On Longhaul Farm in Garrison, New York, Jason Angell and Jocelyn Apicello believe countering global warming is urgent—but also not enough.

The couple, who became Longhaul’s farmers 12 years ago in search of a more personally resonate life, say they have seen the fingerprints of the climate crisis: shorter springs, longer summers and drier soil.

While a transition away from fossil fuel is necessary to retreat from the worst consequences of climate disruption, renewable energy does not inherently promote equity. Other systemic changes are needed to equip the world for what’s ahead, say Angell and Apicello, who also teach, parent two children, and cofounded the nonprofit Ecological Citizen’s Project (ECP).

“A lot of the systems we have built around values of greed and market exploitation are going to die. What about humanity is worth saving? Put that at the center and build your life around it,” Angell advises.

For the couple, that includes regenerative farming underpinned with diversity and equity that supplies a community with locally grown food.

  • The seven-acre Longhaul Farm in Garrison, New York. (Photo courtesy of Longhaul Farm)

This is a key impetus behind ECP’s partnership with Working Power, a grantee of The Rockefeller Foundation that helps create locally-owned solar power with a resulting revenue stream that supports a community’s priority projects.

The Foundation has made transitioning globally to clean, sustainable energy a priority, awarding its first grants to develop early prototypes of solar mini-grids in India in 2009, and scaling them up starting in 2013.

In 2020, with an eye to climate justice, the Foundation began investing in U.S. organizations that support community solar. In 2021, the Foundation spearheaded the development of the Global Energy Alliance for People and Planet, an alliance of philanthropies, multilateral and development finance institutions, and governments supporting developing countries’ shift to a clean-energy, equitable and pro-growth model.

Community-owned solar “has tremendous potential in the United States and around the world, as locally generated electricity can deliver significant cost savings that can support important local priorities,” noted Ashvin Dayal, Senior Vice President, Power & Climate, for The Rockefeller Foundation.

Imagine solar power that brings the dividend of benefits as varied as the communities themselves—gains like cheaper energy bills for low-income families, increased fresh food access for insecure communities, community-funded violence prevention centers or educational programs.

This is the Working Power model.

It combines forces with local groups, contributing financial, technical and legal resources. Lack of access to capital is often the primary barrier to community-owned solar.

Working Power grew out of Urban Ingenuity, which has nearly a decade of experience designing clean energy projects that reduce the costs of energy bills and generate community benefits.

The Working Power initiative was given wings last year with the passage of the Inflation Reduction Act, which both increased and extended solar tax credits.

man working on solar panels.

Installing final panels at the Working Power DC Water Brentwood Reservoir community solar project in Washington, D.C. (Photo courtesy of Ron Dixon for Working Power)

Currently, Working Power is managing or in pre-development on more than 50 projects with 16 organizations in six states.

Once these projects are completed, Working Power says, they will provide a carbon offset equivalent to planting and maintaining 520,000 trees for ten years, and generate $92 million in community benefits.

The numbers could be larger—the demand is more than they are able to meet. They hope to double in size over the next year.

The Working Power team holds a strategy session at their Washington, D.C., headquarters. (Photo courtesy of R Jay Molina for Working Power)

The Inequities of Energy

Energy costs are not equitably divided in the U.S.

While median-wealth households spend 2.3 percent of income on energy, households at or below the federal poverty level spend 8.1 percent—over three times as much.

Black households spend 43 percent more of their income on energy bills than their white counterparts, while Hispanic households spend 20 percent more, and Native American households spend 45 percent more.

About 21.5 percent of energy used in the U.S. is from renewable sources. Solar currently is a small portion of that, at about 3.4 percent or 146 billion kWh. But solar power usage is on the rise rapidly, and could provide 45 percent of U.S. electricity by 2050, notes the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, part of the U.S. Department of Energy.

Solar energy traditionally has been owned by either wealthy individuals or utility monopolies.

“Typically, communities lose control of developing projects to money interests, and any benefit goes to for-profit investors,” said Ian Fischer, cofounder and Managing Partner of Working Power.

  • Our mission is to advance the goal of decreasing America’s carbon emissions by more than 40 percent by 2030, while supporting a just and equitable energy transformation by collaborating with community partners.

