These wind turbines, part ot he Westmill Wind Farm Cooperative, provide electricity to 2,500 homes.

Rewards of Ownership

renewable energy projects
can produce big benefits

By Julie Curti and Justin Goetz

Editor’s note: Curti and Goetz are both
Truman-Albright Fellows who have been
working with the Cooperative Programs of
USDA Rural Development.

ike many communities around the country, the school district in Wray, Colo., faced a sharply L growing electricity bill, coupled with state budget cuts and declining student enrollment. To make up for the shortfall, in 2002 a vocational and agricultural technology teacher at the high school suggested a creative solution: build a wind turbine.

Not only would the turbine bring a new source of revenue, but it also would provide hands-on opportunities for students to learn about renewable energy. After receiving approval from the board of education, a citizen committee formed to conduct a feasibility study and carry out the project.

The community rallied around the project, with donations, a bond project and in-kind support providing the school district with funds for the 900- killowatt (kW), 335-foot-tall turbine. An innovative company, NativeEnergy, provided the final funding boost by purchasing the carbon benefits the turbine has been generating since it began turning in February of 2008.

NativeEnergy (www.native funds community-based renewable energy projects on tribal lands and family farms in rural areas. Since the company’s founding in 2000, it has sold renewable energy credits and carbon offsets to businesses and individuals. Revenue from these sales are then used to finance renewable energy projects.

“NativeEnergy is committed to solving the climate crisis by helping indigenous groups and at-risk communities to build renewable energy projects as a meaningful step toward developing sustainable economies in harmony with core cultural values,” says Tom Boucher, NativeEnergy president and CEO.

NativeEnergy has collaborated with rural communities on 15 projects to date. In 2006, it provided funding by purchasing expected carbon emission reductions from the member-owned Alaska Village Electric Cooperative (, which owns and operates several wind turbine projects serving 53 remote villages and tribal communities in Alaska. Another recent effort supports the low-impact Boulder Creek Hydro Project, which is owned by the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes on the Flathead Reservation in Montana.

Residents of Ashland, Ore., can pruchase a solar panel (or portion of one) on this city-owned building to receive a crdit on their electrical bill.

Models for community
energy projects

Many successful models exist for rural communities to follow when creating renewable energy cooperatives or partnerships with private enterprise.

In Nebraska, the town of Plainview was beginning to fade economically. Since the town of 1,350 is in the center of a large corn-producing area, residents began thinking about the potential for ethanol production. After conducting a resource assessment, the town pooled millions of dollars to build a 25-million-gallon, community-owned ethanol facility. The plant has been operating for four years, and has generated $130,000 in property tax revenue and $30 million in added income to local farmers during that time.

The city of Ashland, Ore., took another approach to community-based renewable energy. In July 2008, the city-owned electric utility installed a 63.5 kW community solar electric system on a city facility. Citizens can purchase a panel or portion of a solar panel, enabling them to buy the output of the solar system for 20 years and receive a credit on their electric bill for the amount of renewable electricity their panels have generated.

Under this system, residents who either don’t have the capital to invest in a solar system for their home or business, or who do not have the solar exposure, can still use renewable energy. In addition, the city has a cooperative marketing partnership — called Green Tags ( .cfm) — with the Bonneville Environmental Foundation. Under this program, citizens can purchase carbon offsets. For every green tag purchased, the city receives funds to invest in local renewable energy programs.

Many countries, from India to South Africa, have started successful community-based renewable energy projects and co-ops. The United Kingdom, for example, is home to a number of thriving community-owned cooperative wind farms clustered around a dozen communities (

In these co-ops, community members purchase a portion of a wind farm and receive an annual dividend on its profits. Community ownership empowers local decision-making and maximizes the local economic benefits of renewable energy projects, as more money stays in the community than when outside owners are involved.

wind farm

One successful community-based wind cooperative in the United Kingdom, Westmill Wind Farm Cooperative, is 100 percent locally owned by more than 2,300 co-op members ( Since February 2008, the project has been using five wind turbines that produce electricity for 2,500 area households.

