Private ownership of nature’s gifts—water, air, sunlight—stands in the way of solving the collective problems of the 21st century. In the case of sunlight, common ownership through community solar trusts can overcome both the inequities and the inefficiencies of investor-owned utilities (IOUs) with legal monopolies. Those monopolies function with the same arrogance as aristocrats did in the past, but now the stakes are higher: the future of the planet. This essay describes the Solar Commons Project by which a team of inspired citizens and public scholars joined to create a form of community-trust solar-energy ownership, in which multiple stakeholders benefit. The goal is to make this “Solar Commons” model an iterable, scalable, model of community solar that empowers low-income neighborhoods in the United States. An integral part of the project is a process of creating community-engaged public art to communicate the nature of community ownership. Artistic and theatrical presentations can help involve the public in dialogues around questions of utility management that are normally couched in technical language designed to obfuscate the political power of electric utilities. One role citizens can play is unmasking utilities when they publicly promote themselves as providers of clean energy, even when they are actively engaged in protecting the interests of fossil-fuel companies. Ultimately, however, creating a Solar Commons involves more than criticizing the failed institutions of the past. It requires us to think innovatively about ways to draw upon the history of the commons to design new modes of sharing sunlight and other common goods to create a more equitable, sustainable future.
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© 2020 American Journal of Economics and Sociology, Inc.