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Empowering people to fight climate change by seeding a revolving fund for community-based solar energy through crowdfunding.


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Summary


Climate change is the biggest threat humanity and life on earth has ever faced. That’s a pretty scary statement. When faced with such a dire threat, what can an individual do about this extremely scary situation?

The environmental movement to date has told us to take individual action like driving a hybrid, and political action like signing petitions.

While these are important actions to take, they seem futile in regards to the scope of the problem.

A study done by Yale and George Mason University researchers on attitudes concerning climate changed revealed this: “Efficacy- the belief that individuals can make a difference in climate change- positively predicted both belief and attitudes…It is thus highly likely- though perhaps at first counterintuitive- that enhancing a sense of personal empowerment may be an effective communication strategy to spur belief in climate change” (Rolfe-Redding, 2012).

In Switch, the Heath brothers describe an effective nutrition program in Vietnam that empowered mothers to use local recipes to increase childhood health. They describe the feeling held about the program by one of its participants: “There really is a way to make my daughter healthier. And it’s not very hard- it’s something I can do!” (Heath, 2010)

Therefore, in order to energize the public in solving issues about climate change, people need to feel empowered. People need a way to take action that is both simple and meaningful.

RE-volv has developed a new way to empower people to combat climate change that accelerates solar energy adoption and serves the community. Through crowdfunding, RE-volv lets people finance solar energy projects for community centers by supporting a revolving fund that uses savings from one project to pay for the next. It’s a pay it forward model for solar energy called the Solar Seed Fund.


What actions do you propose?

Community empowerment is the driving force behind RE-volv’s solar finance model. RE-volv crowdfunds donations from people who care about clean energy. RE-volv uses those donations to finance solar energy projects for community-serving nonprofits and cooperatives. These organizations have zero upfront costs and pay RE-volv back with interest through a 20 year solar lease agreement. During this time, the organization typically saves 15% on electricity costs while RE-volv earns 8-12% Internal Rate of Return on its investment. RE-volv continually reinvests the solar lease payments into more solar projects compounding the interest, growing a revolving fund for solar energy called the Solar Seed Fund. The Solar Seed Fund is the first of its kind revolving fund for solar energy in the United States. The Solar Seed Fund is self-perpetuating and self-sustaining, allowing people to engage in clean energy and climate change solutions while building more and more solar projects in communities across the U.S. RE-volv has completed three projects in the Bay Area with a plan to scale nationally. You can read even more about the model in this July 9, 2015 Forbes article.

RE-volv’s innovation lies in combining crowdfunding (tax-deductible donations) with a revolving fund. The Solar Seed Fund creates a positive feedback loop that continually multiplies itself allowing it to grow exponentially without RE-volv needing to continually crowdfund.

By empowering Americans to crowdfund local solar projects, RE-volv gives people the direct experience of building the clean energy solutions needed to arrest climate change. As RE-volv demonstrates the viability of solar by putting solar on community centers that people care about, RE-volv raises awareness about solar energy with each community it serves.

The nonprofits and cooperatives RE-volv serves are typically unable to find other sources of solar financing. Traditional solar financiers are unable to finance these solar projects due to the organizations’ inability to take advantage of tax credits, difficulties determining credit worthiness, and their small project size. Through RE-volv, these communities are now able to go solar and demonstrate their commitment to sustainability as well as save money on their electric bills.

RE-volv addresses three challenges facing the clean energy movement with one elegant solution. Therefore RE-volv’s theory of change has three components:

1.    If people are given the opportunity to directly drive renewable energy through a group effort, then they will feel more empowered to affect change and will become more engaged in building a popular citizen’s movement for renewable energy. RE-volv provides the opportunity to take meaningful action through its Solar Seed Fund.

2.    If the renewable energy movement is able to accelerate renewable energy development through direct investment, then it can drive economies of scale in the industry, causing prices to drop creating ever more demand for renewable energy nationwide.

3.    If community-based renewable energy projects can demonstrate the benefits of renewable energy to increasing numbers of people around the country, then awareness of renewable energy will rise and demand for renewable energy will increase.

The main purpose of RE-volv is to drive the growth of renewable energy in the United States.  By investing in the technology and empowering and educating citizens and communities that want to contribute to a climate safe, renewable energy future, RE-volv aims to broaden cultural support for renewable energy. RE-volv is meant to serve as a tool for the larger environmental community by forming a tangible effort that all can join. Large numbers of concerned citizens using their own dollars to finance renewable energy projects will demonstrate the strong commitment to a renewable energy future. A desired outcome of this effort is to demonstrate what is possible when the public unites behind a shared goal, and thereby builds tangible political support for renewable energy.

