Posts Tagged ‘San Francisco Energy Cooperative’

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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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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Community power is springing up everywhere! There’s a huge amount of interest in it – in fact, as I noted almost a year ago, it’s really a movement, and one that keeps growing. This was in evidence at the recent San Francisco Bay Area Community Solar Confluence I organized, which was co-sponsored by the Solar Gardens Institute and the Local Clean Energy Alliance. It was part of a series of similar events this spring in Boston, New York, and Omaha.

A small part of the Confluence audience

The event drew in 80 people from diverse perspectives:

  • Members of community groups and neighborhood associations
  • Organizations that are funding community power
  • People working on policy to promote community power, or advocating for community power in other ways
  • Members of activist groups like 350.org
  • Government employees
  • Solar installers
  • And even individuals not associated with any organization, who were just interested in finding out more about community power

We also had a range of speakers from organizations promoting community power. Though the organizations have different approaches, they’re all working toward the same goal – and that’s to empower communities and help as many people as possible participate in renewable energy.

I’ve posted Confluence videos and presentations from these organizations on the Solar Gardens Institute Training page:

Evan Wynns, Andreas Karelas, Youness Scally

Learn more about policy:

The fact that we had to squeeze the talks and questions into not enough time attests to how much is happening with community power in the Bay Area, and how much interest there is. The Confluence gave us an overview of community solar in the area and introduced many of us to one another. Let’s continue the conversation!

Joy Hughes, Ted Ko, Eric Brooks, and Erica Mackie

If you’re in the San Francisco Bay Area, get involved locally:

  • Join the Local Clean Energy Alliance for updates on what’s going on, including monthly meetings on community power issues. The LCEA welcomes volunteers in a variety of areas, so here’s your chance to keep networking and learning.

For more Confluence videos, see the Solar Gardens Institute Training page and YouTube channel.

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