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It’s Solarthon season! What does that mean? As some of you know, that means I’ve signed up to help install solar panels for low-income families with GRID Alternatives. And I’m asking for your help to sponsor me.

Why is this important to me? Because together, we can help bring clean, affordable energy to those who need it the most. But wait, that’s not all!

Through the simple act of installing solar electric systems for low-income families, GRID Alternatives accomplishes so much more:

  • An average GRID solar installation saves a family $28,000 over its lifetime and prevents 95 tons of greenhouse gas emissions.
  • GRID has installed solar for over 3,000 low-income families, saving those families $92 million and preventing nearly 290,000 tons of greenhouse gas emissions.
  • This helps improve the environment, the economy, public health, national security, and global politics — which helps you, too!

But don’t take my word for it: See what my friends have to say in this video. Be sure to watch till the end to see what Luna the Cat thinks of solar power!

So, want to help yourself while helping others?

Just click here to sponsor me — any amount helps, even a few dollars:

No pressure at all. But if you can give, I greatly appreciate it!

Thanks so much for your support, and thanks again to all of you who’ve sponsored me for previous Solarthons!

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SPONSORED BY:

Everybody Solar – Everybody Solar works to protect the environment and strengthen U.S. communities through solar energy projects. By providing solar power to local charities, we help them reduce electricity costs and direct their limited resources to the communities they serve.

RE-volv – RE-volv empowers people and communities to invest collectively in renewable energy. We help communities lower their electricity bills by financing solar projects through the Solar Seed Fund, which funds more solar projects. Together, we are planting seeds for a renewable energy future!

Stompers Boots – Stompers Boots’ mission is to be the Best Damn Boot Store in the World by providing customers with superior, personalized service, selection and assistance in finding the right boots to meet their respective needs.

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Yogi Berra might have been referring to the solar industry when he said, “It’s tough to make predictions, especially about the future.” But that never stops people from trying! As we look back at the many predictions about the solar industry for 2012, it’s instructive to see how they stacked up to reality.

The beginning of the year brought a mixed bag of forecasts, as the industry looked forward to continuing growth coupled with serious risks — an oversupply of panels, diminishing subsidies in the U.S. and Europe, and a trade war with China.

Predictions for 2012 were numerous and all over the map. But some clear trends emerged.

Global predictions

We’ll see consolidation as the industry matures. One thing everyone from GigaOM to Renewable Energy World to the New York Times seemed to agree on for 2012 was that the solar industry was due for a lot of consolidation — which was only to be expected in a competitive emerging industry. This bid for survival of the fittest, many argued, would lead to a stronger industry with clear winners, those who could provide the best products at the best prices.

VERDICT: mostly sunny Predictions were close.

Bankruptcies and consolidations have indeed continued in 2012. But the shakeout is far from over. A Green Tech Media report released late last year predicted that another 180 solar panel makers will likely go out of business or be bought by 2015. In fact, at the end of 2012 China announced it’s encouraging consolidations and letting some of its weaker manufacturers go out of business. That’s likely a positive move on the part of China, one that will result in a stronger manufacturing industry overall. Consolidation is also expected to continue withdownstream players. And we’re seeing panel manufacturers get into the development business, either on their own or with partners — which some consider key to the future of Western solar manufacturing. We’ll watch these trends in 2013, as the industry’s evolution continues to play out.

19 – 29 GW will be installed globally, 2.8 GW in the U.S. While Energy Trend forecast only 19 GW in global installations for 2012, most others had higher expectations.HSBC predicted a flat market with 25.5 GW of global solar installations in 2012, down from 2011’s 27.4 GW, while IMS Research expected 26–29 GW of new PV capacity in 2012. A good year was expected in the U.S., with total installations forecast at 2.8 GW. CleanTechnica didn’t provide specific figures but predicted record amounts of solar installations in the U.S., for both homes and businesses.

VERDICT: mostly cloudy Predictions were mostly off — but in a good way!

Solar installations both worldwide and in the U.S. exceeded expectations. The SEIA/GTM 2012 Q3 reportforecast 31 GW in global demand, and as more information became available IHS reported that totals reached 32 GW. For the U.S, the SEIA/GTM report forecast a total of 3.2 GW of PV installed in 2012, up from 1.9 GW in 2011.

CleanTechnica was likely not surprised that numerous stories appeared last year about well-known corporationslike IKEA, Walmart, Costco, FedEx, Kohl’s, Crayola, Apple, and Google going solar in the U.S. Schools and government agencies, including the Department of Defense, also increasingly found that solar made sense for them.

What does this all mean? We’re talking 70% growth in the U.S. installation market over 2011, with an expected growth rate of 14% worldwide. That’s not too shabby for an industry experiencing so many challenges.

We’ll face an oversupply of panels. An oversupply has been predicted since 2009, and last year was no exception. This wasn’t a controversial prediction, given that it was really about a continuation of an already existing situation. By the middle of 2012, Bloomberg New Energy Finance was forecasting that demand for solar will not match supply until at least 2014.

VERDICT: sunny Predictions were spot-on.