By empowering individuals to invest in clean energy via the Solar Seed Fund, project-by-project, community-by-community, RE-volv will change the conversation around climate change and clean energy in the United States.

RE-volv has run three successful Indiegogo crowdfunding campaigns to finance three solar projects for Bay Area nonprofits and co-ops. Together, the crowdfunding campaigns raised more than $120,000 from nearly 1,000 people in 38 states and 22 countries. With a demonstrated proof of concept, RE-volv is now scaling nationally using three strategies.

First, RE-volv is developing a robust web platform that will host Solar Seed Fund crowdfunding campaigns. Since September 2014, RE-volv has been working with a team of University of California, Berkeley students to construct the platform. The website will allow individuals to manage their donations and the reinvestments of the revolving fund through their own portfolio. RE-volv plans to manage project proposals on this site, giving anyone in the country the opportunity to submit a proposal for a project in his or her community for RE-volv staff to review. This will streamline and expedite the project lead, review, and execution process. The platform is set to launch mid- August. With this platform RE-volv will reinvent online organizing. In contrast to “clicktivism” in which social media engagement on an issue fails to translate into real world action, RE-volv’s new crowdfunding platform allows anyone to help build clean energy projects and reduce carbon emissions from their computer or mobile device. This democratizes change-making, empowering everyone with the ability to create real change. You can view the web platform in its current form by visiting revolv-stage.herokuapp.com/.

Second, RE-volv is piloting a collective impact partnership model called the Solar Seed Fund Network in which NGO’s, foundations, corporations, and government agencies can each invest their own funds, or pool together the funds of their members, to have a revolving solar energy fund of their own. In this model, partners help RE-volv identify potential solar projects for communities they care about, and help RE-volv crowdfund the initial costs of the projects by engaging their membership for support.  RE-volv’s first network partner, the National Audubon Society, has invested more than $65,000 to pilot the program. RE-volv is also in partnership discussions with 350.org, the Sierra Club, World Wildlife Fund, Greenpeace, NRDC, Green For All, and Interfaith Power and Light.

Third, RE-volv will scale nationally through its Solar Ambassador Program, a one academic year fellowship for college students, giving them the opportunity to spearhead a solar project in their community. RE-volv staff will train the Solar Ambassador teams to develop a community-based solar project, empower people to take action for clean energy by crowdfunding local solar projects, and educate fellow college students and community members about the benefits of solar energy. The fellowship curriculum includes a four-day in-depth training retreat to the Bay Area in August and bi-monthly webinars to provide the students the skills needed to meet the program objectives. In addition to the project selection and managing the crowdfunding campaigns, Solar Ambassadors will assist RE-volv staff in identifying local solar installers with whom RE-volv will partner to install the solar systems. For the 2015-2016 school year, Solar Ambassadors represent five universities in California, Ohio, Wisconsin, and Pennsylvania.

RE-volv is an inaugural member of the Department of Energy’s National Community Solar Partnership, which increases solar access for all Americans. Through this partnership, the DOE will play a key role in RE-volv’s ability to bring solar to communities around the country. See the official White House fact sheet here.

RE-volv exists because of the passion, experience, and foresight of its three-person team. Founder and executive director, Andreas Karelas is a dedicated renewable energy advocate with over ten years of environmental and renewable energy nonprofit experience. Andreas incorporated RE-volv as a nonprofit organization in February 2011 to give people a simple way to accelerate the adoption of renewable energy in the United States. In 2008, the climate movement was gaining momentum with the election of President Obama, his environmental promises, and Congress’ proactivity toward a climate bill. The 2009 UN Climate Change Conference in Copenhagen and the prospect of a meaningful international climate accord fueled the momentum. But the promises were broken, the international conference negotiations fell apart, and the movement was disempowered. With such a massive failure of leadership, citizens were looking for ways to take action. Andreas wanted to give people a way to lead on climate change by accelerating solar energy adoption in communities. When he witnessed the social impact potential of crowdfunding efforts like Kiva, combined with the advent of revenue generating solar lease financing, the idea for a people-funded revolving fund for solar energy was born.

Prior to founding RE-volv, Andreas worked with a number of leading organizations including the American Council on Renewable Energy (ACORE), the National Audubon Society, blueEnergy, and the Center for Resource Solutions. Andreas holds Master’s degrees in International Affairs and in Natural Resources and Sustainable Development, and a Bachelor’s degree in Economics. He is a 2013 Audubon Toyota TogetherGreen Conservation Leadership Fellow. He also serves on the Steering Committee of the Local Clean Energy Alliance.

