in-my-backyard problem is rooted in a disconnect from the economic benefits of renewables. Community co-ops present a solution.

The Ottawa Renewable Energy Co-operative recently collected more than $900,000 from its members in its first opportunity to invest in solar projects. It’s a sum of money that is well out of the reach of most individuals, but co-op membership is opening up a new world of possibility for communities to finally experience green for themselves.

The Renewable Energy blog showcases weekly posts by Stu Campana on current renewable energy issues. With fascinating projects underway across the country- from community solar power in Milton, Ontario to wind farms in Pictou County, Nova Scotia- Stu will connect these stories through attention to the broader scientific perspective, international political climate, and social variables they involve.

Stu is an international environmental consultant, currently working with Fern Ridge Landscaping and Eco-Consulting in Milton, Ontario.

Stu Campana is an international environmental consultant, with expertise in water, energy and waste management. He is the Water Team Leader with Ecology Ottawa, has a master’s in Environment and Resource Management and writes the A\J Renewable Energy blog. Follow him on Twitter: @StuCampana.

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