The end of the year found us with a continued oversupply, which many feared would weaken the industry. There’s a bright spot, though, in addition to cheaper prices for installers and consumers: China’s response to the oversupply has been a decision to add 10 GW of solar generating capacity in 2013 and possibly get to 40 GW by 2015, in part to help their manufacturers. One thing to watch will be how successful they are in connecting all that solat to their grid. But in any case, the huge supply of panels has lowered the cost of solar, already resulting in more installations worldwide — that’s a good trend to keep going.

Asia and other markets will become more important. Speaking of China, that country was expected to add between 2.8 and 5 GW of solar as Asia’s role increased in 2012, making up for declines in European markets. Some predicted that India would also become a major solar player. Outside of Asia, other markets such as the Middle East and Latin America were predicted to grow.

VERDICTmostly sunny Predictions were close.

Of note was that China installed even more solar generating capacity than expected, coming in at 7 GW, more than double the 2011 figure. India’s solar industry, meanwhile, is experiencing some growing pains — that doesn’t mean that growth won’t continue, but it may have been slower than expected for 2012. Other Asian countries are adopting feed-in tariffs and other programs to accelerate solar adoption, while Latin America is still talked about in terms of potential. 2012 brought some surprises, among them Saudi Arabia — a country whose desire to make profits from importing oil rather than using it at home is leading it to invest $109 billion in solar, with the goal of generating a third of its power from solar by 2032.

The trade war with China will adversely affect the market. As a decision was awaited on the trade complaint filed by some American manufacturers, analysts pointed out that the trade war could hurt the solar industry, that there’s no winner in a trade war, and that there might bemore cons than pros to imposing tariffs.

VERDICT: rainy Predictions were off, at least for 2012.

While cheap panels from China have certainly fueled much of the industry’s growth, the November imposition of tariffs by the ITC happened too late in the year for many effects to be felt yet — plus some Chinese panel makers have thwarted the objectives of the tariffs by routing exports through Taiwan and other locations. Tensions mounted late last year amid rumors that Europe was also getting into the trade war action with China, but as of early this year, an EU trade war seems to be off the table. This will be one to watch in 2013. The question remains whether the industry can continue its upward trajectory without an infusion of cheap panels. But other factors will play into that, such as attempts to reduce soft costs, and additional feed-in tariffs in some areas.

The financial scene

Diminishing grants and subsidies will hurt the industry. In the U.S., the 1603 Treasury grant program was not extended into 2012, causing concerns that without this incentive, many solar projects would not happen. Meanwhile, feed-in tariffs in Europe were facing reductions, leading many to wonder about the fate of solar in Italy and Germany.

VERDICTrainy Predictions were off.

The expiration of the 1603 program hasn’t yet had far-reaching effects — that may be because projects qualified for the grant if panels were purchased in 2011, as some astute observers noted even early in 2012. In addition, many other factors, including the decreasing costs of solar, might mitigate this effect. That can also be said of areas where feed-in tariffs are on the decline. While feed-in tariffs have been shown to quickly boost an area’s solar industry, some countries that once strongly supported them are moving to broader adoption of other models, such as PPAs. In addition, other markets have taken up the slack for Europe, as noted above, and some countries are still introducing feed-in tariffs.

The solar market will be flat at best, with shrinking revenues likely. Oversupplies and price declines, coupled with weak economies and cuts to tariffs and subsidies in some regions, were expected to shrink revenues or keep them flat in spite of growth in megawatts installed. EnergyTrend expected no rapid growth till 2013.

VERDICTsunny Predictions were spot-on.

While this year brought considerable growth in terms of GW installed, revenues (system prices multiplied by total GW installed) did not fare so well. According to IHS research, revenues fell from $94 billion in 2011 to $77 billion in 2012. The good news is that they’re expected to pick up by 2014 — this will be another trend to watch.

Solar will get cheaper, helping more areas achieve grid parity. Most expectations were that prices of solar technologies would drop, and that falling prices coupled with rising electricity rates would encourage installations even where subsidies were ending. SunRun put numbers to this, predicting a 20% drop in price. And according to John Farrell of the Institute for Local Self-Reliance, solar hasalready reached grid parity in many areas, a trend that he expected to continue in 2012 and beyond.

VERDICTsunny Predictions were spot-on.

A report by the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory showed that costs of solar systems in the U.S.continued to decline in 2012. And the SEIA Solar Market Insight Report found a decline in average installed costs of 19.3% — making SunRun’s prediction quite close. While this is great news for installers and consumers, lower costs are putting pressure on manufacturers. But many analysts believe that this will help the industry in the long run — and when you look at the increases in installations worldwide, it’s hard to disagree with that.

Solar will get more expensive. Okay, this one may be an anomaly, but it just shows how hard it is to find “agreement parity” when it comes to analyzing solar. A forecast for the year in Renewable Energy World strayed from the crowd, arguing that prices have to increase to a healthy level and predicting that they would do so by the end of 2012.

VERDICT: rainy Predictions were off.

