Posts Tagged ‘community power’

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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Can you spot all the roofs with solar in this photo? I hope ours will join them soon!

Have you ever thought about going solar? Maybe you rent, live in a condo, can’t afford solar, have a shaded roof, or plan to move soon.

Some states are now making it possible to go solar even in these situations. In those states, people can subscribe to solar power from a common array called a solar garden, supplying their homes through the existing power grid. Next year, a bill will be before the legislature in California to make this possible here. Please urge your representative to vote for SB 843, which would enable solar gardens to happen in California.

And for now, take advantage of this opportunity to learn about solar gardens:

When: Sunday, November 20, 2011, 4:30 pm
Where: Farley’s Cafe, 1315 – 18th Street, in  Potrero Hill, San Francisco
What: Community Solar Day is a worldwide Meetup sponsored by, among others, Solar Mosaic, Vote Solar, Community Power Network, the Solar Panel Hosting Company, and the Solar Gardens Institute to kick-start solar projects in people’s communities.

If you can, bring a photo of yourself with friends and family at a site where you’d like to see solar power.

Together, we can help get solar to everyone in our communities!

Please RSVP at my Community Solar Day Meetup site for San Francisco.

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I'm in this group photo, but you'd need pretty good eyes to see me!

Any regular visitor to this blog has read more than once about the GRID Alternatives Solarthon. After participating in this “solar barn-raising” last year, I was hooked. And that’s not surprising, since the event combines two of my favorite things: solar power and community. It’s a celebration of the work GRID does all year, and it provides an inspiring example of what people can achieve together.

Some of us on the roof at the Women's Build.

There’s no dearth of good causes to contribute time and resources to, and many of us give to other organizations and do other kinds of volunteer work. But I’ve found volunteering for GRID the most satisfying. Yes, it’s partly that all the staff and volunteers are just so nice, and it’s partly that it’s very different from the work I do during the week. But mostly, it’s the bang you get for your buck. How many other single actions can you take that make a difference in such a host of areas as the environment, public health, jobs, the economy, foreign policy, national security … you get the idea? To top it all off, by volunteering with GRID you’re also helping spread renewable energy in the communities that are generally most affected by environmental problems.

Three of us lifted the heavy inverter into place and then went to work connecting it.

So I was glad to take part in this year’s Solarthon last weekend. And I must take a moment here to thank my family members and friends who helped me become the top fundraiser for the Solarthon for the second year in a row, for which I was featured in this GRID video. With your help, I raised over $4,300! This helps GRID continue their important work all year.

The direct benefits of this particular Solarthon can be measured:

  • We installed 13 PV energy systems.
  • These represent 31 kW of clean, renewable energy.
  • The systems will produce 1.7 million kW over their lifetime.
  • The families will save $290,000 over the system lifetimes.
  • And the systems will prevent 977 tons of greenhouse gas emissions.

This is just one day’s work. GRID is growing exponentially and has already installed over 1,200 solar systems, preventing 96,300 tons of greenhouse gas emissions. But there’s a lot more to it than these impressive statistics. At the Solarthon, you experience being part of a community of solar enthusiasts, as well as the community where you’re installing the panels. While doing something very concrete in one neighborhood, you also get to feel that you’re part of something larger.

The happy homeowner turning on her new system.

Which you are. GRID is not alone in spreading solar through communities. We had a visit at the house I was working on from Joy Hughes of the Solar Gardens Institute, who wrote about the event in her blog. As a proponent of community solar, she was enthusiastic about GRID’s work, which brings local power to communities in need. She’s part of a growing community solar movement, as is GRID — just from a slightly different angle. And this movement could significantly change how we generate, distribute, and use power. The hope is that it will not only help us get off fossil fuels but also directly benefit not the large power companies but the people who need the power — which is all of us.

And that’s really the reason to volunteer for GRID and other renewable-energy organizations: we all benefit. We’re not talking in a fringe benefit kind of way; this is a serious, urgent issue. If we don’t take care of the environment, all those other causes people volunteer for will cease to exist. And ultimately, that’s really the reason I choose to devote my volunteer time and energy to an organization like GRID Alternatives.

The whole group at the end of the day.

The roof we worked on with all 10 panels in place.

With Erica Mackie, co-founder of GRID.

For more Solarthon photos, see my Facebook album and this album from GRID Alternatives.

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This post originally appeared on The Energy Collective.

You may or may not have noticed, but a grassroots movement in community power is picking up speed around the country. What’s community power, you may ask, and why does it matter?

The community power movement aims to decentralize electricity generation, which provides benefits to communities beyond local, clean, and more affordable energy — though those benefits would be enough. Take the case of solar power. Solar is getting cheaper, and given the costs of coal and nuclear plants, it will at some point become cheaper than other options. But who will benefit? Organizations promoting community power want to ensure that the answer to that is the people who need the power, rather than big companies outside their communities. In addition, keeping power production local creates jobs locally, avoids destroying delicate habitats, and bypasses the need for inefficient transmission lines, which can take many years to put in place.

Community power also helps address the challenges many of us face in going solar. If you’ve read about my quest for solar at my condo complex, you’ll have some insight into what this means for multi-family buildings. Condo dwellers aren’t the only ones facing significant hurdles; renters are at the mercy of their landlords. And many single-family homeowners can’t afford solar, even with rebates and incentives. In fact, fewer than 1% of U.S. homes currently have solar panels.

A big boost for single-family homes has been the increase in leasing options, such as those provided by Sungevity. This Oakland-based company is showing that solar is not just for the elite but can be within reach of any homeowner. Leases allow homeowners to go solar without putting any money down — thereby saving money right away, with savings increasing yearly.

But what’s a homeowner to do if their roof is not large enough, too shaded, or not positioned correctly for solar panels? Even a lease can’t help with those issues. Plus, leases are hard to come by for condos and are not an option for renters. That’s where community solar comes in.

Groups like these are springing up around the country to help address these challenges:

  • Solar Mosaic, based in Berkeley, uses crowdfunding to raise money for solar installations on schools, churches, all kinds of public buildings, or homes. Anyone can invest in a “Tile,” which represents a $100 share in a solar installation. The investor is paid back in full over a period of years (with no interest), and the money generated by the system is used to fund future solar projects.
  • Re-volv, a San Francisco nonprofit, uses a similar model to fund renewable energy projects in community centers. The organization aims to empower communities and individuals to invest collectively in renewable energy, creating what basically amounts to a revolving loan that helps fund more community solar projects.
  • The Colorado-based Solar Gardens Institute helps people pool resources as a group to buy panels in a “solar garden” — these can be on the roofs of public buildings such as churches, schools, or libraries, on parking lot awnings, or in other available spaces. Because laws in many areas prohibit anyone but a utility company from selling power, the organization advocates for legislation that promotes community-based energy development.
  • The Mount Pleasant Solar Cooperative started as a group of friends and families that decided not to wait for the government or business to take action on global warming. Though it began as a small venture in a DC neighborhood, the larger goal is to make solar affordable and available throughout DC, where they’ve already formed other coops — all of which can serve as a model for the rest of the country.

We can all help promote the model of community power — after all, we are the community, so our involvement is crucial to the movement’s success. A good first step is to sign up for updates from the groups listed above and others like them, and ask how you can get involved. You can donate to organizations like Re-volv or ask them how they can help you fund solar projects in your community. Or you can invest in a Tile with Solar Mosaic, which is similar to lending through kiva.org — you might think of it as micro-investing rather than micro-lending. With all these options, and others sure to come, it’s easy to get involved and make a difference.

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