Sarah Brinker joined RE-volv in April 2015 as Associate Director of Partnerships and Philanthropy. She’s in charge of securing funding for RE-volv’s vision by building and executing a fundraising strategy that includes engaging individual donors, foundations, corporations, and government entities. Prior to RE-volv, Sarah worked in the Advancement Department of the Sierra Club national headquarters for five years. There, she built relationships with generous supporters to fund the Beyond Coal Campaign and other national conservation campaigns. Sarah’s time at the Sierra Club and her childhood in the Pennsylvania countryside, Santa Barbara beaches, and on Yosemite trails has framed her outlook: to protect wild places, people need a quick and easy way to take action for clean energy solutions. That's why she's joined the RE-volv team. She attended the University of California, Davis where she led campus wide efforts to divert waste and helped create the nation's first zero waste stadium.

Gavi Keyles is RE-volv’s Communications and Program Manager. She started at RE-volv as a fellow through the New Sector Alliance Residency in Social Enterprise, an Americorps program. She successfully led RE-volv’s crowdfunding efforts to build its largest solar system to date, and has doubled RE-volv’s list of email subscribers and social media followers in a short time. Gavi also leads RE-volv’s Solar Ambassador program, training the next generation of clean energy leaders at universities across the country.  Gavi holds a Bachelor's degree from Northwestern University, where she completed majors in Middle East & North African (MENA) Studies and Theatre. Gavi has a background in strategic communications, events management and development for nonprofits. Along with renewable energy, she is passionate about food policy and its relationship to poverty, climate change and environmental stewardship. 

RE-volv’s three person team is supported by its Board of Directors and Advisory Committee consisting of 10 dedicated members representing top law firms, universities, nonprofits, solar industry leaders, government agencies, and Fortune 500 companies.


Who will take these actions?

RE-volv’s mission encourages the participation of three different groups of citizens.

1.    Concerned citizens who care about climate change and clean energy.

2.    Community centers (nonprofits and cooperatives) that would like to go solar but have a hard time finding financing.

3.    Community members of these community centers that are curious about solar energy and climate change.

The following examples describe the three types of actors involved with RE-volv’s work.

Jane is a 32 year old mom in Annapolis. She’s a strong supporter of clean energy always looking for ways to take meaningful action on climate change. When she heard about RE-volv’s solar crowdfunding campaign, she gave a tax deductible donation and knows that her dollars are going into a revolving fund that will invest in countless solar projects across the country.

Ralph, who is 54, chairs the Greening Committee at an Oakland synagogue. He’s been looking for ways to green the synagogue but costs have been a barrier. With RE-volv’s solar lease, Ralph can save the synagogue money on their electricity, green the building, and help other communities go solar too. Watch this time-lapse video of the solar energy installation.

Sarah is a 45 year old homeowner in Berkeley. After her dance studio went solar with RE-volv, she attended a RE-volv event where she learned more about solar energy and met a local solar installer. She got a free solar quote at the event and decided to go solar at her home with RE-volv’s residential solar partner. 


Where will these actions be taken?

Anyone in the world can support the Solar Seed Fund through crowdfunding. To date, RE-volv has empowered people from 38 states and 22 countries to crowdfund Solar Seed Fund projects.

Solar Seed Fund projects are installed exclusively in the United States. RE-volv’s first three projects have taken place in California. RE-volv’s Solar Ambassador Program trains college students around the country to implement RE-volv projects in their community. RE-volv trained students in Maine, Pennsylvania, Ohio, Colorado and California in the 2014-2015 academic year. In the 2015-2016 academic year, Solar Ambassadors represent universities in Pennsylvania, Ohio, California, and Wisconsin. In the coming years, RE-volv seeks to expand the Solar Ambassador program to train students in every state.

While traditional solar energy companies do not work in all 50 states often due to economic reasons, RE-volv is looking to work in places where solar is less common. RE-volv seeks to spark a conversation about solar energy in communities around the country and change the public perception about the viability of solar energy. Thankfully, due to RE-volv’s community supported finance model, it is able to make solar projects pencil out where other companies could not.


How will these actions have a high impact in addressing climate change?

Upon financing three solar projects to date, RE-volv has installed 65 kW of clean energy, avoiding 1,030,000 lbs of CO2 which is the carbon equivalent of planting 200 acres of trees. As the Solar Seed Fund grows exponentially, the climate mitigation impact will scale accordingly.

By empowering Americans to crowdfund local solar projects, RE-volv gives people the direct experience of building the clean energy solutions needed to solve climate change. As RE-volv demonstrates the viability of solar by putting solar on community centers that people care about, RE-volv raises awareness about solar energy with each community it serves. For example, the food cooperative RE-volv financed serves 400 patrons a day.

