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RE-volv empowers people to fight climate change by crowdfunding a revolving fund for solar installations for places they care about.


Description

Summary

RE-volv empowers people to fight climate change by providing a simple way to support solar energy: donating to a solar energy installation crowdfunding campaign. RE-volv (a San Francisco-based nonprofit organization) invests the money that was crowdfunded into solar energy installations for nonprofits and cooperatives that serve their community. By going solar, these organizations avoid greenhouse gas emissions and save money on their electric bills. RE-volv hosts community solar education events for people to learn about the benefits of solar energy firsthand.

According to van der Linden, Maibach, and Leiserowitz in “Improving Public Engagement with Climate Change: Five “Best Practice” Insights from Psychological Science” people are social beings who respond to group norms (759). As people see their place of faith or neighborhood co-op market go solar, they are more likely to see solar as a viable option for themselves. RE-volv mobilizes Americans to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by supporting clean energy for places about which they deeply care.

By helping community-serving organizations embedded in local culture, RE-volv is able to connect with and motivate community members to take the simple action of donating whatever they can to support a solar energy project. Human brains can only process so much. As noted by P. Simran Sethi in “Our Green Brains”, to be motivated to take action, society must tell stories in ways that connect intimately with people’s lives (6). By providing financing for nonprofits and co-ops that people care about, RE-volv takes the science out of climate change and replaces it with emotion, empowering people to act. When the trusted leadership of the local community-serving nonprofit or co-op demonstrates their concern for climate change, and their support of clean energy, it helps to shift the attitudes of community members around climate and clean energy and gives them even more reason to take action.


What actions do you propose?

RE-volv provides several actions that have a direct impact on social norms and climate change.

RE-volv mobilizes people to take meaningful action on climate change through crowdfunding solar energy installations. RE-volv built a web platform with support from the United States Department of Energy SunShot Catalyst Initiative, and launched it in spring 2016. The platform hosts solar energy crowdfunding campaigns. In the first two months, RE-volv successfully crowdfunded solar energy installations for organizations in California, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin.

To date, the environmental movement 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. Furthermore, 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!” 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 provides this type of action.

As noted in “Improving Public Engagement with Climate Change: Five “Best Practice” Insights From Psychological Science”, to improve public engagement on climate change, society must highlight the tangible gains associated with immediate action (760). One of the benefits of RE-volv’s model is that a donor’s action leads to a tangible outcome that occurs in a short timeframe. Unlike policy changes which can take years to take effect, RE-volv creates change in a community in a matter of months. For example, RE-volv crowdfunded the cost of a solar energy system for the Kehilla Community Synagogue in 45 days and had the system installed within one month. This collective action brought about by donors’ generosity ignites the brain’s reward circuit, making one happy and more likely to share their story and connect with others. By engaging more people through a positive action, RE-volv transforms the clean energy conversation in this country.

Nobody likes losing, but everyone likes winning. RE-volv frames its solar energy crowdfunding campaigns as a solution to climate change and a way to benefit the local community. When organizations go solar with RE-volv, the particular organization saves up to 15% on electric costs and reduces its carbon footprint. It’s a win-win situation that builds on its own success. Because it is a positive story, that is solutions-focused, it attracts more people to participate (van der Linden, Maibach, Leiserowitz).

There are roughly 1.5 million nonprofits and 30,000 cooperatives in the United States that face major barriers to getting their solar projects financed. These organizations have a difficult time finding financing because of their inability to take advantage of solar tax credits, the difficulty establishing their credit worthiness, and their small solar energy system size (10kW-30kW – 5kW powers a medium-sized home). RE-volv seeks to serve this niche yet incredibly influential market. RE-volv offers a zero down, 20 year solar lease option that offers up to 15% or more in electric cost savings.

This is how RE-volv’s financing mechanism, the revolving fund, works:
1. RE-volv partners with a community-serving nonprofit or co-op, like a school or house of worship, that seeks solar financing. RE-volv vets organizations and chooses to work with ones that are long-standing community institutions providing important community services to diverse patrons.

2. The community-serving organization signs a 20 year solar lease with RE-volv, paying zero upfront costs.

3. RE-volv crowdfunds tax-deductible donations from people around the world to finance the cost of the solar energy system. Crowdfunding is a modern, popular, social tool to empower people to finance things they want to come into existence.

4. A local, accredited company installs the solar energy system.

5. Over the 20 year solar lease, the organization makes monthly lease payments to RE-volv. During this time, the organization typically saves up to 15% on electricity costs. RE-volv reinvests the solar lease payments into more solar projects, compounding the interest earned, creating a pay-it-forward model for solar energy projects across the country. In addition, RE-volv earns a return on its investments to support its overhead. This will allow RE-volv to become a 100% self-sustaining organization in the next several years.

Throughout the crowdfunding campaign and installation, RE-volv co-hosts community engagement events to get to know locals and share about the benefits of renewables. RE-volv, through its partnership with residential solar installer Sungevity, invites a Sungevity representative to each event in case locals would like to get a quote for their own home to go solar (visit the partnership webpage). Patrons, members, and community members of the nonprofit and co-ops witness firsthand the benefits of solar energy and are given the opportunity to go solar themselves. By putting solar on trusted institutions, RE-volv personalizes solar energy, catalyzing conversation on it, and mobilizing Americans to support solar energy.