As noted above, prices continued to fall in 2012. It will be interesting to see if 2013 brings a price increase in the U.S., as tariffs are imposed on Chinese panels. On the other hand, decreases in soft costs could offset that. Time will tell!

New financing options will become more prominent. PPAs and solar leasing options were expected to become more widespread in 2012. SunRun estimated that leases would account for about 75% of the California solar market.

VERDICTsunny Predictions were spot-on.

In fact, Tom Kimbis of the SEIA attributes the growth in solar installations in 2012 to financial innovations. And leases and PPAs, though not new in 2012, became more widespread. By March, these options already accounted for 73.4% of residential solar installations in California. For those who can’t get solar on their own roof, we’re also seeing growth in crowdfunding and impact investing options — another trend to watch in the coming year.

More jobs will be created in the solar industry. I was surprised not to see more predictions on solar jobs for 2012. But a few sources did note that there wasbound to be an upswing, not surprising since that correlates with predictions for industry growth. The 2011 National Solar Jobs Census predicted installation firms in the U.S. would add 13,000 jobs in 2012, while manufacturing and sales would account for another 9,500 jobs.

VERDICTmostly sunny Predictions were close.

In spite of some layoffs last year, the Solar Foundation’s National Solar Jobs Census 2012 reported that 119,016 Americans were employed in the solar industry as of mid-November 2012, representing an employment growth rate of 13.2% over the previous 12 months — compared to a rate of 2.3% for the overall economy. In fact, solar accounted for 1 out of every 230 jobs created in the U.S. last year.

The solar stock market will be a mixed bag, with stocks going up but solar IPOs remaining rare. GigaOM was not alone in predicting a slow year for IPOs, noting that after a rough 2011, most companies would wait to see a few successful solar IPOs before attempting it themselves. Meanwhile, some analysts expectedsolar stocks to be on the rise.

VERDICTsunny Predictions were spot-on.

March saw the Enphase IPO, while Brightsource withdrew from their expected IPO soon after. But by the end of the year, solar stocks had benefited from a post-election boost and SolarCity had managed an IPO. It’s worth noting that the IPOs brought in less capital than hoped for. But it’s a start, and 2013 started with a surge in solar stocks, when a Warren Buffet company bought two solar power plants.

Surprises

As hard as it is to make predictions, while we’re focused on making the attempt, events we never anticipated are in the works. 2012 brought a few interesting surprises — and even some of the negative events of the year bode well for the future of solar.

Americans support solar and other renewables.

In spite of a lot of negative media, Americans love solar! A study in May found that the average American is willing to pay 13% more a year for power to support a national clean-energy standard. And a September poll of likely voters showed that 92% of Americans support developing more solar, and a majority even want the government to support solar with tax credits and other financial incentives.

A major coal company admitted climate change is real and coal is on the outs.

When even coal companies admit there’s a problem with coal, you know there’s change in the air. And that’s just what happened in 2012, when BHP Billiton announced it would retrofit one if its coal-exporting facilities against significant weather events. BHP executive Marcus Randolph even said, “In a carbon constrained world where energy coal is the biggest contributor to a carbon problem … I suspect the usage of thermal coal is going to decline. And frankly it should.”

Superstorm Sandy brought attention to climate change.

And what more evidence did we need than Sandy? For those not convinced by a coal company’s pronouncement, the images of Sandy’s devastation should serve as a wake-up call. If that’s not enough, there’s the bill. With some estimates for its costs as high as $71 billion, Sandy provides further evidence that an ounce of prevention is indeed worth a pound of cure, making solar all the more attractive. And the Solar Sandy Projectwas just one example of how solar can come to the rescue in disasters.

Looking ahead

Even in a rough year for solar, we saw significant increases in installations globally, and the U.S. industry is booming. People are realizing that solar makes economic sense — the main motivation for so many businesses and schools to be jumping on the solar bandwagon. Couple that with the public’s increasing awareness of climate change, and the climate looks good for solar.

The Economist, a most rational publication, goes so far as to predict that renewables, especially solar, will become the new normal. They’re expecting that trend to start taking root this year. And of all the predictions and trends, that will be the most interesting to watch. We’ll check back in a year to see how this year’s predictions fare, and to see how far along we are on the road to solar as the new normal.

This post was originally published on PV Solar Report.

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From the roof of my condo complex in a sunny part of San Francisco, I can see solar panels on at least a few houses on each surrounding block.

Yet solar for our condo has eluded us. When it comes to solar, condos — with multiple owners and HOA regulations — are a tough nut to crack. I’m determined to get us solar power someday, but the jury is out on when that day will come.

While I’m interested in solar for environmental reasons, most people go solar simply to save money — which is how I’ll have to sell it at my condo. After all, most of us can’t afford solar power for altruistic reasons alone. It has to make financial sense.

Yet while more people are becoming aware of the financial benefits of solar, most still can’t participate in those benefits. That’s because 75% of us don’t own our roof or have a roof suitable for solar. My condo is just one example of the many barriers to going solar for the 75%.

