December 18th, 2014
Crowdfunding Clean Energy
If you wanted to get large numbers of people actively engaged in helping to solve global warming, how might you go about it? For years, the main approach in the environmental movement has been to sound the alarm bell and implore people to consume less, switch to green products, recycle, and speak up to companies and politicians. It hasn’t always been an easy sell. However, if the approach of a promising Oakland-based start-up takes hold, there may be another line of action that could become available to ordinary people: directly financing renewable energy.
In January, a company called Mosaic, made a splash in the renewable energy world when it introduced a crowd-funding platform that makes it possible for small, non-accredited investors to earn interest financing clean energy projects. When Mosaic posted its first four investments online – solar projects offering 4.5 percent returns to investors who could participate with loans as small as $25 — the company’s co-founder, Billy Parish, thought it would take a month to raise the $313,000 required. Within 24 hours, 435 people had invested and the projects were sold out. The company had spent just $1,000 on marketing. All told, Mosaic has raised $1.1 million for a dozen solar projects to date. Now it is connecting with other solar developers to identify new projects for financing. More than 10,000 people have already signed on and are standing by to invest.
A generation and a half after the first Earth Day, we may be witnessing the coming of age of solar power. Last year, when Warren Buffett’s MidAmerican Energy Holdings Company floated an $850 million bond offering for the Topaz Solar Farm, in California, it was the first time a public bond offering for a U.S. photovoltaic power project had been deemed “investment grade.” The offering was oversubscribed by more than $400 million and the company is now planning a second round to raise potentially $1.265 billion more. And last month, it was reported that First Solar, a manufacturer of solar panels, had signed an agreement with the El Paso Electric Company to sell its power for less than half the cost of power from typical coal plants. In 2011, almost half of the 208 gigawatts of electric capacity added globally came from renewable power, primarily wind and solar (pdf), and almost half of the additional power capacity in the European Union came from solar alone.
A big reason is cost. Over the past five years, the price of photovoltaic panels has declined by about 80 percent. We’re used to hearing about Moore’s Law, which refers to the steady and predictable increases in power and decline in cost of integrated circuits. Swanson’s Law holds that each time global manufacturing capacity of photovoltaic cells doubles, the costs fall by 20 percent.
Crowdfunding holds promise for the developing world, where financing for renewable energy is hard to come by
From 1977 to 2013, the price per watt of crystalline silicon photovoltaic cells dropped from about $77 per watt to 74 cents per watt. Couple that with another innovation — the spread of companies that lease, rather than sell, solar power systems – add in some tax incentives — and decentralized solar has become a viable option for many homeowners and businesses. This is a far cry from the time when buying a solar system meant paying upfront for 25 or 30 years of power.
If it seems far-fetched to imagine millions of Americans becoming mini energy producers, just look at Germany, where 51 percent of the country’s clean energy production is owned by individuals or farmers, while major utilities control just 6.5 percent of it.
One of the Mosaic financed systems now sits atop a 26,000-square-foot building in Oakland’s San Antonio neighborhood owned by the nonprofit Youth Employment Partnership, which provides education and workforce skills training to a thousand teenagers each year. YEP’s system, which cost about $265,000, was financed by a combination of its own funds, government and private grants, and a crowdfunded loan. Its utility bills have dropped by 85 percent. Because of the grants, YEP is leasing its system for 10 years and will have the ability to purchase it for a low price after that period. (Without subsidies, the lease would likely run for 20 or 25 years.) YEP’s monthly utility and lease outlays are less than before. “By year 10 we can own the system outright and then most of our power will be free,” explained its executive director, Michele Clark. “But what really matters is that it frees up money that we can use for our case management and mental health work.”
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