Crowdfunded Solar Energy Emerges in California

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 here

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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