That’s where Mosaic comes in. It’s part of a community power movement that’s providing more opportunities for the 75% to go solar. Community power aims to decentralize clean electricity generation and make it accessible to all. As solar and other renewables become more available and affordable, the hope is that ordinary consumers of that power will benefit, rather than big companies outside their communities.

But many community power options rely on policy changes that are slow to come. A growing number of people are tired of waiting and are taking matters into their own hands to make solar projects happen. Crowdfunding has emerged as a simple and powerful way to allow the 75% to take action by investing directly in solar. With crowdfunding, even people who can’t get solar on their own roof can participate by pooling their dollars to support solar.

Till now, most crowdfunding models have been about making donations to fund solar projects. That’s great if you’re looking for a worthy charity. And it’s true that solar benefits everyone, even if it’s not on your own roof. But what if you want to reap the benefits of solar in a more direct way? Mosaic provides that opportunity with a new model that lets people invest in solar projects and get a solid return.

Is solar is worth investing in? Take a cue from Warren Buffett, whose recent purchase of two solar plants sent stocks soaring. Of course, most of us can’t afford a whole solar plant. The good news is that now, you don’t need to be a millionaire to invest in solar. One of Mosaic’s first projects is providing investors a hefty 6.4% return, and some of them ponied up as little as $25.

That’s what’s so exciting about Mosaic. With a low barrier to entry, Mosaic is bringing solar and its benefits within the reach of regular people like you and me. For me, this means I don’t have to wait to get solar on my condo. I can invest now in Mosaic and be part of bringing solar to communities, and even get a return on my investment. Finally, I’ll have a real stake in solar. Finally, I’ll get some direct benefits, without needing to put panels on my roof. Finally, I’ll be able to do well while doing good.

Now, that’s what I call solar for the 75%.

This post was originally published at Mosaic.

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As the price of solar has plummeted and leases have become more widespread, many more Americans have been able to go solar. But what about the 75% who can’t?

More options are emerging for solar for the rest of us — including Mosaic’s new online marketplace, which is making it possible for people to invest in community solar projects and earn solid returns.

This three-part series profiles some other startups that are paving the way to spread solar to all.

Just across the bay from Mosaic in San Francisco, three young entrepreneurs are finding new ways to crowdfund solar projects — and include the 75%. Not content to wait for someone else to do something, they’re taking matters into their own hands, rolling up their sleeves, and making projects happen.

Empowering the 75% through co-ops

Evan Wynns founded the San Francisco Energy Cooperative in 2011 with the 75% in mind. He began with the question of why we don’t have more green energy in the United States: “It’s frustrating because we have this technology which can take off a lot of the load of consuming fossil fuels, and we have the will — we see green energy growing in popularity all the time — and the question is why don’t we have more. We thought about that, and the benefits of green energy, and how can we distribute those benefits to more people.”

In keeping with the philosophy of the Sharing (or Access) Economy, Wynns is seeking to give people who don’t own green energy technology access to the services the technology provides.

The SF Energy Co-op has found a way to make the benefits of green energy available to anyone, through the power of collective investment and organization. As Wynns puts it, “Say it costs $20K to put solar on your roof, but you can’t do that, for whatever reason. So you go to your neighbor and say, ‘I’ll pay to put it on your roof, and then you pay me what I would have been saving, and you’ll still be saving money on your power bill.’ And say instead you go to 100 friends and you all pay $200 to do the same thing. You can do the same good when people pool together small amounts of money.”

Being incorporated in California as a co-op makes it possible for the organization to crowdsource funding. This comes with some limits: for one thing, members must be California residents. And California co-op law requires that if you pay returns to individuals, the amount they invest has to be under $300. So the SF Energy Co-op has set their maximum investment at $250.

Being a co-op also means not being restricted under SEC rules, because the donations are kept low and members have a vote. In fact, the Co-op is very democratic: regardless of the amount you contribute, you get one vote. This gives people equal ownership in the green energy they’re supporting.

Unlike with a donation to a nonprofit, you will get a return on your investment in the SF Energy Co-op. Profits are shared equally among members who, with an expected rate of return of 5% – 7%.

And because the amounts invested are small, the SF Energy Co-op model lowers the bar for investment, allowing anyone to get a piece of green energy for as little as $10. Wynns likes to call it “solar for renters” — which is also solar for the 75%.

Wynns hopes there will be opportunities to raise the Co-op’s investment limit once the JOBS Act goes into effect in 2013. But in the meantime, the low bar to investment does allow most people to participate.

Even with small amounts, the SF Energy Co-op can do big things. As Wynns notes, “When we prove we can get a decent return on investment on a $50 share, we can prove that solar is profitable for everyone.”

Empowering communities

While funds for the Co-op projects come from member investments, financing structures can vary. For most projects, the Co-op will serve as a third-party owner, all Co-op members being part owners. As the owner, the Co-op will maintain a lease or power purchase agreement.

The first project is slated to be a solar PV system for the Bernal Heights Neighborhood Center in San Francisco. For this project, the Co-op might serve as financier rather than owner, because of a city solar program that allows the neighborhood center to get a bigger rebate for the system if they own it.

