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During the New Deal of the 1930s, U.S. President Franklin Roosevelt signed the Rural Electrification Act (REA), with the goal of bringing electricity to millions of Americans living outside of urban centres. At the time, less than 11 of 100 farms in the country had access to electricity.

Despite the belief that this program would incentivize private sector power companies to expand their service areas, these groups were uninterested in extending their electricity infrastructures across America’s rural regions.

Instead, the REA came to play a major role in the creation and incubation of co-operative and municipally-owned utility companies. Through loans from the federal government, residents were able to come together and form democratic co-operatives which owned and governed the electricity utilities that powered their homes and communities. Today, electricity co-operatives account for 42% of the U.S.’s electric distribution, covering 75% of the nation’s land mass.

The Green New Deal in Canada

The concept of a Green New Deal is quickly coming into focus in Canada, the U.S. and elsewhere. Co-operatives have an equally critical role to play in ensuring that a transition to a 100% renewable energy future is a democratic and economically just process.

Ideas about how to transform our energy sector have been taking place for years. Of equal importance are the conversations surrounding how the profits from this monumental shift are distributed.

Co-operative ownership models provide a tried and tested alternative to private ownership. Co-ops present a strong opportunity to bring about the collective, community-driven economic benefit that must be realized during the necessary transition to a just, low-carbon future.

In Ontario, renewable energy co-ops have already played a small but important role in developing the renewable energy industry. Under the paradigm of the Green New Deal, this should be expanded significantly. Renewable energy co-ops allow individuals to co-own solar, wind, and biogas projects through member investment, with revenues generated by projects distributed among members.

CoEnergy Co-operative

Co-operatives like CoEnergy, based in Ottawa, have an important role to play in moving to a low-carbon future. Incorporated in October 2018, CoEnergy is seeking to expand upon the role that renewable energy co-operatives have already played in the transition to a sustainable future.

Alongside renewable energy generation projects, CoEnergy is also putting forward solutions within the energy & water efficiency space, as well as in electric transportation and storage. As services like building retrofits and electric fleet upgrades become increasingly attractive through government programs and incentives that would be part of a Green New Deal, the need for co-operatives to play a development, financing and ownership role increases. This means that the members of the co-operative benefit through the expansion of low-carbon technologies, and profits are widespread, rather than accruing with small private groups.

The time for a renewable energy transition and widespread energy efficiency retrofitting is long overdue. But in our haste to lower greenhouse gases, we must seek to avoid recreating the economic disparity that plagues, and indeed contributes to, societies marked by a lack of sustainability.