On the new platform, individuals can donate to various solar energy crowdfunding campaigns. When an individual donates to a campaign, she receives her own donor portfolio. This portfolio informs the donor of the social and environmental impacts of the tax-deductible donation. For example, a $135 donation avoids 39 pounds of CO2, the equivalent of planting 1.15 acres of trees, and builds 21 watts of solar energy capacity. To keep donors engaged and empowered, RE-volv enables them to continually reinvest their donations (that have cycled through the revolving fund) to other solar energy installations.

RE-volv also engages people who may not care about climate change. Someone may have donated to the Kehilla Community Synagogue because she is a member and cares about her synagogue saving money. In this case, RE-volv connects with people through their community organization, an essential way to make people care about climate change according to psychologist Daniel Gilbert in “Our Green Brains” (5). And, by engaging people in a personalized way, RE-volv opens the door to connect further and perhaps shift the individuals’ perception around clean energy. 

In addition, RE-volv trains college students to reduce greenhouse gas emissions through its Solar Ambassador Program. This year-long fellowship trains college students to spearhead solar energy projects near campus, teaching the next generation of renewable energy leaders about project management and organizing. This way, ambassadors can be active drivers of the transition to a clean energy economy. Additionally, by working with people embedded in the community, RE-volv fosters a genuine grassroots movement around clean energy.

For the 2015-2016 academic year, RE-volv financed solar energy systems with:

1.       University of California, Santa Barbara students, to help the Isla Vista Food Cooperative go solar. The mission of this community pillar, established in 1973, is to provide the residents of Isla Vista and neighboring communities of Santa Barbara County with reasonably priced foods, products and services that promote a healthier lifestyle and environment.

2.       University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee students helped the Riverwest Co-op Grocery & Café obtain a solar energy system. The co-op, with a mission to provide food for people, not for profit, opened its doors in 2001. It now boasts over 3,000 members and over 100 active volunteers who put in thousands of volunteer hours.

3.       Swarthmore University students worked with Serenity House to go solar. Serenity House serves residents of North Philadelphia, a low-income community of color. Its mission is to act as a safe space in the community and provide support groups, Bible study, stress management, gardening and other services.


Collectively, these organizations will avoid roughly 1.9 million pounds of CO2, the equivalent of planting 700 acres of trees. They will also save a combined total of $175,000 on their electric bills over the life of the systems.

RE-volv is also piloting a Solar Champion Program, which gives any citizen the opportunity to spearhead a solar energy project for an organization in their community. RE-volv staff have dozens of inquiries from people across the country asking RE-volv to finance a solar energy project for an organization in their town.

Community by community, city by city, state by state, RE-volv’s collective action lends itself to a bottom-up clean energy movement. As more pillars in the community go solar giving more people the opportunity to experience the positive benefits of solar energy, there is the potential for a shift in state and national policies. For example, RE-volv has been working with the Aullwood Audubon Nature Center in Dayton, Ohio. Ohio has a freeze on its Renewable Portfolio Standard so stirring public support for solar energy there is key. RE-volv is still able to provide this organization with the opportunity to go solar, bringing this renewable energy source to a novel market.

Lastly, RE-volv will soon launch the Solar Seed Fund Network, in which NGOs, 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. RE-volv is piloting this model with the National Audubon Society to identify Audubon nature centers looking to go solar and to engage the Audubon membership to help crowdfund the projects. This opens up the door to engage diverse constituents, such as more conservative Audubon members, in a solutions-oriented, novel approach to solving climate change. 


Who will take these actions?

A key action is any person in the world with internet access who wants to take meaningful action on climate change or support a solar energy system for an organization near and dear to their heart. Individuals can do this by donating on RE-volv’s crowdfunding platform, built with support from the Department of Energy Sunshot Initiative.

Many people intrinsically care about the well-being of others and the environment. Therefore, appealing to people’s intrinsic motivational needs can be a more effective and long-lasting drive of pro-environmental behavior (van der Linden, Maibach, Leiserowitz 761). RE-volv was surprised and pleased to see donors hailing from 38 states and 22 countries, including Australia, Germany and Kenya! RE-volv’s platform, provides these individuals with an outlet for their environmental altruism, by supporting a revolving fund for solar energy.

Other key actors are the 1.5 million nonprofits and 30,000 worker owned co-ops across the U.S. for which RE-volv provides solar financing. These organizations were previously unable to find solar financing.

Another set of key actors are college students, who RE-volv empowers to reduce greenhouse gas emissions through the Solar Ambassador Program, described above.

Lastly, RE-volv empowers community members who want to help an organization in their community go solar through the Solar Champion Program. 


Where will these actions be taken?

