WEtility. That’s utility for community, or a business model for cooperatively-owned solar energy created by four Macalester students. Over J-term, Maggie Lobbig ’19, Becca Krasky ’19, Jack McCarthy ’18 and Gordy Moore ’17 used a Dream It Fund to investigate potential ways of effectively crowd-funding sustainable energy.
After applying for and receiving Dream It funding in November, the students began planning ways they could potentially create infrastructure that would support solar energy. Dream It funding is granted for projects that propose potential solutions to problems; students involved might not necessarily implement their plans, or at least, are not required to do so during J-term break.
The WEtility plan, a work in progress, involves crowd-funding and providing information online. It would use a revolving fund, meaning that the revenues created by the cooperative would return to its own investment, enabling the fund’s continual growth. According to cooperative principles, the business model is customer and employee owned, operated and funded.
“We found instances of companies that do each of those things — that do cooperatives, that do crowd-funding, that do revolving funds, but we didn’t find anything that does that all together,” McCarthy said.
Over the two-week January term, each student spent about sixty hours researching, reading and talking with professionals experienced in energy and cooperatives. One of the twelve people they talked to was Melissa Hortman, a democrat in the Minnesota House of Representatives known for her support of environmental initiatives.
The students acknowledged some challenges to their project—difficulties getting responses back from people they needed to meet with, problems knowing what to ask their interviewees, and learning curves related to business, environmental or professional skills. They credited Kate Ryan Reiling, Macalester’s Entrepreneur in Residence, with giving guidance, as well as their mentor, Kevin Hinckley, who pushed the group to think big-picture. WEtility’s mission statement is stated: “WEtility aims to unite communities to cooperatively finance clean energy. WEtility is founded in the belief that equity and sustainability in all facets of our work are necessary to develop a community-owned, multi-generational, renewable energy system, and engender real parity in wealth generation and societal investment.”
The students also mentioned the goal of empowering people to make their own decisions. They pointed out that many consumers aren’t aware of the choices available, and pay an electric bill under the assumption that they can’t control that aspect of reducing carbon emissions.
Currently, the students are considering which route is more effective — starting their own projects, or assisting other similar projects and communities in the progress of building infrastructure to support solar. The WEtility group will present their business model on February 16th with the other Dream It fund projects in Davis Court at 11:30 a.m.
Their project is not yet finished and instituted, but it’s an example of the agency students, and the public in general, have when working together cooperatively.
If you are interested in learning more about WEtility’s model, see their blog post at eshipmac.blogspot.com.