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Posts Tagged ‘crowdfunding’

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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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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