RE-volv is a nonprofit organization whose mission is to empower people and communities to invest collectively in renewable energy. RE-volv finances solar energy projects for nonprofits and worker-owned cooperatives that serve their community through a 20 year solar lease agreement.

Interview with Andreas Karelas of RE-volv: Why Don't More Environmental Nonprofits Go Solar

Andreas Karelas | RE-volv

 

What is the purpose of RE-volv's work and why did you start this organization?

RE-volv is a nonprofit organization whose mission is to empower people and communities to invest collectively in renewable energy. RE-volv finances solar energy projects for nonprofits and worker-owned cooperatives that serve their community through a 20 year solar lease agreement. The upfront costs are raised through crowdfunding campaigns where community members and clean energy supporters make tax-deductible donations. The lease payments from each community are continually reinvested in a revolving fund, called the Solar Seed Fund, that finances more and more community-based solar projects as the fund grows. It’s the first of its kind revolving fund for community-based solar energy in the United States.
 
There are three main problems that RE-volv seeks to address.  First, people who care about climate change typically don’t have a lot of options to take meaningful action. RE-volv’s crowdfunding campaigns for local solar projects empower people with the ability to create tangible results advancing renewable energy. Second, even though solar installations have grown by 1600% since 2007, a critical market failure has left small to medium sized businesses without many solar financing options, and it’s even worse for nonprofits and worker-owned cooperatives that can’t take advantage of the federal Investment Tax Credit for solar projects. For these community-serving nonprofits and worker-owned cooperatives that often have a hard time finding solar financing, RE-volv provides a unique finance solution that allows these communities to go solar and save money on their electric bills. Lastly, RE-volv is raising public awareness about solar energy by installing solar projects on community centers and increasing the visibility of solar, by hosting events that educate community members about the benefits of solar, and through its college fellowship program, the Solar Ambassador Program.
 
RE-volv was founded in 2011 after a series of political disappointments in the climate movement. In 2008 and 2009, the movement was gaining momentum. Obama had just been elected president, there were promises made in Washington, and everyone was looking to COP15 in Copenhagen for a meaningful international climate accord. But those promises weren’t kept and the international negotiations fell apart. People were devastated and were left wondering how they could take meaningful action to affect progress on climate change. RE-volv was founded to empower people with a simple direct action that everyone can take to fight climate change and to accelerate the adoption of renewable energy in the United States.


Why do small scale community nonprofits and cooperatives have a hard time finding financing to go solar?

There are a few key reasons. The first is the inability for nonprofits and cooperatives to take advantage of the Investment Tax Credit. Since nonprofit organizations do not pay taxes, and worker-owned cooperatives pay very few taxes as a business entity, they cannot take advantage of the federal solar investment tax credit themselves, which is a 30% tax credit. While many solar companies partner with banks and financial institutions to monetize the tax credits on behalf of their customers, the nonprofit and co-op solar projects RE-volv works on are generally too small to be worth the transaction costs. Another obstacle is credit. There is not a reliable standardized system in place to assess the credit of nonprofits and co-ops, making it difficult for financiers to approve such projects.


What is innovative about RE-volv's approach?

Crowdfunding solar is becoming more of a trend, which is a fantastic development for the industry allowing needed investment dollars to flow into solar projects that need them while giving individuals the ability to help drive the solar revolution with their own dollars. Other crowdfunding solar enterprises all use one of two models.  Either individuals can invest in solar and get their money back over time (in some cases with interest) - or they can help pay for a free solar project gifted to one recipient. RE-volv’s innovation lies in combining crowdfunding 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.  With RE-volv, instead of community centers paying money back to investors, they pay it forward to other communities. After 200 projects, the revolving fund will be able to finance a new solar project every month.

 

Can you describe the steps and timeline of a typical project from start to finish to give us an idea of the process?

Typically, a community-serving organization approaches RE-volv or RE-volv approaches a community and determines interest in going solar with RE-volv. Next, RE-volv evaluates the roof and 12 months of electrical data to see if the organization is a good fit for going solar. After the organization signs the contract, RE-volv staff work with the organization to prepare for and launch a crowdfunding campaign which takes about a month. The crowdfunding campaigns run for around 45 days. Once RE-volv collects all the donations, installation takes around two weeks. Once the system is installed by RE-volv’s partner solar installer, RE-volv holds a ribbon cutting ceremony and flips the switch, bringing solar power to a community-serving organization.

 

Why does RE-volv's work focus on engaging local community in its solar projects?

RE-volv believes that communities are truly the center of the renewable energy transition, and that by empowering communities to take the renewable energy transition into their own hands, they will achieve enormous progress. Community-based solar projects demonstrate tangible change—someone can donate online to a RE-volv crowdfunding campaign for a project in their community, and shortly thereafter see solar go up in their neighborhood.

 

One of RE-volv’s main goals is to rapidly accelerate solar energy adoption in the United States. Research shows that going solar is contagious—when one home or business in a neighborhood goes solar, it’s likely that nearby homes and businesses will follow suit. That’s why RE-volv works with community-serving organizations that serve relatively large numbers of people. RE-volv just finished a project with the Other Avenues Food Cooperative in San Francisco where 400 people walk through their doors every day! When local community organizations like Other Avenues go solar, it sparks a conversation and raises awareness among community members, and often prompts community members to investigate solar for themselves. To foster local solar adoption in the communities it serves, RE-volv hosts educational events with local solar installers, teaching people about the benefits of solar energy and helping them explore going solar at home.


What is RE-volv's track record to date?

RE-volv has completed three projects to date, raising more than $120,000 from donors in 38 states and 22 countries. RE-volv’s first project, a 10kW system for the Shawl-Anderson Dance Center in Berkeley, was completed in 2013. In 2014, RE-volv built a 22kW system for the Kehilla Community Synagogue in Oakland. Most recently, RE-volv installed a 36kW solar energy system for the Other Avenues Food Cooperative in San Francisco. An exciting element about the third project is seeing the Solar Seed Fund working—lease payments from RE-volv’s first two projects brought down the costs for its third by $7,000. Together, these organizations are saving over $500,000 over the life of the systems which they can use to better serve their community. The combined carbon reductions of these three solar projects is over a million pounds of carbon dioxide, equivalent to planting 200 acres of trees.


Can this model be replicated across the US?  

Yes! RE-volv’s model is meant to empower as many people as possible to invest in solar energy and actively take part in the fight against climate change. That’s why RE-volv started the Solar Ambassador Program, to train students across the country to find a community organization, work with an installer, organize a crowdfunding campaign and build a solar project in their community. Communities are the center of our work, so community members must be the drivers of our work. Eventually, we want to see a network of Solar Ambassadors spearheading projects and getting their communities involved with renewable energy.

 

Why would Audubon, tasked with saving birds, be so concerned about CO2 emissions and work with you on solar?

For more than a century, the National Audubon Society has worked to protect birds and their habitats. Today, it is widely recognized that climate change is the biggest threat to all species on earth. Audubon’s Birds & Climate Change Report asserts that of the approximately 650 bird species in North America, more than half will have to modify their habitats to survive, and many species could become extinct. The more temperatures rise, the more birds will have to move away from the habitats they depend on. It’s in everyone’s best interest to make sure temperatures do not continue to rise as rapidly as they have been. The way to do that is through renewable energy installation. Transitioning from a fossil fuel-based economy to a world powered by low-carbon or no-carbon renewable energy sources is the only way to protect the climate and ecosystems.

 
About Andreas Karelas
Andreas 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. 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.
 

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