Purchasing services and utilities together offers some of the same benefits as collective purchasing of goods: lower cost and greater choice of services. If you gather a group of friends or neighbors interested in purchasing services, you have greater bargaining power, which gives you better options and prices. It's a good deal for service providers, too: They get free marketing and a significant source of work.
If you are jointly purchasing service or utilities with others, it's a good idea to talk through the 20 questions we list in Chapter 3. Talk about how to divide costs, what happens if someone isn't happy with the services, and so on.
Here are some examples of services you might share:
Solar and wind power and other sources of renewable energy are the wave of the future, but remain unaffordable for the average household. While renewable energy systems pay for themselves in the long run, they require large initial investments. There are at least a few ways people can cooperate to gain access to and increase local renewable energy sources.
Home and business owners who would like to go solar have recently started forming bargaining collectives to gain an edge on pricing. By forming groups and seeking bids from solar panel installation companies, individuals have managed to cut their solarizing costs in half or more. An example of a group helping form these collectives is One Block Off the Grid, www.1BOG.org.
Solar and wind energy projects have been implemented in some areas by large utility companies and by individual home or business owners. Somewhere in between these large- and small-scale options is a third and relatively new option: community supported energy.
Community supported energy (CSE) is a model inspired by community supported agriculture, described in Chapter 8. Through a CSE, citizens collectively pay the costs of building medium-scale energy projects—a solar array or wind turbine, for example—and share the energy and income it produces. One example of a CSE is MinWind, in Minnesota, which began as two wind turbines owned by 66 local investors, primarily farmers. The project has since grown to include nine turbines. CSEs are an excellent way to produce energy locally and efficiently and keep income from the project in the community.
A major obstacle to building medium-scale, community-based renewable energy projects is the regulation of the energy industry. The approval process for energy projects is extremely costly. Green energy advocates want to encourage lawmakers to loosen regulation of small-scale projects, and even provide incentives for community-based energy programs. In the meantime, one way that community groups can overcome this barrier is to partner with an existing utility company for such projects.
Utility cooperatives have long helped people meet their telephone, electricity, gas, and water needs, especially in rural areas where for-profit utility companies have been unwilling to expand service. Utility cooperatives are owned and governed by the consumers. Because they operate for the sole benefit of members, utility cooperatives often keep prices low.
Many utility cooperatives have chosen to invest in alternative and renewable sources of energy at the request of members. If you are a member of an energy cooperative, you can exercise your power by voting for green energy.