In addition to providing a source of clean energy and adding to the local revenue stream, Westmill Co-op promotes energy efficiency and conservation measures in the community. It is the largest community-owned and built wind cooperative in the United Kingdom.

“Westmill Co-op is a superb example of what individuals intent on making a difference can achieve together,” says co-op director and local farmer Adam Twine. “It’s very exciting that after such a long struggle the turbines are now up and generating green power. I hope Westmill will inspire other communities to take similar initiatives in their own locality and in their own way.”

From Wray to Plainview, community-based renewable energy projects have already positively impacted many rural areas. And this trend has the potential to continue: analysts predict that in the next 20 years, we will see upward of $1 trillion invested in renewable energy projects.

Yet, it is important to realize that every renewable energy project will not necessarily provide net benefits to its community. To ensure that a renewable energy project is beneficial, it is critical for that community to be actively involved in planning for a project and to think and plan beyond just the feasibility study.

Communities need to consider the broad range of a project’s economic, social and environmental impact and integrate the project as fully as possible into their vision for the future. In short, if they haven’t already done so, communities that are considering a renewable energy project should first complete a community development strategic planning process. They also must ask how the proposed project will help the community achieve its vision.

Strategic planning process
There are four phases that comprise a community development strategic planning process. They are (in order): Ultimately, the strategic planning process revolves around a communitybased assessment of resources and opportunities, planning and the implementation of the plan. The community determines the objectives and timeline of the process, with citizen input and feedback gathered every step of the way through town hall meetings, focus groups and outreach to community organizations.

This input and feedback from community members is key to the final decisions. Typically, overall authority and ultimate decision-making are in the hands of a steering committee made up of local stakeholders, leaders and development experts who represent a diverse cross-section of the community.

By completing this process, a community will be in a much better place to understand its priorities and needs, and to make strategic choices about what kinds of renewable energy projects will best enable it to move in its desired direction.

Benefits of local ownership
Among the most important questions for a community to consider are those of ownership and scale. John Farrell, a research associate at the Institute for Local Self-Reliance, stresses that: “The key to sustainable rural economic development and the renewable energy future of America is a series of modest sized, locally owned wind farms, solar plants and biofuel refineries.”

Locally owned renewable energy projects are more likely to use locallyobtained inputs, profits are more likely to circulate locally and the community has an increased chance of retaining higher-paying management jobs associated with the project. There are direct economic advantages from inputs into the project and indirect economic advantages in terms of added businesses and industries that will prosper from money that is re-infused into the local economy by the project.

“The success of homegrown renewable energy lies in two key findings,” Farrell says. “Very large renewable power plants and biorefineries cannot be locally owned past a certain size because the capital costs are beyond the community’s wherewithal. But the rewards of local ownership are significant, delivering anywhere from 25 to 300 percent more economic impact to rural communities than from identically sized absenteeowned facilities.”

There are further tangible advantages to community-driven renewable energy projects. Strategic planning for renewable energy brings a community together and allows its citizens to focus positively on their future. It also gives a community a direct stake in the renewable energy project.

Benefits can also come in terms of working towards energy independence and improving the local environment by using renewable energy sources. A renewable energy project could even be a source of tourism revenue. In Wray the project provided a platform to engage young people in cutting-edge technology education.

Ultimately, each community needs to decide what kind of renewable energy projects will be best for its needs and what kind of projects best fit its vision for the future. Engaging in a community development strategic planning process and focusing on community-driven models will help to ensure a renewable energy project’s success.

It is also important to realize that successful renewable energy projects don’t necessarily happen quickly. The wind turbine project in Wray took more than six years to complete. In the case of the Westmill Wind Co-op, the idea of a wind farm was first raised 15 years ago and ultimately took four years of community planning and action to bring to completion.

In some cases, where communitydriven strategic planning was not used, rural renewable energy projects have failed to be economically viable. But communities that are actively involved in assessing their needs and planning for their future can safeguard the investments they put into renewable energy projects and ensure a bright future for their community, on their own terms.

November/December Table of Contents