About timothydenherderthomas

Timothy is the General Manager of Cooperative Energy Futures and a member of the Community Power Steering Committee. He's all about people power, and being the changes we actually want to see. Timothy has been heavily involved in community development and using climate solutions as incredible opportunities for local economic activity, collective empowerment, and self-determination. He does lots of network building with buddies in the youth movement as well as labor, faith, agricultural, small business, and neighborhood groups.

Challenges and Opportunities of a Solutions Economy

By: Timothy Den-Herder Thomas
Location: Twin Cities, MN

I’ve been spending a good part of the last five years imagining, developing, and implementing an energy cooperative, Cooperative Energy Futures, that will help Twin Cities communities take our energy economy into our own hands. For months now, I’ve been waiting eagerly for the final step in a series of projects that will allow us to hire a full-time staff person and start scaling up. I’ve been excited to announce our success to the world. And I’m still waiting.

Making a successful, financially self-sustaining venture is hard, even when the basic economic seem self-evident. Basic investments in energy efficiency are no-brainer deals, a few thousand invested now can save tens of thousands of dollars in energy costs over the coming decades, but it’s still hard for most people to afford the upfront cost. Even more importantly, the current process of delivering efficiency programs hasn’t made the transition from knowledge to action click for most folks – nationwide, an energy audit program is considered successful if 5% of the people who receive audits act on the recommendations. While it is clear that over $200  billion/year in potential energy savings is sitting untapped in United States communities, it’s nearly impossible to get at it. cropped logo

In 2007, I started researching this challenge and learning home energy system science. In 2008, I helped convene a team of youth leaders and community experts to start evaluating what to do about it. In 2009, we incorporated Cooperative Energy Futures as a 308B Minnesota cooperative, a member-owned business. 2009-2010, we worked to develop our outreach strategy, educational approach, and network of community groups and energy service providers, and in 2011, we started launching our programs in full. We coordinated a series of workshops with a local neighborhood organization, training 30 residents, many of them renters and Spanish speakers, in energy conservation practices. We launched an insulation bulk buying program in late 2011 into Spring 2012, insulating 7 homes in our neighborhood. We launched a solar bulk buying program in summer and Fall 2012, securing 24 letters if intent from community residents to install solar (a total of 83kW) on their homes, pending Xcel Energy rebates. And we piloted a series of three commercial solar arrays financed by an equity investor, a first step towards community solar. As we closed up 2012, Cooperative Energy Futures was positioned to take it to the next level. Continue reading

Solutionaries: 2012 in review

The WordPress.com stats helper monkeys prepared a 2012 annual report for this blog.

Here’s an excerpt:

600 people reached the top of Mt. Everest in 2012. This blog got about 12,000 views in 2012. If every person who reached the top of Mt. Everest viewed this blog, it would have taken 20 years to get that many views.

Click here to see the complete report.

Building a Cooperative Energy Business, One Neighbor At a Time

As we wrap up the Twin Cities Summer of Solutions program, I’ve been reflecting on how far the team this summer has taken the dream of community-powered energy.
Back in 2008, members of the Summer of Solutions helped launch Cooperative Energy Futures (CEF), which I have been working to grow since then. Over the years, they have gone on to help create such wonderful peer ventures as Worcester Energy Barnraisers, Appalachian Alliance for Renewable Energy, and the Community Power Network. Here in the Twin Cities, the models we have used for multi-lingual home energy savings trainings, bulk-buying of home energy products, and group insulation have been greatly aided by the waves of support Summer of Solutions has provided. This year has been no different.
Last winter, CEF ran a bulk purchase program for home insulation in Minneapolis, helping a team of neighbors hire qualified installers of home insulation at a lower cost.  Working together and buying in bulk makes the process easier, cheaper, and fun. This summer, CEF has formed a partnership with Applied Energy Innovations to create a parallel program called Grow Solar Minneapolis for buying solar electric panels ’s. You can learn about all the bulk-buying opportunities at http://cooperativeenergyfutures.com/bulk-buying

SoS Participant Christian Bangert tabling at a farmer market

Launching an integrated program that offers bulk buying of many services makes it easier to promote them and attracts a broader audience. Many people get excited by the very tangible example solar provides, but either can’t afford it or end up needing more investments in energy efficiency first. We’re promoting the following neighborhood energy bulk buying together:

CEF Board member Brianna Besch and Fred, an enthusiastic Corcoran neighborhood resident at a National Night Out block party.

Beyond creating the outreach materials and lining up the contract, it’s been all about outreach. We’ve hit the farmers markets (22 scheduled by mid October), attended community events, got in City Council and neighborhood newsletters, and gone door to door to meet and talk with folks in our neighborhood. We even had 14 of us going around to over 30 National Night Out events (an August 7th block party day that has several thousand local block parties in Minneapolis) letting people know about ways to get involved. As these neighbors are going about shopping for local produce, meeting, and having fun, some have stopped for information, others have gotten excited to tell their friends, and some have been simply overjoyed to learn what we’re doing.

