Solar Mosaic Co-founder Billy Parish next to the installation at Youth Employment Partnership'
By Barbara Grady
Oakland start-up Solar Mosaic completed its first crowd-funded solar installation that promises a financial return to the many people who put money in the project: A 47,000-kilowatt system for the Youth Employment Partnership in East Oakland.
At a ribbon cutting on the 196-panel solar installation atop YEP's International Boulevard building Tuesday, Solar Mosaic officers said the system should allow the youth organization to save $160,000 in electricity costs over the life of the system and prevent some 93,256 pounds of carbon dioxide from entering the atmosphere.
But what Solar Mosaic founders said is unique with this project, and what they hope will lead to a flourishing of grassroots investing into solar, is that it promised a 6.3 percent return to the 51 investors who each put in $25 or $100 or whatever to make the project a go.
The return makes them truly investors rather than contributors and, in theory, should attract more everyday people to put some money into renewable energy. The investment "tiles" of $25 each for the YEP installation sold out in one week, raising $40,325.
"We are providing a scarce good - something people can purchase to make the world a better place and earn a little yield," Steve Richmond, a co-founder of Solar Mosaic and its chief financial officer, said.
Billy Parish, its president and the other co-founder, said, "This is the first project in which investors will earn a financial return" and it is "what we plan to do" going forward.
Solar Mosaic has filed papers with the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission to sell investments in its solar projects to the public. The YEP investment was a closed, direct appeal solicitation to individuals and groups Solar Mosaic knew. Solar Mosaic could not sell investments in the YEP project to the public generally without SEC approval.
But the success of the YEP project – raising more than $40,000 in a week - proved that the concept worked, he said. They expect to hear from the SEC soon on whether the agency approved its plan of marketing small investments in solar projects to the public.
"Our goal is to open up clean energy investing to the people and to small organization," Parish said as he stood on the rooftop chatting with people. The solar industry has depended on banks and financial institutions to put up the loans for solar adoption. Solar Mosaic wants to disrupt that model, he said, and create opportunities for "ordinary people to invest in something with solid returns that they feel good about."
The YEP installation was a big enough deal that Oakland Mayor Jean Quan cut the ribbon and dozens of people attended the event. Along with Quan, Jakada Imani, executive director of the Ella Baker Center for Human Rights, and Gary Gerber, president of Sun Light and Power, spoke.
Sun Light and Power did the actual installation work on the YEP roof. Gerber said it was his company's fourth project with Solar Mosaic and one of many projects he hopes to bring to the financing start-up.
Michele Clark, executive director of the YEP, which helps at-risk youth find jobs, said installing solar would have been out of reach of the organization and its tight budget were it not for the model. YEP will be leasing the solar equipment from Solar Mosaic, using savings from what it would have spent purchasing electricity from a utility now that it has its own generating capacity.
Solar Mosaic was founded last year by Parish and Richmond on the idea of using crowd funding to gather the upfront costs of solar installations for nonprofit groups. It has done five other solar installations so far, three of which are in Oakland: the Asian Resource Center, People's Grocery store and St. Vincent de Paul's shelter.
The mayor said Solar Mosaic and its crowd funding burnish Oakland's reputation as a center of green innovation.
"This model is interesting because your talking grass roots capital," she said.
Imani said, "What the Mosaic platform allows us to do is put the economy back in the hands of the people."