Solar energy entrepreneurs are pioneering new models for democratizing power
But there's a catch. As the law currently stands, Solar Mosaic, or any company engaged in crowd funding, cannot offer any interest on the money invested by small online contributors. Since there is only a limited pool of people who believe in an energy revolution enough to shell out money for free, these examples are not entirely replicable. "We chose to start with those ones because they have very strong constituencies and we were using more a philanthropic model," Rosen said.
The new model the company is developing is "getting people who are not necessarily just environmentalists invested in the clean energy economy," Rosen said. "I want people who are like, 'Oh, cool, I can make [a decent return] if I invest in this,' and that gets more stakeholders than Sierra Club members. Let's have millions of stakeholders with skin in the game."
So how to move forward? The controversial federal Jumpstart Our Business Startups (JOBS) Act passed in April by Congress included a much-trumpeted crowd funding provision. The bill charged the Securities and Exchange Commission with the responsibility of putting meat on the legislation's skeleton.
The SEC has until the Dec. 31 deadline to come up a set of rules allowing start-ups to gather small investments from ordinary people online while still offering provisions to protect the public from fraud. Many are skeptical that the SEC will complete the rule-writing process by the end of year.
Impatient to wait for the SEC and unsure whether the provisions will be practical for their purposes, Solar Mosaic is following a different path. It is using the funds raised already to pay for a lengthy and expensive filing with the SEC to upgrade its financial status.
Rosen said he couldn't discuss details, but he said the new status should grant Solar Mosaic some leeway on offering financial returns to a wider variety of investors.
ENERGY IN THE CLOUD
Investment opportunities in local solar projects may be a good way to get people financially involved in clean energy but what about Californians who simply wish to purchase renewable energy for their homes or business?
California leads the country in rooftop solar installation, much to the credit of two programs: rebates that offset the cost of the panels through the California Solar Initiative and a program that allows those who own a rooftop with solar panels to offset their utility bills with credit from the energy they produce. California Public Utilities Commission statistics indicate these programs are largely responsible for some 1,379 megawatts of solar that have been installed in California at 131,874 different sites; about as much energy as one large nuclear reactor.
There has been record growth in adoption of solar by homeowners in the past two years, according to the CPUC, including a 364 percent jump in low income areas in since 2007. Yet that's a far shot from the goal of 12,000 megawatts of local clean energy by 2020 called for by Gov. Jerry Brown in July.
Californians who do not have savings or a high credit score or who have shaded roofs usually can't participate in the state's renewable energy programs. But the most significant obstacle to increased participation is that only homeowners are eligible, while renters must contend with whatever power they can get from their utility. In a city like San Francisco, where almost two-third of residents rents, that is the overwhelming majority of citizens.