The most exciting thing for me about this is the process of linking people-to-people community outreach with the process of growing a thriving business. As we line up the contracts, I can see the seeds of long-term employment positions for neighborhood residents in the revenue flows we are building even as we help folks save money. At the same time, the inspiration and excitement I hear from more and more neighbors as we present what we’re doing is infectious. I’ve been dedicated to making this dream a reality for over four years now, and at times it has been slow going, but I’m starting to see a wave of community support that is building CEF into a success.

As we leave the summer and head towards Fall, I look forward to seeing the cooperative growing, one neighbor at a time.

Minneapolis Energy Options: Energy, Markets, and Democracy

Last November, I sat down with a couple of long-time Environmental Justice organizers in Minnesota and had a conversation about Minneapolis’s energy future. I had been notified by a environmental lawyer that the franchise agreements (20 year agreements that allow the major local utilities to use the public right of way to distribute electricity and natural gas to Minneapolis energy users in exchange for paying Minneapolis about $24 million annually) were expiring in 2014. In our conversation, we figured we should do something about it to ensure the next 20 years of energy development was founded on energy efficiency, clean energy, and community ownership of our energy system.

Fast forward six months and we have a coalition of a dozen groups leading the Minneapolis Energy Options campaign, support from many of our local elected officials, and insight into the many ways that state regulation partners with utilities to limit the options cities have taking steps towards more affordable, efficient, clean, and community-based energy development. We’ve learned of the work of dozens of other cities that have moved to take control of their energy purchasing, generation, and/or distribution, whether through innovative franchise agreements with cooperative utilities, community choice aggregation (which allows a local governments to choose what power they buy, distributed by the local utility), and forming new municipal energy utilities. We believe Minneapolis should keep its options open rather than locking in 20 more years of business as usual – we want to enable the city to explore the option of municipalizing while evaluating negotiations of the franchise with an eye towards enabling Minneapolis residents and businesses to take charge.

And recently, we opened that discussion in an Op Ed in the Star Tribune: http://www.startribune.com/opinion/commentaries/153296235.html

Read more about what we could achieve and what this means for energy action, democracy, and how movements relate to markets:

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The View from Four Years Out

When I helped close the 2011 Twin Cities Summer of Solutions three weeks ago, I knew something amazing was happening, but in the flurry of it all I wasn’t really able to identify it. I started to get a sense of it when I first sat down at the Grand Aspirations August Gathering two weeks ago, when forty people from all over the country streamed in with wondrous stories of their work creating the green economy. By the end of the Gathering, last week, the full depth of the change was starting to dawn on me and was brought to the front of my attention when Ethan Buckner, a friend and Oakland Summer of Solutions Program Leader, said smiling at the end of a big group hug, ‘you know, we’ve created something really remarkable in the past few years’. Now, after a week of catching up and taking the next steps forward back in Minnesota, I’m finally seeing the view from four years out.

Four years ago was about 6 months after the events that got Cooperative Energy Futures and the Alliance to Reindustrialize for a Sustainable Economy off the ground – the seeds of my green economy work in the Twin Cities. It was about 6 months before the vision for the Summer of Solutions and Grand Aspirations emerged. Four years ago, there had been no national gatherings of thousands of youth activists, candidate Barack Obama was barely a competitor, and the economy had not yet tanked. The dream of a green economy was barely starting to be voiced, and the idea that we could sustain ourselves, our communities, and the future of our world by creating new ways to feed, house, power, and transport our society was an exciting but utopian ideal.

So what has changed?
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Worried about Defecits and Unemployment?: Community Powered Energy

As the federal government eyes a shutdown and Minnesota cautiously creeps towards the end of its state-level closure, the underlying questions remain unanswered:

  • How do we balance budgets and live within our means by raising income and cutting waste without sacrificing the essentials, whether at the government level or for people already living on the edge?
  • How do we create lasting jobs and economic opportunity when the costs of living keep rising and people have less money to spend?
  • How do we bridge traditional divides (partisan, ideological, socioeconomic, and cultural) to work together creatively for public health, geopolitical stability, climate and energy solutions, community resiliency, and social justice?

For the neighborhoods around Midtown in South Minneapolis, where the recession has left unemployment edging towards 40%, foreclosure running rampant, violent crime rising, and neighborhoods and community organizations struggling with funding cuts, these questions are at the fore. Things have always been challenging here; absentee landlords control much of the housing, and a large portion of people’s income leaves the community to pay for goods and services elsewhere. Many local residents (the area is primarily low-income, people of color, and has many recent immigrants and non-English speakers) feel they have little agency in corporate and governmental decisions affecting the neighborhood.

In times of crisis, communities can turn against each other in a desperate attempt to protect what remains, or towards each other to work together to create new opportunities and long term solutions. In the Twin Cities Summer of Solutions, we’re helping the community use the opportunities that clean energy and energy efficiency provides to make the latter choice. Scaled up, we hope this work may serve as an example for a world facing challenging times.