Whatever model is used, the payback period for the project is expected to be just a couple years.

Spreading the model

The message of the SF Energy Co-op is that we don’t need to wait for the government to take action but can act now at the grassroots level. Wynns is hoping that the Co-op will be a model for other communities and will serve as a seed to teach others how to follow suit.

Like the founders of the other startups profiled in this series, Wynns sees his role as going beyond the success of his own organization. While he hopes his model will succeed, he has a larger vision for what he’s doing: “Our job as community leaders on energy is not necessarily to make our own thing work (though we do have to prove that the models work) but to popularize that everyone should be invested in green energy.”

How you can get involved

If you’re a California resident, you can become a member of the Co-op or even work for them as a part-time canvasser. The Co-op also partners with other green businesses. If you’re not in California, keep an eye on the progress of the San Francisco Energy Cooperative — it may turn out to be a great model to emulate in your own community.

This is part 3 in a 3-part series on solar crowdfunding models in California and was originally published at Mosaic.

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As the price of solar has plummeted and leases have become more widespread, many more Americans have been able to go solar. But what about the 75% who can’t?

More options are emerging for solar for the rest of us — including Mosaic’s new online marketplace, which is making it possible for people to invest in community solar projects and earn solid returns.

This three-part series profiles some other startups that are paving the way to spread solar to all.

Just across the bay from Mosaic in San Francisco, three young entrepreneurs are finding new ways to crowdfund solar projects — and include the 75%. Not content to wait for someone else to do something, they’re taking matters into their own hands, rolling up their sleeves, and making projects happen.

Empowering the 75% through nonprofits

Youness Scally founded Everybody Solar in 2011. Its mission is to help nonprofits go solar, thereby benefitting not only the environment but also the nonprofit’s budget. By reducing its power bills, a nonprofit can focus resources on its programs instead of on operating costs. And that helps the community the nonprofit serves. Everybody Solar focuses on local nonprofits that work to help the people with the greatest need in the community or who are doing environmental work.

Scally’s motivation to start his own organization arose from frustration with the political process: “You hear a lot of doom and gloom about the environment, and I wanted to do something about it. A lot of organizations are doing environmental work, but much of it is focused on policy. For me, and for many people, it’s important to have a tangible effect.”

Nonprofits are part of the 75% in that it can be especially challenging for them to go solar. Not only are their funds generally limited, but they aren’t able to take advantage of tax incentives. So solar might not be financially feasible for them without some extra help. That’s where Everybody Solar comes in.

Everybody Solar itself is a nonprofit. This means they can get grants and other funding that might not be available to a for-profit company, and they’re not motivated by profit or beholden to investors. On the other hand, they can’t solicit investment dollars from VCs or individuals. They can, however, solicit donations from the general public, through their website and at fundraising events.

Rebuilding Together

Everybody Solar is partnering with a nonprofit solar installer, SunWork, which can get good deals on panels in part because of their nonprofit status. In selecting panels, SunWork considers factors like the environmental impact of panels and how the manufacturers treat their employees. And SunWork also provides volunteer training, another way to involve and benefit the community.

For their pilot project, Everybody Solar is putting a solar PV system on the Rebuilding Together Peninsula (RTP) headquarters in Redwood City, CA. Rebuilding Together will pitch in a small percentage of the cost of the system, and Everybody Solar will provide the rest. Scally looked at leases and power purchase agreements, but for this project it turned out to be cheaper to partner with SunWork and let RTP own the system.

In fact, since the first quote for this project in July 2012, the price of solar has declined further, making the project even more feasible. And the payback period for RTP will be under two years. The 13.5 KW system is expected to save RTP about $3,500 a year, which will be freed up for their work: rehabilitating low-income homes and community centers, which includes energy-efficiency upgrades — yet another environmental benefit.

Empowering communities through a multiplier effect

The pilot project is on the small side, but Scally expects it will lead to more, larger projects. As new models emerge for solar financing and crowdfunding, they generally need to be tried out on a small scale before more widespread adoption. Once people see that a certain kind of project works, it’s easier to get more of those projects going. And like many pioneers in this area, Scally would like to create a model that other communities can replicate. His cooperative spirit can be seen in the way he shares information and ideas with other startups. The goal here is not to kill the competition, but to spread solar.

And Everybody Solar’s crowdfunding model also involves community members, giving those in the 75% a chance to participate in spreading solar. While donations are solicited online and can come from anywhere, much of the fundraising outreach is focused in the community — those are the people who can see the project and feel its impact more directly. Community members can even volunteer on the install.

For now, Everybody Solar is focusing on projects in California. Scally envisions eventually expanding to the rest of the country and doing demonstration projects in areas that have fewer options for solar: “If you do a solar project in South Carolina, it might have even more of an impact because people there don’t get to see the benefits of solar as much as in California.”

Solar in general gives a lot of bang for the buck. Besides protecting the environment, it can also provide benefits in areas like jobs, public health, foreign policy, and even national security. Everybody Solar takes this a step further. Their model has a multiplier effect in helping nonprofits lower expenses — which lets those organizations put more resources into pursuing their mission.

