Renewable energy and community renewal

By Emma Searson
Director, Go Solar Campaign

Solar group purchasing offers a way to start talking to our neighbors again

Written by Bella Pucker

Photo by Roland Balik, U.S. Air Force

We’re stronger when we work together. This is an aphorism author and leading environmentalist Bill McKibben has been preaching for some time. If we hope to solve the world’s environmental issues, we must look up from our phones, band together and organize with our neighbors. 

Unfortunately, we are living in a world of “hyper-individuals”--a term McKibben coined to describe the materialistic consumer lifestyle many Americans and people across the globe choose to pursue. “Hyper-individualism” reflects a desire to have more goods, such as big cars, big houses or the latest Apple device. But the twist is it doesn’t actually make us happier. Studies suggest that this material appetite actually decreases levels of mental well-being. Not only are people ultimately unsatisfied with their toys, but this constant need for goods is also exhausting the world’s resources at a staggering rate. To add insult to injury, hyper-individualism pulls people apart, making it easy to exist solely within the bubble of our SUVs and social media networks while disregarding our neighbors and our local community. 

Considering McKibben’s warnings, the prospect of getting people to come together to affect meaningful environmental change may seem daunting. But I was recently inspired by a program that achieves that very goal.

Businesses, homeowners and community members are collectively buying solar energy through solar group purchasing offers. As discussed in Environment America’s recent Mayors for Solar Energy webinar, solarize campaigns, solar co-ops and other group programs bring people together and guide them through the competitive selection process of choosing a solar energy installer. 

To spur this strength-in-numbers approach, cities often partner with local non-profits, businesses and solar installers to run effective programs that foster highly engaged and sustainable communities. 

Though the cost of solar has decreased dramatically in recent years, the upfront price tag can still be hefty. But with group purchasing, residents can leverage their collective power and capitalize on bulk buying to receive discounted rates for solar installations. Going solar en masse is also beneficial to local installers, who can both save on marketing costs and easily identify large groups of new customers. 

The community approach to solar provides a vastly different experience than going alone. Most solarize campaigns, solar co-ops and group purchasing programs offer education programs that teach the public about the ins and outs of solar energy. Not only that, but group members can also support one another throughout the solar installation process, fostering a strong sense of community while transitioning to a clean energy source. 

“The process of organizing people together and doing it as a group really provides people with that impetus to move forward in the decision making process,” explained Emily Steiver, chief operating officer & vice president of field operations for Solar United Neighbors, in Environment America’s webinar.

And, it’s contagious. When people notice their neighbors pursuing clean energy initiatives, they become motivated to get involved and going solar gradually becomes the social norm. 

We’re facing a crisis from increasing fossil fuel emissions, social isolation and decreasing levels of happiness. Fortunately, the solution is within our grasp. The science is clear, the technology is here and renewable energy is becoming more affordable each day. Coming together is another key piece of the equation. As McKibben says: “The technology we need most badly is the technology of community, the knowledge about how to cooperate to get things done.” 

A Solarize campaign is a valuable example of the “technology of community.” It has the ability to unite us with our neighbors, boosting our well-being and bringing us together around a shared goal of protecting our planet for generations to come.