You may or may not have noticed, but a grassroots movement in community power is picking up speed around the country. What's community power, you may ask, and why does it matter?

The community power movement aims to decentralize electricity generation, which provides benefits to communities beyond local, clean, and more affordable energy -- though those benefits would be enough. Take the case of solar power. Solar is getting cheaper, and given the costs of coal and nuclear plants, it will at some point become cheaper than other options. But who will benefit? Organizations promoting community power want to ensure that the answer to that is the people who need the power, rather than big companies outside their communities. In addition, keeping power production local creates jobs locally, avoids destroying delicate habitats, and bypasses the need for inefficient transmission lines, which can take many years to put in place.

Community power also helps address the challenges many of us face in going solar. If you've read about my quest for solar at my condo complex, you'll have some insight into what this means for multi-family buildings. Condo dwellers aren't the only ones facing significant hurdles; renters are at the mercy of their landlords. And many single-family homeowners can't afford solar, even with rebates and incentives. In fact, fewer than 1% of U.S. homes currently have solar panels.

A big boost for single-family homes has been the increase in leasing options, such as those provided by Sungevity. This Oakland-based company is showing that solar is not just for the elite but can be within reach of any homeowner. Leases allow homeowners to go solar without putting any money down -- thereby saving money right away, with savings increasing yearly.

But what's a homeowner to do if their roof is not large enough, too shaded, or not positioned correctly for solar panels? Even a lease can't help with those issues. Plus, leases are hard to come by for condos and are not an option for renters. That's where community solar comes in.

Groups like these are springing up around the country to help address these challenges:

  • Solar Mosaic, based in Berkeley, uses crowdfunding to raise money for solar installations on schools, churches, all kinds of public buildings, or homes. Anyone can invest in a "Tile," which represents a $100 share in a solar installation. The investor is paid back in full over a period of years (with no interest), and the money generated by the system is used to fund future solar projects.
  • Re-volv, a San Francisco nonprofit, uses a similar model to fund renewable energy projects in community centers. The organization aims to empower communities and individuals to invest collectively in renewable energy, creating what basically amounts to a revolving loan that helps fund more community solar projects.
  • The Colorado-based Solar Gardens Institute helps people pool resources as a group to buy panels in a "solar garden" -- these can be on the roofs of public buildings such as churches, schools, or libraries, on parking lot awnings, or in other available spaces. Because laws in many areas prohibit anyone but a utility company from selling power, the organization advocates for legislation that promotes community-based energy development.
  • The Mount Pleasant Solar Cooperative started as a group of friends and families that decided not to wait for the government or business to take action on global warming. Though it began as a small venture in a DC neighborhood, the larger goal is to make solar affordable and available throughout DC, where they've already formed other coops -- all of which can serve as a model for the rest of the country.

We can all help promote the model of community power -- after all, we are the community, so our involvement is crucial to the movement's success. A good first step is to sign up for updates from the groups listed above and others like them, and ask how you can get involved. You can donate to organizations like Re-volv or ask them how they can help you fund solar projects in your community. Or you can invest in a Tile with Solar Mosaic, which is similar to lending through kiva.org -- you might think of it as micro-investing rather than micro-lending. With all these options, and others sure to come, it's easy to get involved and make a difference.

Photo by San Francisco Solar Garden Institute.