How you can get involved

To be part of Everybody Solar’s work, you can contribute online, where you can also sign up to be notified about events and other news. You can also volunteer to fundraise, install solar, or help spread the word. And spreading the good word about solar, in order to get more actual projects up and running, is what Everybody Solar is all about.

This is part 2 in a 3-part series on solar crowdfunding models in California and was originally published at Mosaic.

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As the price of solar has plummeted and leases have become more widespread, many more Americans have been able to go solar. But what about the 75% who can’t?

More options are emerging for solar for the rest of us — including Mosaic’s new online marketplace, which is making it possible for people to invest in community solar projects and earn solid returns.

This three-part series profiles some other startups that are paving the way to spread solar to all.

Just across the bay from Mosaic in San Francisco, three young entrepreneurs are finding new ways to crowdfund solar projects — and include the 75%. Not content to wait for someone else to do something, they’re taking matters into their own hands, rolling up their sleeves, and making projects happen.

A revolving fund that grows quickly

Andreas Karelas founded RE-volv in 2011. He started the organization, he says, “out of a sense of frustration felt by many of us working for clean energy. The change isn’t happening fast enough and if it’s going to happen now, we’ll have to do it ourselves. There’s a huge opportunity here to mobilize people who care about renewable energy to take meaningful action that will help deliver renewables to more and more communities.” RE-volv’s mission is to empower people and communities to invest collectively in renewable energy.

What makes RE-volv unique is that they’re using crowdfunding to create a revolving fund for community solar installations. This fund is crucial in supporting the organization’s mission.

RE-volv uses a solar lease model for their community solar projects, and they get revenue from the lease payments. Because they fund projects through donations, rather than financing, RE-volv doesn’t have to pay back lenders. And being a nonprofit, they can invest their lease earnings in the next project. So the fund for their projects can keep growing.

RE-volv is currently crowdfunding for the final $10,000 needed to pay for their first solar project, thus launching the revolving fund. The campaign, which will run through January 20th, is being hosted on Indiegogo and can be accessed at www.solarseedfund.org.

Based on current numbers, once 14 systems are in place, the annual revenues from those will generate a new system of the same size and cost. At some point that will equal two more systems a year, then three, and so on. The potential for the fund to grow is huge.

Empowering the 75%

RE-volv will take tax-deductible donations from anyone but is focusing in particular on people who care about renewable energy, who want to see more solar but can’t get it themselves. These people want to help start tangible projects that they can see in their community. And donations can be of any amount, which allows even those on a budget to participate.

Although donors don’t get a return on investment in the usual sense, Karelas likes to think they get a different kind of return. And it’s a substantial one: “If you donate $10, through the revolving fund that becomes $30 to invest in the next project. So you’re looking at a 300% return on money invested — not for yourself, but for more solar projects. If you donate $25 now, over the 20-year lease period that turns into $100 that you’ve invested in solar.” This can be especially empowering for those who can’t afford more than a small donation.

Empowering communities

RE-volv hopes to put solar on community centers that have a reach, in order to educate as many people as possible in the area about solar. In addition to nonprofits, Karelas is looking at coops that own their own space and serve as a community center — and even condo complexes. For the most part, RE-volv is working with a niche market that’s neither residential nor commercial. These organizations may have a hard time finding a solar lease partner, and RE-volv can provide the solution for them.

Because many nonprofits and community-serving organizations don’t own their building, Karelas is exploring the possibility of a lease agreement with landlords, where the the landlord and tenant would have a separate agreement to cover paying the bills. He realizes that to work, this has to be made easy for both landlords and tenants.

The typical model for their projects is that a community center leases the system from RE-volv, who owns it and maintains it. The community center pays for the lease with a small escalator, and saves money from year 1. And what’s more, at the end of the lease term, RE-volv hands over the system to them, at no cost.

RE-volv is currently working with a number of community centers on project proposals. The first project will pay for three more of a similar cost and size in the 20-year lease period.

Planting a solar seed in the community

RE-volv is not content with just making projects happen. They also want to use those projects to help reverse misconceptions about solar. Karelas notes, “I tell people how great solar is, and how there are solar leases and PPAs that allow people to go solar and save money, and people say, ‘Wait a minute, if this is the case why isn’t everybody doing it?’”

Demonstration projects in communities can help show that solar is affordable and provide a way to educate community members. Events during fundraising and at installations will also help involve the community and get the message across.

This kind of outreach and education will help make it  easier to replicate the RE-volv model — and that’s an important goal. While there are other startups working on similar initiatives, Karelas is confident that RE-volv will succeed and doesn’t see these organizations as being in competition. Instead, he shares information with them in service of his larger mission: to show that solar works and pave the way to spread solar everywhere.

How you can get involved

You can contribute to RE-volv on their website, where you can also sign up for their mailing list. They also have volunteer opportunities, another great way to contribute.

This post is part 1 in a 3-part series on solar crowdfunding models in California and was originally published at Mosaic.