The seven neighborhoods (over 13,000 households and over 500 businesses) we’re focusing on together spend over $63 million each year paying for electricity, heating, and gasoline – that number will only go up as prices rise. That money is creating few local jobs – the majority of it pays for coal mining, oil drilling, natural gas extraction, power plants, natural gas pipelines, and more. I don’t need to recite the list of problems these things create for both the local community already plagued with asthma and other respiratory illnesses and for our broader nation and planet. 30-80% of this $63 million/year  can be avoided through behavioral changes and available technologies that pay for themselves, reducing the negative impacts created. Collectively implementing these practices cuts the cost of implementing them (opening access to people and making it easier to finance) and dramatically increases demand for local green business and green jobs, putting people back to work (or into it for the first time). Eliminating those costs helps individuals and businesses balance their own budgets and create new jobs and income. This in turn reduces reliance on public subsidies and increases public income, making economic recovery and fiscal responsibility connected instead of opposed. In doing so, we help create a win-win-win scenario for residents and businesses and across cultural and socioeconomic groups; building community and helping people unite across difference for a common goal.

We believe energy efficiency and clean energy can be a driver for stronger communities and a renewed economy. And more than our belief; we’re making it happen.

So here’s the low down on what’s happening around energy in the Twin Cities …

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Youth Forge Solutions Nationwide – All Are Welcome

At a youth climate meeting in Minnesota in January 2008, a neat idea emerged from discussion:

‘We need to start training young people, not just FOR green jobs, but TO CREATE green jobs. We should start in the Twin Cities  this summer.’

Fast-forward three years, and over 250 young people have been trained over three years in Summer of Solutions programs around the country to create innovative and self-sustaining solutions around energy efficiency, green industry, renewable energy, sustainable agriculture, and smart transportation and design that advance job creation, social justice, and community empowerment. A network of over 70 youth leaders has coalesced to launch a national organization from nothing and develop 2011 Summer of Solutions programs that will support hundreds of youth in creating the clean energy economy in 15 cities nationwide.  These programs have expanded rapidly in number, quality, and sustainability over the years without grant support, and with a major influx of funding and leadership in late 2010, we’re just hitting our stride.

As you read on, I’d encourage you to think of any young people (individuals or groups) who might be interested in a summer program based on community-based innovation in the clean energy economy. If so, please invite them to apply to any of our 15 programs nationwide by April 24th at www.grandaspirations.org/apply2sos

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It’s Our Power

I believe in Energy Democracy.

Energy is 10% of the entire economy, powers and makes possible everything we do in the other 90%, and is the most centralized and tightly controlled of all economic sectors – just a handful of giant oil companies and electrical and natural gas utilities control the vast majority of the wealth. Every year, the average American household puts 5% of their income into the hands of these energy companies, and reaps a return in asthma, traffic congestion, war, destruction of communities in places where energy is extracted, reduced economic security in the face of volatile energy prices, and dramatic and unpredictable changes in our climate as well as the ability to heat, light, and power their homes, schools, and workplaces, and drive between them. For families below the poverty line, this portion of their income is more like 15%, and these proportions get still higher if you count the energy costs embodied in the prices of our food and other products. Every day, our communities are pouring these dollars outside, to massive, centralized energy producers. Every day, we’re pouring these dollars towards the problems that are fracturing our communities, attacking our health, threatening or security, and devastating our climate and ultimately our economy.

What if we reversed this flow? What if we poured this vast channel of wealth – over $1 trillion across the United States alone  – back into our communities and towards energy solutions that reconnect us with ecology, create bonds between neighbors, and revitalize our economy my cutting our costs and creating jobs building and servicing smart energy systems in our communities. What would this change do for our society? First, it would send a huge pulse of resources and capital back into our communities to improve the efficiency of our homes, upgrade our infrastructure to local smart grids, and help capitalize a massive wave of localized community-owned energy. Second, it would put these resources into local job creation serving local needs, and require people getting together with their friends and neighbors to learn how to make the transition and work together to do it. Finally, it would eviscerate the dirty energy industry by removing its greatest cash flow (which, let’s remember, is not investors or the government, but us, energy users).  We could do all this if only we (collectively, individual consumer choice makes little difference)  redirected the money we spend on dirty energy and invested in a better energy.

In 2007, I began a journey to figure out how to turn this big concept into a reality. Read on to learn the what, the how, and the why.

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Launch the Summer of Solutions: Change the Story

Cross-posted from It’sGettingHotinHere.org

This is a call.

On the basic level, it’s very simple; it’s a call for youth leaders all across the country who are ready to dig down into the grassroots and work with people in their communities to create solutions. We’re looking for leaders who want to plan a summer program next summer that will start, grow, and expand green ventures at the community level that meet the needs of our neighbors (food, housing, transit, energy, jobs), show the world what is possible, and start to out-compete the dirty energy systems that run our world.

You’re in? Just find a friend who agrees and APPLY HERE. Priority deadline midnight 10/24 – just give us a heads up if it will take a bit longer.

Need more background? Check out this video by my co-worker Matt Kazinka, read the background info in the application, or check us out at www.summerofsolutions.org

But really, this is about a lot more than running a cool program next summer. This is a call about changing the game for our economy, our communities, and our climate.

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