Yesterday, Microsoft announced a major investment in solar energy with an unprecedented step in its focus on “under-resourced communities, working with local leaders and prioritizing minority and women-owned business.” This is among the early signals of a new movement that is about to grow.

This decision by Microsoft’s leadership is empowering because it represents a massive shift from the era of large energy infrastructure focused on the supply side into a new, demand-led energy market. I cannot think of another better way to signal a movement toward addressing community benefits in the renewable markets. 

As in all sustainability projects, we do not yet know what the climate or social impacts on the ground will be. We do not know whether the community process will be equitable, transparent, or consultative. But this is a signal that a giant tech company is willing to understand the demands of the community, under-served customers, and the public at large. 

This month, I shifted my professional career to exactly that – understanding the needs of the community and how renewable energy markets will need to address issues of environmental justice, equity, and race. I have spent most of my career investing in renewable energy projects to mitigate climate change. It is now time to move beyond the carbon offset, away from mitigation into the creation of a better renewable future. What does an integrated corporate and community undertaking in renewable energy look like?

I have worked on different aspects of this question previously through the launch of the Business Renewables Center (now the Renewable Energy Buyers’ Alliance) and the founding of PIKO as well as through the creation of sustainable investment processes and even in testimonies to Congress as an independent expert. I look forward to continuing to answer that question with the Groundswell team.

One of the answers lies in the technologies that provide access, accountability, and ownership to the people who use them. Distributed energy resources (DER) provides communities answers because power is generated at the purpose of consumption. The distributed energy generation market is expected to grow more than $5.8 Billion in the US by 2024 growing at a CAGR of 5.7%.  

Above all, implicit in the word “distributed” is the fact that there is shared responsibility and distributed accountability. By understanding how we distribute and receive clean energy, we are able to distribute ownership to the hands of many. Because of the natural democratic feature of distributed energy, what we can create is an ecosystem that allows for more equitable market dynamics. This new green economy diversifies assets, mitigates risks, and enables resilience to shocks – especially during emergencies or crises. 

Most of all, community-led projects provide a market change that provides more opportunities. When community decision-making with the private sector occurs, new adoption of technology, education, and practical solutions have a far larger growth and network impact than just the traditional infrastructure project build.

The Microsoft announcement is groundbreaking because it is a recognition that our new economic growth comes from a place where communities are heard. Together, with more companies and community leaders, we can take this to a table where communities can lead. 

We've mastered the process of supplying power; let's now harness the process of receiving power.