A vexing problem for many potential commons is the lack of startup capital to get a project going while nurturing the social structures to organize participation and work. I recently learned of an ingenious solution developed by a group of “time banking” commoners in West Virginia. They adapted a traditional Time Bank system of barter-exchange and combined it with common pool of funds, which in turn served as an engine of development for DIY solar power installations -- in the heart of coal country, West Virginia!
Greg Bloom of Washington, D.C., who has a keen interest in cooperatives and commons, alerted me to his case study of the project. (Thanks, Greg!) As he tells the story at the Community Power Network website, the tax incentive approach to promoting solar power has distinct limits. It is too geared to people who already earn enough to benefit from the tax breaks. But what if you are low-income and have trouble paying your utility bills? You don’t earn enough to be incentivized, and you don’t have enough to pay for the upfront costs of a solar project.
In the town of Philippi, West Virginia, a local engineer, John Prusa, known locally as a “benevolent mad scientist,” had “designed and built his own home’s solar power array, and then shared his designs with neighbors and helped them develop their own,” writes Bloom. Prusa and a local minister, Ruston Seaman, of People's Chapel Church, found each other, and decided to start a new group, New Vision Renewable Energy.
The Church had once been the host of a flourishing Time Bank system with over 300 members, and even a store that accepted the Time Bank credits. But the system had fallen into disuse for a variety of reasons. Time Banks are a system by which members can earn credits for work they do for each other, at a rate of one credit, one hour of work. The systems are especially valuable for people with more time than money, such as low-income people and the elderly. It helps them get their needs met, without money, outside of the marketplace. Time Banks can serve important needs in areas that banks and markets have abandoned or ignored.