    Ian Fischer

    Co-Founder and Managing Partner of Working Power

Here’s how it works:

  1. Partner: Working Power connects with local nonprofits, BIPOC-led organizations, or small businesses that have a project or a goal that could be supported by co-owning a small solar business. The Working Power team assesses the project’s viability and then pre-development work begins, including project scoping and financial modeling.
  2. Structure: Working Power assists with project design, engineering, construction, permits, and legal steps including site leases, contract reviews, and establishing the joint venture. Working Power also helps design a creative financing approach, including loans, grants, philanthropic funding, traditional investment, and tax equity, depending on community needs. The team is also available to support presentations to local governments, small businesses, and community members.
  3. Scope: The community partner and Working Power identify solar project sites, which can be on rooftops or vacant property, over parking lots, or even on water reservoirs. The community partner uses relationships with community members to engage subscribers, who receive discounted bills as a benefit.
  4. Construction: With site control for at least 1 megawatt of solar capacity, Working Power and the community partner establish a joint venture to split ownership 50-50. Working Power guides technical development based on past project expertise. But all decisions are made by the community group and Working Power equally. Construction begins after securing a Working Power Impact Fund loan.
  5. Funding:  Through tax credits, state and utility incentives, and revenue from generated energy, the construction loan is repaid, generally six months to a year after the project’s completion. Working Power then recycles the construction funds to the next project, greatly scaling the efficiency of the money.
  6. Operation: Once the project begins operation, a revenue stream generated from the sale of the energy supports community goals for the life of the project, an anticipated 25 years.

The Importance of Creative Collective Action

On the seven-acre Longhaul Farm, Angell and Apicello say the moment’s challenges must be met with two impulses: transformative personal change and creative collective action.

Action, they say, can offset climate doomerism. “A lot of climate anxiety is born from our failure to do anything about this problem looming toward us,” said Angell.

Farmer bending over crops

Jason Angell at work on Longhaul Farm. (Photo courtesy of Longhaul Farm)

As Executive Director of the Center for Working Families, he oversaw the development of the Green Jobs–Green NY Act, signed into law in 2009 with $112 million directed to the program.

It remains a leading example for building large-scale public-private partnerships to catalyze energy efficiency.

“My legislative work at the state level was effective. But I wanted to see those values reflected on a more intimate level in my daily life,” Angell said.

With the ECP and Working Power solar project, property owners in nearby Peekskill have expressed interest in taking the first step in a process that would amount to over 3 megawatts of solar if developed.

This would deliver renewable electricity along with an estimated $2.35 million in electricity bill savings to 800 low-and-moderate income households.

It would also create a nearly $1 million Community Benefit Fund over 25 years.

woman farmer bending over crops

Jocelyn Apicello at Longhaul Farm. (Photo courtesy of Longhaul Farm)

Flipping the Values That Guide Green Energy Development

Peekskill’s Community Benefit Fund would support a public food garden, where new farmers are trained and paid a living wage to grow free food, and youth receive paid internships.

As opposed to a community garden where residents tend individual plots, the ECP views a public food garden as a municipal infrastructure where a community farmer is paid a living wage to steward land and grow free food for the food insecure, and all neighbors are invited to harvest food and enjoy the space freely. Since 2021, the ECP has helped establish public food gardens in Peekskill, Newburgh, and Poughkeepsie, New York.

“When Jason and I began this idea, we wanted to create opportunities for communities to be as sovereign as possible,” Apicelllo said. “To own their food, their energy, and their income stream, and to have control and power over their land.”

This feeds directly into their desire to help build local food systems and support the training of a new generation of diverse farmers.

Community gardens nourish a community’s health and social fabric. They offer environmental benefits, and also support goals of trust-building, participation, and food security, which are especially critical for marginalized groups.

They also help mitigate the impacts of a warming planet and an economic system that widens inequalities.

When a community owns the solar asset, it has the real power of deciding where the profits go,” Angell said. “This won’t happen unless you flip the ownership structure and the values that guide renewable energy development.”

“That’s why Working Power’s model is so important,” agreed Rachel Isacoff, Program Officer, Equity and Economic Opportunity, for The Rockefeller Foundation.

  • They’ve created a new approach for using an innovative capital stack to support communities in building wealth and driving local priorities. We should look to scale this solution to increase equity and access to renewable energy across the country.

    Rachel Isacoff

    Program Officer, Equity and Economic Opportunity, The Rockefeller Foundation

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