By James Magee and Joe Tompkins

There is much talk these days about “buying local” — and for good reason. Every dollar we spend locally has a greater chance of staying local. That’s because locally owned businesses, unlike “big box” retailers, tend to create locally owned supply chains that, in turn, recirculate more money back into the local economy.

Small-scale, locally owned businesses also create communities that are more prosperous and better connected. Studies show that locally owned businesses employ more people per unit of sales and retain more employees during economic downturns, while big-box retailers decrease the number of retail jobs in a region. Large retailers also tilt the playing field by avoiding taxes, while locally owned businesses generate more tax revenue for cities with less cost.

In short, local businesses are the lifeblood of a local economy. So it makes sense to buy local when it comes to purchasing books, beer, baked-goods, flowers, jewelry, coffee, clothes, “green” products, embroidery, artwork, car repair, and any of the other services and goods found aplenty in Meadville.

Yet there is one resource we all consume but rarely consider buying local: energy.

Indeed, we use electricity every day (you’re probably doing it right now), but we seldom consider the source. And that’s because most of the energy we buy comes from outside the area. In fact, there’s not a single energy manufacturing facility in Crawford County, which means all the money that we spend to power our homes, shops and workplaces is leaving the local economy.

And it’s not chump change.

Our county spends just under $3.5 million every month on residential electricity, and the majority of that energy comes from coal, nuclear and natural gas facilities located outside of our borders.

The main energy distributor, Penelec (First Energy), is headquarted in Akron, Ohio, and companies closer to home like Weber Electric (based in Erie) and Northwestern Rural Electric Cooperative (in Cambridge Springs) are primarily energy distributors that purchase energy from manufactures that are not local.

So, the question becomes: How do we redirect some (if not all) of the millions we monthly give away to distant energy manufacturers back into the local economy? Moreover, how do we do so in an ecologically sustainable way?

Two options currently exist for anyone looking to keep the money we spend on energy consumption right here in Crawford County. Both are based in Meadville, and both are committed to developing a clean, equitable energy system that directs control and benefits back to the community.

One is Increased Economic Opportunities (IEO), a locally owned solar energy service that is designed to provide low- and middle-income residents with solar power at discounted rates. (Full disclosure: Magee is the co-founder.) The goal is to build a mutually beneficial renewable-energy manufacturing structure through private investment — specifically by selling affordable shares to investors (Tompkins is one) who then get to decide how to use that money to supply solar panels to local residents.

Residents who receive solar panels don’t pay for the panels themselves but for the energy they produce. Shares in the corporation are $1 each, so it’s not cost prohibitive, and everyone gets a say in how the funds are spent.

IEO currently has more than 140 investors spanning 10 states, and those investors are now directing the company to target local veterans and elderly residents on a fixed income as early recipients of solar panels. But IEO needs more help: It needs investors (anyone with $1 or more to spare) to help grow the company and expand its renewable energy projects.

The other option is the cooperative model — a type of enterprise owned and managed by the people it serves. While the Northwestern REC is a pioneer in this model, the bulk of their energy comes from nuclear power, an energy source that perpetually generates radioactive waste and indirectly emits carbon through uranium mining. By contrast, co-ops that commit themselves to generating renewable energy are fast becoming the means by which regional communities like Crawford County can take advantage of the cooperative structure while facilitating the local manufacture of energy.

The crux of this approach is, again, solar — which is not only a cleaner energy source than nuclear (much less coal and natural gas), but it’s also cheaper. Because the owners of solar panels receive credit for every unit of electricity they produce, their bills go down with every bit of solar energy that is captured. During the sunny months, solar production can even outpace total electricity consumption, which means net savings on (or even the total elimination of) future electric bills. (And for doubters, the sun does indeed shine in Crawford County. We receive small amounts of direct sunlight but large amounts of diffused sunlight — more than enough to power our houses, shops and industries with solar energy.)

This model is already underway in Crawford County, as the Meadville-based nonprofit Common Roots (of which both of us are members) is partnering with Solar United Neighbors (SUN) to launch the Crawford County Solar Co-op in June. By partnering with SUN, Common Roots hopes to establish a cooperative structure to provide Crawford County residents with renewable energy at the lowest price while also obtaining help with the installation and upkeep.

All that’s required is collective participation and purchasing power. What’s more, anyone can become a co-op member (homeowners, businesses, even entire municipalities — looking at you municipal mayors and managers) and it costs nothing to join.

Common Roots will be introducing the idea of the solar cooperative at its First Friday Community Hour this Friday at Voodoo Brewery in Meadville from 5:30 to 7 p.m. Representatives of Common Roots and SUN will be on hand to answer questions about the ins-and-outs of the cooperative approach. All are invited — for ultimately, it’s up to us to make the change we want to see.

James Magee lives in Vernon Township and is co-founder of Increased Economic Opportunities (ieoinvest.org). Joe Tompkins teaches at Allegheny College and is a member of the Meadville-based affordable housing initiative Common Roots (commonrootspa.com).

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