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By definition, most of us are in the 99%. Some of us may even be in that mythical 47%. But there’s another group that many of us are in, without even being aware of it: the 75%. That’s the estimated number of people who can’t get solar on their roof.

While leases are helping far more people go solar than before, 75% of us are still left out of the equation. We may have shaded roofs, rent our homes, or live in multi-unit buildings. And these are just a few of the reasons preventing so many of us from going solar.

But don’t despair! There’s hope for the 75%, and plenty of it. The boom happening right now in community solar is making it possible for almost anyone to benefit from solar power. At a recent Community Solar Forum put on by Solar Sonoma County, the 75% became a theme as we learned about some of the options:

  • Community Choice Energy: Programs like Sonoma Clean Power and CleanPowerSF are enabling utility customers in some areas to buy their power from renewable sources.

    Joy Hughes explains solar gardens to an audience of 60 attendees at the Community Solar Forum

  • Solar Gardens: Some states have laws that allow virtual net metering, which lets utility customers subscribe to solar power from an installation not on their own roof.
  • CLEAN programs, or feed-in tariffs: By promoting these programs, the Clean Coalition is working toward the goal for 2020 of 80% of all new electricity generation in the United States coming from renewable energy sources.
  • Co-ops: Energy co-ops like the San Francisco Energy Cooperative allow anyone to participate in solar for as little as $50. They hope to be a model for other co-ops around the country.

The speakers at the forum all had slightly different perspectives, and they were focused on different ways to bring solar to communities. But they all shared the goal of helping as many people as possible to participate in renewable energy — that is, reaching the 75%.

All of these ways to bring solar to the 75% are important and highly effective — and even affordable. Models like community choice energy, solar gardens, and CLEAN programs generally result in savings, especially over time. They bring a slew of other benefits, like cleaner air, local jobs, increased national security. So it’s crucial to support these efforts. Still, while a lot is happening already, some of these programs can take years to implement, and they aren’t yet available everywhere.

In the meantime, how do we get the word out to the 75% that there are options for them — for us — now?

For most people, that will mean an appeal to their pocketbook. Those with an active interest in supporting solar for altruistic reasons are a minority. But most people like the idea of saving money or getting a good return on an investment. If they can do good at the same time, that’s a nice benefit.

And now there are more ways to invest in solar and do well while doing good. Energy co-ops can already provide a return on small investments, and the JOBS Act should allow for larger investments in the near future. Other organizations are moving from crowdfunding models where people can recoup their investment to providing a return on that investment. For example, Mosaic allows people to invest in solar projects and get paid back from the clean energy produced. There’s more coming, so stay tuned! Before long, we’ll have solar for the 75%.

What you can do now:

This post was originally published at Mosaic on 11/12/12.

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It’s clear that sharing can improve our lives, and that we can save or make money by sharing. That plus the significant social and environmental benefits are combining to make sharing a new way of life for many.

The spirit of sharing is visible nowhere more than after a natural disaster. As devastating as Superstorm Sandy was, it has brought people together to help one another. And while poor environmental stewardship has promoted the recent upsurge in natural disasters, good environmental practices can help bring relief to their victims.

A great example of this is The Solar Sandy Project, which provides mobile solar generators to communities hit by the storm. People can use the generators to charge phones, laptops, or other equipment, or even to heat food. The idea began with an individual, Chris Mejia of Consolidated Solar, who had generators to share. He joined forces with Solar One and Solar City to make the project happen. This led to solar installers, individuals, and community centers partnering to share their resources and skills.

If you live in the New York area, here’s what you can do to be part of this sharing:

  • Individuals: You can donate blankets, flashlights, AAA batteries, mops, masks, gloves, duct and scotch tape, hydrogen peroxide, and personal hygiene and baby supplies. You can also volunteer your time.
  • Solar installers and equipment providers: You can share mobile generators, or your solar or electrical skills.
  • Community organizations: You can provide spaces for the generators, especially if your organization is already a gathering spot for the community.

And even if you don’t live in New York, you can participate in the sharing. Just click here to donate to the project.

We’re likely to face more superstorms in the near future. We need to share our ideas and resources to prevent them — but when they do happen, sharing can help ease the burden on those affected.

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Many claims are being made these days that we’re at the tipping point for solar. The McKinsey report Solar Power: Darkest Before Dawn attributes this largely to lower prices: not only have solar costs plummeted in the last two years, but the cost of commercial-scale systems is already competitive — and for residential customers, leases have made solar much more affordable.

So, are we really at the tipping point, and when will we see the chance for every American to “go solar”?

Getting to the solar tipping point

At a recent EcoTuesday gathering in San Francisco, Heather Kernahan of Enphase Energy asked this question. While most in the industry agree that highly publicized setbacks like the failure of Solyndra are growing pains, rather than indications of solar’s demise, not all agree on where we are in relation to the tipping point.

States like California — which some call “the Germany of the U.S.” — have made great strides in installing solar. But what about places like Utah? Most states still have far to go. And although solar is becoming more affordable, many people still don’t realize it’s a viable option for them. In addition, going solar can seem too complex. That can put off a lot of people who might otherwise be interested.