RE-volv finances solar energy projects for organizations in the United States only – but anyone in the world can donate to them. To date, RE-volv has financed a solar energy system for the Shawl-Anderson Dance Center in Berkeley, CA; the Kehilla Community Synagogue in Oakland, CA; Other Avenues Food Cooperative in San Francisco, CA; Isla Vista Food Co-op in Santa Barbara, CA; Riverwest Food Co-op in Milwaukee, WI; Serenity House in North Philadelphia, PA. For 2016-2017, RE-volv has solar energy projects lined up in CA, CO, CT, ME, NM, OH, PA, SC, and WI.

RE-volv is in conversation with the City of Palo Alto utilities to partner and finance solar installations for several local nonprofit organizations in their service territory. 


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

RE-volv calculated the environmental benefits of its revolving fund over time. These environmental calculations are based on the United States Environmental Protection Agency’s carbon calculator. The donor projections are based on donor data from the six solar projects RE-volv has financed to date.
1) RE-volv plans to finance and install 36 solar energy systems through donations from 13,200 people in the next two years. This would result in more than 19 million pounds of CO2 being avoided each year, the equivalent of taking 1,800 cars off the road for one year.

2) RE-volv plans to finances and install 116 solar energy systems through donations from 42,000 people in the next four years. This would result in more than 61 million pounds of CO2 being avoided each year, the equivalent of taking 5,800 cars off the road for one year. 

Through the financing of its six current solar energy projects, RE-volv has calculated that 5 million pounds of CO2 will be avoided over the life of the systems. 

 


What are other key benefits?

The nonprofits and cooperatives that avoid greenhouse gas emissions by going solar with RE-volv save up to 15% on their electric costs. For example, the Other Avenues Food Co-op will save $278,000 over the 20 year lease. The co-op can reinvest that money back into its business and the community, improving both. If saving the planet does not motivate people to act, the savings will. RE-volv can mobilize new audiences to support America’s clean energy economy through this win-win opportunity.


What are the proposal’s costs?

The beauty of the revolving fund is that it will make RE-volv a self-sustaining organization. When RE-volv has financed 200 solar projects, the revolving fund will cover more than 50% of RE-volv’s overhead without it needing to raise another dollar.

In the meantime, RE-volv operates on a lean budget. Currently, RE-volv has a three full-time staff whose annual salaries total approximately $120,000. It seeks to hire a full-time web developer to iterate and improve the platform, at a cost of roughly $90,000 annually (being in San Francisco, these jobs are very competitive). It also seeks to hire a sales manager to oversee solar leads. In total, RE-volv seeks roughly $600,000 in general support for the next two years. Additionally, RE-volv spends about $1,500 on each Solar Ambassador team, with seven teams lined up for 2016-2017.


Time line

RE-volv has been actively crowdfunding and financing solar energy systems for the last three years. RE-volv has built a financial model that assesses how quickly it can scale and become self-sustaining based on how many donations people make. Note, the model reinvests 60% of the interest earned from lease payments back into the revolving fund (40% goes to RE-volv operations). The following predictions assume costs and donations both rise an average of 1.5% annually starting in year 2021.

In the next five years, the revolving fund will scale rapidly. From 2016 to 2021, RE-volv will have empowered 61,600 people to donate $4.9 million total (average donation $75) to finance 168 solar energy systems (58.4 million kW of installed capacity). These solar energy systems will avoid 89.5 million pounds of CO2.

The 5 to 15 year timeframe will be a critical time for RE-volv to scale, and for society to seriously act on climate change. RE-volv calculates it will reach self-sustainability eight years from now, assuming it has 10 full-time staff. Calculations show that once RE-volv finances roughly 400 systems, having crowdfunded $12.12 million (average donation, $75) from 147,600 people, RE-volv will become a self-sustaining organization. This is because RE-volv earns a small return on its solar energy financing.

In the next 50 years, RE-volv will continue to be a self-sustaining organization, and earn enough revenue to finance thousands of systems a year. In this timeframe, RE-volv hopes it will have spurred America’s clean energy economy and envisions a country powered almost entirely by renewable energy. By year 50, approximately 17.8 million people will donate a total of $3.5 billion to finance 74,100 solar energy systems, playing a significant role in the shift to a clean energy across the country.

In 50-100 years, solar will be ubiquitous in the U.S. The revolving fund will continue to finance thousands of solar energy systems for people without access to energy globally.


Related proposals

Proposal: Want to get people involved? Think local. Summary: The idea is to foster local initiatives. To do so, we need people to start in their hometown monthly meetings which involve both talks on climate on a global scale but also on a local scale to explain them what they can do at their level to make a change. 

RE-volv understands the value in working in the hearts of communities. RE-volv plans local meetings when working with community-serving organizations to go solar. When people come together to support their local organization, the experience is personal. According to P. Simran Sethi, this personal experience connects to the "green brain", or consciousness about the world around us, enabling people to better remember what they learned (2). By connecting with people on a personal level, people will better remember the value of solar energy. 


References

1)    Simran Sethi, "Our Green Brains", Arena Magazine

2)    Sander van der Linden, Edward Maibach, and Anthony Leiserowitz, "Improving Public Engagement With Climate Change: Five “Best Practice” Insights From Psychological Science", 2015

3)   Dan and Chip Heath,  Switch, New York: Broadway Books, 2010