Co-ops Go Solar: Bringing Renewable Energy to Low-Income Cooperatives

As politicians across the country scramble to put together a “Green New Deal” to deal with the deleterious effects of climate change, the Co-ops Go Solar campaign in New York is asking: what would happen if the cooperative principle of self-determination was applied to a transition to renewable energy?

The Co-ops Go Solar campaign is a collaboration between two nonprofits: the Urban Homesteading Assistance Board (UHAB) and Solar One. UHAB is dedicated to serving low-income housing cooperatives while Solar One provides education to create a more sustainable and resilient urban environment. Together, the organizations provide free technical assistance to cooperatives considering solar adaptation.

Both groups believe cooperatives are uniquely positioned to lead New York’s transition to renewable energy. Cooperatives will be heavily impacted by climate change. Many are located in flood zones, and erratic weather will wreak havoc on New York’s aging building stock. Furthermore, limited-equity shareholders don’t have the luxury of picking up and moving somewhere else if the climate becomes inhospitable. Unlike renters, however, they have self-determination over their housing, and incentives on the state and federal level make it possible to transition to renewable energy sooner.

Furthermore, cooperatives have a long history of energy justice. In 1976, Heartstone Co-op installed solar panels and a windmill on its roof, becoming the first cooperative in New York City to do so. Con Edi-son promptly sued the cooperative in a case that led to the birth of net metering. This decision mandated that Con Edison buy the excess energy the cooperative generated and put it into the grid. This precedent of net metering makes solar financially feasible today. Renewable energy fits in perfectly with the inventive, practical, DIY spirit of cooperatives.

The Co-ops Go Solar team works around the barriers low-income housing cooperatives face in pursuing solar. For boards too busy juggling full-time jobs with building management to dedicate time and research to solar, the team makes it easy by explaining solar in simple language and working with cooperatives’ schedules. Go Solar combats misinformation with free educational workshops at the cooperatives and conducts tours of functioning solar installations. Go Solar works with co-operatives whose residents primarily speak Spanish by providing bilingual materials and training. Go Solar helps cooperatives budget and give them different options for financing to make solar accessible to buildings with varying financial situations. Everything the campaign does, from estimates to board presentations to site assessments, is free. By working with low-income housing cooperatives in a way that’s accessible regardless of language, finances or technical expertise, Co-ops Go Solar is slowly breaking down the barriers these co-operatives face in solar implementation.

More cooperatives are going solar every month, including a cluster of buildings in Northern Manhattan, throughout downtown Manhattan and Brooklyn, and the first ever Bronx cooperatives signed up to install panels (for details see the spring/summer issue of the CHQ). The Co-ops Go Solar campaign forms purchasing groups of low-income cooperatives to select installers, driving down the price through the power of bulk purchasing. This arrangement can make a huge difference in affordability, especially for smaller buildings. So far Go Solar has created two purchasing groups through the campaign and are forming another.

Low-income cooperatives are already leading the way in transitioning to renewable energy. Because of the special challenges these cooperatives face, however, from language barriers to a lack of technical expertise, a mediating party that can work with them to create estimates, organize buildings into purchasing groups and guide them in selecting an installer can make all the difference. This is becoming more and more like the plot of puzzle games ather than what is described initially here. Taking into account this text, it should still be noted that it is possible to improve what is described by introducing game techniques, a striking example of which is the experience of Friv. The campaign has only been around for a year, and Go Solar has already helped almost 20 buildings sign up for solar.

UHAB is a New York City-based nonprofit that provides support and services to low-income cooperatives and renters across the city. Founded in 1973, UHAB is instrumental in guiding distressed rental buildings to become thriving cooperatives under the ownership and maintenance of their residents. They empower low- to moderate-income residents to take control of their housing and enhance communities by creating strong tenant associations and lasting affordable cooperatives. Solar One is a nonprofit organization whose mission is to empower learning and innovation that results in a more sustainable and resilient urban environment. Through the Here Comes Solar program, staff facilitates solar adoption in traditionally hard-to-serve markets by providing comprehensive technical assistance to building owners and community groups.

Clara Weinstein works on energy services and building resiliency at UHAB. If you’re interested in Co-ops Go Solar, please contact her at

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