If you know San Francisco, you know that the Outer Sunset district is one of the foggier zones of the City by the Bay. So when the Other Avenues food cooperative — a 40-year anchor in the Sunset — launched a crowdfunding campaign to help pay for a 36-kilowatt rooftop solar array, it was eye-catching.
A closer look at the project further, however, reveals a number of interesting aspects that could impact much more than just the co-op and its customers. Other Avenues is working with RE-Volv, a San Francisco-based solar financing nonprofit, to both secure financing for Other Avenues’ solar system as well as to raise funds to further RE-Volv’s mission of expanding the solar boom. To find out more, I spoke with Andreas Karelas, RE-Volv’s executive director, and Darryl Dea, the current president of Other Avenues.
The evolution of solar financing
Dea explained that he and his colleagues at Other Avenues had been looking to go solar for about eight years without finding the right solution. Early on, the store looked at signing a solar lease, but Other Avenues decided it wasn’t on the best terms. But because the co-op didn’t own their building at that time, buying a system outright didn’t make sense either.
Dea explored PACE financing, which spreads the cost of renewable energy investments (and other improvements, like energy or water efficiency projects) over 20 years of your property tax payments — but PACE financing stumbled in the wake of the housing market collapse right around that same time.
In the intervening years, Other Avenues ended up purchasing their building, and PACE financing has come back from the dead, but it wasn’t until Dea and one of his co-owners were approached by Karelas about RE-Volv’s unique financing setup that solar at Other Avenues started to become a reality.
RE-Volv, which was launched in 2011, has a grand vision: To create a self-sustaining solar investment fund that supports solar installations for nonprofits and cooperatives that otherwise have a difficult time securing solar financing. The group, which has completed two projects and has Other Avenues’ system underway as its third — offers solar leases and puts the funds generated by that lease, as well as the donations from community members, into a revolving fund that generates interest to support future solar installations.
“Andreas came and talked to the worker-owners, they were all on board with starting a revolving fund that then goes to fund other nonprofits,” Dea said. “The group was really into the fact that not only are we saving electricity for our store, we’re also contributing to this revolving fund that will further down the line create more funding for other nonprofits, and we’re really into that mission.”
And so began the process to launch Other Avenues’ solar crowdfunding campaign, which has already reached almost $12,000 of its $48,000 target, with 30 days remaining.
Spreading the word about solar
Putting a big solar array on top of a community focal point like a grocery store is cool for a lot of reasons. Not only does it help reduce the emissions and grid load from the store’s refrigeration and lighting, but it also helps spread the word about solar.
Research published late last year found that the single biggest factor that determines if a household will install solar panels is whether neighbors had already gone solar.
Other Avenues and RE-Volv are counting on the store’s community to both support the project and to spread the word about solar, and so far it seems to be working.
“[Of the $10,711 donated as of January 17], one individual who works at Yahoo got a matching grant from Yahoo, but that’s the only non-individual giving,” Karelas explained when I asked about who has been donating to the fund so far. “Our tagline is ‘people-funded renewable energy,’ and I’m happy to say that that is what is happening.”
Dea added that several of Other Avenues’ long-term supporters have also gone solar, so the solar contagion factor could well come into play with this new installation.
RE-Volv and Other Avenues are spreading the word through in-store events, and they’re also working with SunWork, a solar installer that helps provide solar to low-energy-using households as well as nonprofits, and which encourages and trains volunteers to help install solar panels as a way to keep costs down for nonprofits that want to go solar. When the Other Avenues solar system is ready to go up, SunWork will put out a call for volunteers to help install the panels.
Taking solar crowdfunding to the next level
To recap, we’ve got a worker-owned cooperative funding a significant solar array with the help of donations from community members and a solar-crowdfunding organization and installing panels with the help of volunteers from the community. But it’s what RE-Volv has in mind for the next stage that’s even more exciting.
“Rather than being a typical solar company [that’s trying] to make money, we’re using solar to fund our climate mission,” Karelas explained, “which is putting up solar in more and more places, and to take advantage of the contagious nature of solar. We are working specifically with nonprofits and co-ops that are serving their community because we want those community members to say, ‘Oh wow, if Other Avenues has solar in the Sunset, I wanna go solar too.'”
Imagine, if you will, the 400,000 or so people that took part in last fall’s Climate March in New York City — Karelas certainly has. “To me, the way I see this growing is, what if those 400,000 people each donated $10 to this revolving fund; we’d have a $4 million fund, and we could build 100 or 200 solar projects, and then that fund would pump out a new solar project every 1 to 2 weeks. It would then be self-sustaining and grow on its own.”
While that kind of far-flung support may sound like a dream, Karelas said that RE-Volv’s past projects — both of which were based in the Bay Area — received $70,000 in donations from more than 500 people in 32 U.S. states and 17 countries around the world.
Time will tell how far RE-Volv’s reach will get, but the group has already secured a partnership with the Audubon Society to install solar panels on some of the wildlife organization’s chapter offices — as well as to get access to Audubon’s membership base for crowdfunding purposes. And RE-Volv is also training “solar ambassadors” at colleges across the country to help plant the seeds of solar in their communities as well.
For now, getting the Other Avenues solar installation off the ground, and building a revolving solar installation fund, seem like strong goals on their own — but as with the exponential growth of the solar industry in the U.S. and abroad, it can’t hurt to aim high and defy expectations.
Photos courtesy of RE-Volv.