Capitalizing On Capitalism

By Rob Jentsch

My friend Timothy Den-Herder Thomas ’09 thinks it is time we re-think markets and power. Isn’t it?As a student/part-time waiter, I was in no position to invest a year ago, but in this economy what was I going to do, put money in the stock market? Watch my saved tips depreciate at the bank? Besides, I’ve had this nagging dilemma since coming to Mac, recently underscored in an invite to a friend’s honors defense: “You should come because you are either a) interested in smashing capitalism or b) interested in smashing the people who smash capitalism.” I am both: I think it’s nuts to describe the current world system as having a “magic hand” that appropriately allocates resources while most people in the world are impoverished; but I am sick of the renunciation of world systems without viable, scalable alternatives.

Cooperative Energy Futures (CEF) is a business and model for community powered energy that Tim founded in 2008. Last April I invested practically all of my savings ($5000) in CEF and made 6% that year. So I beat the market making it easier to pay off student loans and invested in something I believe in.

As Tim explains, ecological thinking imagines transformative development weaving innovative new infrastructures unobtrusively through existing ones, changing the function and order of current human systems toward sustainable models without having to replace them altogether. In the current neoliberal capitalist system we often think of ourselves as employees and consumers – that’s normal people. But what if normal people are actively engaged in creating value? CEF, now a Board of six and a Coordination Team of ten with 308B – Cooperative status sees people using, managing and generating energy for themselves and each other. It’s not the non-profit model. Everyone profits.

Every year the U.S. loses $110 billion through homes leaking energy. Homeowners, particularly those in run-down, inefficient houses, should have that money. With the capital I invested, CEF team members like Ruby Levine ’11 and Jason Rodney ’10 bought supplies in bulk and compiled energy-saving kits which they sold to homeowners for a reduced but still profitable $40. The kit saves a homeowner about $80 a year. That’s a 100% return. My capital expanded to create accessible and sustainable opportunities for others while I, and CEF, profited. All involved parties actually made money.

When we work collectively, we do even better. CEF specializes in organizing communities toward generating revenue through reducing energy waste. A group of homeowners in Merriam Park (west of Mac-Groveland) united around the CEF model. By cooperatively contracting work for installing insulation, residents created economies of scale for the contractor, earning themselves a discount. They now save upwards of $1000 a year on heating bills.

CEF is growing. Last week Natalie Camplair ’13 and Tim went to speak to the Minnesota Rural Energy Association Board Members and CEOs in St. Cloud to propose a partnership between CEF and rural communities whose energy is managed by cooperatives. This summer CEF will roll out a program in South Minneapolis to create jobs and help 1800 households save money on utilities. CEF and neighborhood leaders will facilitate hiring local residents to distribute energy efficiency kits and information to neighbors. Ahead, CEF can employ people to install insulation and retrofit homes. So people are employed to help their own communities tap their available resources.

My involvement with CEF empowered me personally, in addition to helping me financially. As a student I find myself dependent on the resources of others to complete the projects I dream up. Tim’s invitation to invest allowed me to see myself as someone capable of generating opportunity. I like the idea of the “have-nots” re-thinking what they really have and channeling it towards everyone having more. I am talking about capital, broadly defined. What if capitalism becomes a system in which our resources are used to generate more resources for ourselves and overlapping communities? If my year-long investment is a sign of things to come, maybe we should take this seriously.

For CEF and related models that re-think “the way things are” to take off, time, expertise and more capital is needed. Brianna Besch ’13 is already developing business plans, meeting with leaders in communities to maximize mutual benefit through partnership and managing a growing inventory of profit-generating efficiency kits. Community leaders from the Twin Cities serve on the board. CEF calls it “community powered energy” and in this market everyone has something to invest.

To find out how you might invest your resources, broadly defined, check out:

Rob Jentsch ’10 can be reached at [email protected]