Illustration by Avery Adamson

Co-ops are groups that pool resources to help each other survive, thrive and maintain their independence.

Micro is Beautiful

Co-ops (‘co-operatives’) have been around for hundreds of years: think credit unions, housing cooperatives, purchasing cooperatives, etc. In a co-op, everyone contributes resources or labor to the group and then shares in the benefits.

Co-ops start because people or businesses don’t want to be dominated by a larger entity that can dictate terms to them. They want to keep local control and independence.

Over time, many co-ops have merged into bigger organizations. Like farmers’ utility co-ops, which strung wires for telephones and power, only to be swallowed up by the bigger utilities they were created to fight against. Or dairy farm co-ops: in the 1940s there were thousands of them, whereas today, the top five co-ops produce half the milk in the U.S.

But today the cycle is beginning again, thanks to new technologies empowering local cooperation.

Take microgrids, which are networks for sharing renewable energy among groups of buildings, to avoid depending on a central utility or its big power plants.

A typical microgrid interconnects several neighbors who share power resources, so it’s a form of co-op. Some participants put solar panels on their roofs to generate power. Others host batteries to store power for use later, or charging stations to charge electric cars with excess daytime energy. Still others might host backup generators. Thanks to the microgrid, each neighbor can access all the energy resources they need, without depending on a big central utility.

Microgrids are gaining momentum worldwide, especially in countries without established national grids.

But in the U.S., most utilities are against microgrids because they view them as potential competitors. However as renewable energy gets cheaper and more powerful, pressure will build for microgrids, because they make sense economically.

And because people like co-ops – and controlling their own destiny.