A "Pay-It-Forward" Approach to Funding Solar Power

Solar energy doesn't spill or pollute, it's often cheaper for consumers than many other power sources, and three-quarters of Americans want more of it, according to recent polling. So why do so few buildings sport photovoltaic panels?


Any building owner or individual household that chooses to go solar must manage the steep costs of installing panels. Despite tax rebates and government incentives, such initial investments can run into the tens of thousands of dollars.

RE-Volv, a San Francisco-based nonprofit organization, is working to make solar more financially accessible to local community groups. The organization is building a program that allows community centers to make the switch to clean energy with no upfront costs.

Here's how it works: Money donated to RE-Volv by community members and a growing network of solar enthusiasts is used to finance the purchase and installation of solar panels for a community center. Then, instead of paying a power company, the community center makes a monthly payment to RE-Volv. These payments are then rolled back into the revolving fund, providing the seed money for the next solar project. With each new project, RE-Volv increases the size of the fund—making more financing available to facilitate the spread of solar.

For example, the group's first project put solar panels on the Shawl Anderson Dance Center in Berkeley, Calif., last year.

"We raise the money [and] finance the system," said Andreas Karelas, executive director of RE-Volv. "[The community centers] pay us back every month and the amount [we bill them] comes up to 15 to 30 percent less than what they were paying for electricity before. And they don't have to put any money down."

There are other organizations that use a crowdfunding model to invest in solar projects, including Solar Mosaic and Collective Sun. The revolving fund is the difference between RE-Volv and these groups. Rather than offering a gradual return on an initial investment, donations to RE-Volv are continually reinvested in solar installations, providing an opportunity for backers—such as community members and solar enthusiasts—to make an impact that lasts well beyond the initial donation. The intent of the donors is critical: RE-Volv's supporters are motivated primarily by a desire to facilitate the spread of solar, rather than to see a financial return.

Moreover, while other solar funders help to finance solar installations for a wide variety of businesses, RE-Volv only supports projects for community centers. Karelas lists several reasons for this. First, the mission-driven nature of community centers means RE-Volv's hard work will always go to an organization making a positive impact on people's lives. And by focusing its efforts on well-established community anchors, RE-Volv believes it is able to maximize its marketing impact. Solar panels go up. People talk about it. More people are turned on to the benefits of solar.

Karelas says he hopes the project will eventually reach a critical mass: Once the solar program has 12 projects sending payments back to the revolving loan fund, it should generate enough revenue to allow RE-Volv to fund one new project each year—without the need to crowdsource new funds to get started. As the organization grows, the number of active projects should increase.

RE-Volv recently raised funds to finance the installation of a 26-kilowatt system for the Kehilla Community Synagogue in Oakland, Calif., an LGBTQ-friendly, progressive faith community of about 350 families, which places emphasis on social justice and sustainability. RE-Volv estimates that the project will save the synagogue a total of $150,000 over a 20-year period and keep an estimated 18,500 pounds of carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere each year.

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