The nonprofits and cooperatives RE-volv serves are typically unable to find other sources of solar financing. Through RE-volv, these community serving organizations are now able to go solar and demonstrate their commitment to sustainability as well as save money on their electric bills.


What are other key benefits?

While solar energy has the potential to play a key role in de-carbonizing our energy supply, it also provides many additional benefits on the community level. Electricity bill savings, economic development, local job creation, community resilience, cleaner air and water and related public health benefits are just a few of the many advantages brought about by solar. Thankfully technology has a way of making large scale transformations quickly. RE-volv is working to accelerate the transition to solar energy starting in the United States. 


What are the proposal’s costs?

When RE-volv has financed 200 systems, the Solar Seed Fund will generate enough revenue to finance a new solar project every month without needing to crowdfund more money. As each new project comes online, the fund generates more revenue and continually grows at a faster pace. In addition, the interest RE-volv earns for 200 systems would fund 50% of RE-volv’s overhead assuming RE-volv had five full-time staff.

In order to install the 200 systems RE-volv will need to raise approximately $4 million, assuming each project costs roughly $20,000. This varies based on project size, rebates, and product donations. 

To do this, RE-volv will continue to receive support from foundations, major donors, and through crowdfunding. Other long-term revenue streams include:

1.    Solar earned income from the revolving fund. With each solar installation financed, the revolving fund is earning more revenue, compounding more interest, and growing at an ever faster rate. Simultaneously, RE-volv collects a portion of the interest as an earned revenue stream allowing the organization to become self-sustaining.

2.    RE-volv’s partnership with leading residential solar leasing company Sungevity, whereby Sungevity donates between $750- $1,000 for every new Sungevity customer brought to them by RE-volv. Since RE-volv engages community members before, during, and after each crowdfunding campaign, it generates many new solar leads, thereby helping to spread solar in the community and raising money by doing so. People can explore the details of the RE-volv/Sungevity partnership and sign up for a free solar quote at sungevity.org/re-volv.


Time line

RE-volv’s goals are three fold.

1.    Empower people to invest in a revolving fund for solar energy. Success is when one million Americans actively drive clean energy growth by crowdfunding solar energy projects and witness the impact they're having in local communities.

2.    Invest the revolving fund in solar installations for community centers. Success is when the Solar Seed Fund has invested in solar projects for thousands of communities and generates enough revenue to build new solar projects on a daily basis.

3.    Educate people about the environmental and economic benefits of solar. Success is when millions of Americans have a Solar Seed Fund project in their community and regard solar energy as commonplace.

To reach these goals, RE-volv has set one-year, three-year and ten-year milestones.

RE-volv’s goals over the next year are to:

1.    Empower 5,000 individuals to crowdfund Solar Seed Fund projects.

2.    Invest in 10 community-based solar energy projects with the money raised through crowdfunding and compounding interest.

3.    Educate 10,000 Americans about the benefits of solar through these community demonstration projects and through community engagement.

RE-volv’s goals over the next three years are to:

  1. Empower 50,000 individuals to crowdfund Solar Seed Fund projects.

2.    Invest in 200 community-based solar energy projects with the money raised through crowdfunding and compounding interest.

3.    Educate 200,000 Americans about the benefits of solar through these community demonstration projects and through community engagement.

RE-volv’s goals over the next ten years, are to:

  1. Empower 1,000,000 individuals to crowdfund Solar Seed Fund projects.

2.    Invest in 8,000 community-based solar energy projects with the money raised through crowdfunding and compounding interest.

3.    Educate 8,000,000 Americans about the benefits of solar through these community demonstration projects and through community engagement.


Related proposals

Power for the People’s proposal aims to solve the same challenge RE-volv does from another angle: raising awareness about solar energy to accelerate its adoption in the United States. It appears their aim is to do so through an advertising campaign. RE-volv’s approach involves engaging Americans in the process of building local solar capacity as well as raising awareness through local demonstration projects.

RE-volv could partner with Power for the People by sharing their advertising campaign in an effort to drum up support for solar in the communities RE-volv serves.

Outside of the Climate CoLab, RE-volv has been in conversation with partner groups including the Sierra Club’s Sierra Student Coalition, the Energy Action Coalition, and 350.org’s Fossil Free campaign. RE-volv’s Solar Ambassador Program would complement the work of these student groups to divest campuses from fossil fuels by promoting solar energy in the campus community. 


References

Rolfe-Redding, et al. (2012). Republicans and Climate Change: An Audience Analysis of Predictors for Belief and Policy Preferences. (Center for Climate Change Communication, George Mason University) P. 30-31.

Heath, Chip and Dan (2010). Switch: How to Change Things When Change is Hard. New York: Broadway Books. P. 31.