Simplifying the message

Now that price has become less of a barrier for many homeowners, we need to remove other obstacles — notably, people’s perceptions of solar. Some possible solutions:

  • Solar as an appliance: What if you could purchase solar panels at Best Buy? You can already buy a small panel there to charge your electronic devices.
  • Solar as a service: With solar leases, homeowners avoid the hassles and complexity of installing the systems and can leave any maintenance to someone else.
  • Solar as a consumer technology: With features on systems like remote monitoring, solar is becoming more cool. Even people not normally interested in technology can get excited about an iPhone or iPad — what if solar were viewed the same way?

To reach more people, we need to simplify the message. People need to see solar as a simple solution with immediate benefits.

For homeowners with sunny roofs, that may not be hard to convey.

Solar for the rest of us

That brings us to the 75% or so of us who can’t easily go solar now: renters, condo dwellers in multi-unit buildings, or those with shaded roofs, to name just a few. In some states, people can subscribe to power from a solar garden — an installation in a location other than their own roof. But for now, that’s not available to a lot of us.

Right now, we can participate by donating to a number of organizations that provide solar to low-income families, community centers, and nonprofits. In some areas there’s even volunteer work available installing solar panels, which I can attest is a lot of fun and highly rewarding.

Still, those of us participating in that way are likely already solar converts. It’s easy to reach that group, but to spread solar we need to go beyond the choir.

Estimates vary on the numbers of Americans who are “deep green” consumers, whose interest in environmental benefits will override other concerns — but whether that number is 19% or higher, green marketers tend to agree that the best way to reach people is to focus on the issues most relevant to them. And when it comes to participating in solar, for a lot of people that means making it financially attractive.

That’s where organizations like Solar Mosaic come in. When people realize that anyone can crowdfud clean energy and benefit, the floodgates are likely to open.

Finally, we’ll have solar for the rest of us.

This post was originally published at Mosaic on 10/25/12.

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We have enough solar resources in the United States to power the whole country many times over. And yet, most of us are still not getting our power from the sun. Even with leases making solar more affordable for more people, many others are still left out of the equation — including low-income families, renters, and nonprofits.

Crowdfunding a solar project

But what if you own your own house and can afford solar, yet your roof is just not suitable for it? That was the case for residents of University Park, Maryland, a town known for its forest of shade trees. Residents of this middle-class community were interested in solar power but didn’t want to cut down their trees. They had the resources to invest in solar, but nowhere to put the solar.

So a group of residents, led by David Brosch, got together to explore other options. They found a church in their community with plenty of sun, whose pastor and membership liked the idea of solar. Not only would it save the church money on their power bills — it would also support their passion for stewardship of the earth.

The Church of the Brethren and part of the group who made the project happen, being interviewed by a reporter from American Public Media’s Marketplace.

This was just the beginning of what turned into a 2-year project. After a lot of hard work — including getting legal advice from interested community members, forming the University Park Community Solar LLC, and meeting with the state’s SEC commissioner — in May 2010, a 99-panel solar PV system was installed on the Church of the Brethren.

The church is saving money — what’s in it for the rest of the community? The benefits are many. Producing solar energy partially offsets the payments everyone makes to the local power company, thereby reducing energy costs for the community. And investors can know they’re helping preserve the environment for everyone, even if not from their own roofs, as well as providing an educational opportunity for their children and a financing model that can be used elsewhere.

That financing model has provided an excellent return on investment, one that’s hard to come across these days. Community members were able to invest more than what is normally allowed in this kind of project — they put in an average of $4,000 each — and that fully funded installation of the $130,000 system. Investors are getting annual returns of 7% – 8% over the life of the project, with their investment fully recouped after 8 years.

Easing restrictions to investing

Given these numbers, why haven’t we seen more projects like this one?

Probably the biggest hurdle is securities laws. The laws that are in place to protect the “unsophisticated” investor also make it tricky to fund these projects. In fact, the University Park group had to get an exemption to Maryland securities law. They couldn’t advertise directly and had to keep their pool of investors to 35. And investors had to be Maryland residents.

Volunteers installing solar panels. Soon, these same volunteers may also be able to invest in solar.

The good news is that these restrictions are starting to ease up, and that could change the funding landscape significantly.

Evan Wynns, founder of the San Francisco Energy Cooperative, currently solicits investments of up to $250 to fund green energy projects in the community. To avoid SEC restrictions, he can’t ask for much more than that.

He’s hoping that will change when the JOBS Act, a crowdfunding bill that will allow average citizens to invest in startup companies, goes into effect (though signed into law in April 2012, the JOBS Act requires that the SEC write rules on various aspects of the law). That could allow anyone with enough funds to make larger investments — in a relatively low-risk area with good returns.

And that helps all of us. Those who do have enough resources to invest in solar can put their money into something that directly helps those who don’t — as was the case with the Church of the Brethren. There are bound to be more opportunities. So get your checkbook ready, and let’s all work together to make solar available for everyone!

This post was originally published at Mosaic on 10/15/12.

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