Solar workers installing panels on the Shawl Anderson Dance Center. (Photo: Andreas Karelas)

Solar workers installing panels on the Shawl Anderson Dance Center. (Photo: Andreas Karelas)

Laura Flynn for New America Media / KALW’s Crosscurrents

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Fly low over California, and you’ll see a patchwork of black and shiny rooftops fitted with solar panels. It didn’t always look like this. Just over a decade ago, there were fewer than 500 solar rooftops in the state. By 2012, that jumped to over 160,000.

Much of that growth has happened in just the past few years. It doesn’t stop there. National industry analysts say the solar sector grew by a third in just the first quarter of 2013, with California leading the charge.

A few things are making solar more accessible, among them: cheaper panels, rebates, and new ways to for pay for them. Crowdfunding is among these new and creative ways to finance solar panels. Instead of paying tens of thousands of dollars to install solar, other people pitch in and get something in return. It’s like a Kickstarter for your electricity bill – and it’s a business model that allows people to participate directly in making solar happen.

It happened for the Shawl Anderson Dance Center in Berkeley. As piano melodies spill out the door, and dancers walk in and out, Managing Director Rebecca Johnson explains how and why her studio went solar. For one thing, she says, they were spending about $400 a month on utilities. Then they noticed their neighbors.

“All our neighbors are totally residential homes,” Johnson says. “When they got solar, we thought, ‘Wow, our roof is the same exact slope as well.’”

As they were figuring out their options and getting quotes, they got an unexpected offer. A man named Andreas Karelas offered them a lease to own system that would power 100 percent of the center’s electricity needs. They wouldn’t owe any money up-front and their monthly bill would drop.

When she saw the offer, Johnson says she thought it was to good to be true

“I don’t understand where the loophole is,” she says she rememebrs thinking.

Andreas Karelas is the founder and executive director of the non-profit RE-volv, based in San Francisco.

“Our mission is to empower people to invest collectively in renewable energy,” he says.

In other words, to “crowdfund” the dance center’s solar panels.

Crowdfunding is exactly what it sounds like. It’s a way to raise money from a lot of small donations instead of, say, one giant bank loan. The dance center is a classic example. RE-volv launched a campaign through the website Indiegogo.

In the campaign video, Karelas talks about “individuals and community centers that are generating their own power on their homes and places of work that use that energy and then share it with their neighbors.” He says it’s time to think about energy in new ways.

RE-volv raised about $25,000 through foundations and donations from 300 people around the world. That money paid for the upfront costs. Once the project was underway, the dance center started paying just under $300 a month to lease the panels. That money goes into a fund that generates interest, and helps pay for future projects. So when you donate 50 bucks to the dance center’s roof, you’re not just supporting them – you’re also helping other projects down the line.

“So our hope is that people will be eager to kind of put their money into something where it does earn a return but they’re not asking for the return back themselves,” Karelas says. “They’re asking for the return to be reinvested into more and more solar allowing it to grow exponentially.”

This is pretty different from how solar providers usually work. In a typical lease, the dance center would make payments for 10 or 20 years, then at the end of that either renew the lease or buy the system at market value. If they didn’t, or couldn’t, the company might take the panels back. With RE-volv’s model, the dance center will own its system outright after 20 years.

Dance center director Rebecca Johnson says it’s about more than the money.

“It’s not so much the finances as the decision that we made and having our community know that their dancing is now solar powered is just a powerful sense of community,” she says.

RE-volv is just one of several companies trying out models for crowdfunding solar energy. Dan Rosen is the CEO of Mosaic, an investment crowdfunding company based in Oakland. Their model also offers a return – but this one is for investors.

“Our base of investors can become advocates and some of the best advocates for clean energy,” Rosen says. “Because they’re invested in it. Because they have skin in the game.”

Mosaic provides an online platform where anyone can invest directly in a clean energy project and earn between 4 and 6 percent interest. Investments can be as little as $25.

Rosen says crowdfunding relies on fairly simple math. He says investor Warren Buffett is pouring lots of money into solar right now. Buffet has a personal fortune in the billions, but Rosen says Buffet is not as rich as millions of everyday folks who pool their money.

“Someone asked who has more money than Warren Buffett,” Rosen says. “We all do. We all have more money than Warren Buffett.”

So far, Rosen says Mosaic has financed 15 projects, raising $3 million from about 2,000 people. For example, 138 people paid to put solar panels on the roof of the Asian Resource Center or ARC, a building that houses a bunch of nonprofits and businesses in Oakland. ARC now makes monthly lease payments of about $340 to Mosaic. ARC’s payments help pay each of those investors a return.

“So Mosaic is bringing a new source of capital to the table that is people power,” Rosen says. “That is powered by individuals and small institutions. And institutions that want to invest in clean energy.”

At the Energy Institute at the Haas School of Business, the co-director of the Energy Institute, Severin Borenstein sees the logic.

“I think that has the appeal for some investors who couldn’t otherwise get into investing in solar PV very easily of being able to make small investments and still get into this market,” Borenstein says.

He says it’s a niche market.

“As far as the growth of this industry I think it’s going to be driven by the economics,” Borenstein says. “Both the true costs of installing solar relative to retail electricity prices and the tax treatment.”

But, he says, the retail cost of electricity is higher than the actual cost, which raises questions about the stability of the solar sector.

“The way it is in California people pay a higher price per kilowatt if they consume more,” Borenstein says.

That’s because most utilities roll the fixed costs of the transmission lines and managing the grid into our electricity usage. So going solar also means the utility eats that additional cost.

“Those very high prices you’re paying don’t reflect the actual cost of supplying power to you,” Borenstein says.

This makes going solar more attractive and utilities see the threat.

“The utility recognizes it’s giving incentives for people to install solar instead of buy their power from the utility, and as a result they are trying to change those tariffs,” Borenstein says.

For example, everyone could be charged a fixed monthly fee for simply being connected to the grid. If that happens, Borenstein says, the whole solar sector could slow. But for now, it’s still growing.

“Crowdsourcing and crowdfunding is a way that we can democratize energy,” says Rosen from Mosaic. He sees crowdfunding as a way to change the whole energy industry. He anticipates major growth in solar rooftops, enough to disrupt the way utilities currently work. Where people with their own energy sources – like solar panels – distribute the excess to their neighbors.

Rosen imagines that “every home could essentially be a power plant.”

“Because it really is inevitable,” he says. “It’s cheaper to put solar on your home than not. It will happen. It’s economics.”

Solar still makes up less than 1 percent of the country’s total electricity production today. Rooftop solar makes up even less of that. Crowdfunding projects have a long road ahead, but Rosen and other supporters are hoping it’s a sunny one.

This story was produced as part of a 2013 NAM Fellowship on Energy and the Environment for Northern California Ethnic Media (a collaboration with SoundVision Productions’ Burn: An Energy Journal) with the support by S.D. Bechtel, Jr. Foundation and PG&E.