In 2 community ventures, new ways to think solar 

Source: Krysti Shallenberger, E&E reporter • Posted: Monday, April 20, 2015

Want to trade your roof for some free solar panel installation? Buy a solar panel to power someone else’s home?

Two Boston-based startups are looking for some good Samaritans and energy-conscious folks to do just that.

Using an assortment of 21st-century-style fundraising paired with a community mindset, Yeloha Inc. and CloudSolar want to make sure everyone can play a part in harnessing the sun for energy, even if his or her rooftop and bank accounts might not handle such contraptions.

Both of these startups promise potential customers a kinesthetic experience with solar, regardless of whether they own a rooftop, both CEOs said.

Neither of these projects is new, but they could revamp the way people and companies think about rooftop solar installations and community gardens, industry officials said in interviews with EnergyWire.

With CloudSolar, people buy individual panels that in turn fund a solar farm, said CEO Michael Sun. But while people own the panel, they don’t necessarily receive electrical generation, which is targeted to a hyper-local area within the vicinity of the proposed solar farm.

“Basically we opened the opportunity for everyone to contribute and join the solar movement,” Sun said.

On the flip side, Yeloha zeroed in on people without rooftops — mostly apartment dwellers, said CEO Amit Rosner.

“I learned the industry is focused on a very [small] part of the population — people who own roofs with no shade, who are not planning on moving anytime soon and have enough money in their bank account,” Rosner said.

While the companies took different approaches, their idea is the same: expand solar energy’s range from people rooted in one place.

A community of solar

Traditionally, solar panels are nailed down on flat, shadeless rooftops, with only 22 to 27 percent of residential rooftops in the United States matching that requirement, according to a 2013 report from the National Renewable Energy Laboratory.

This cut out roughly 70 percent of people who might want solar energy, said Bob Gibson, vice president of outreach and education for the Washington, D.C.-based Solar Electric Power Association. Community solar garden projects began cropping up in states like Minnesota (EnergyWire, Aug. 6, 2014). Customers could invest in these centralized solar systems and earn credit on their bills, often using the state’s net metering regulations, which allow ratepayers to sell back excess green energy to public utilities.

Another example is California-based Mosaic, a pioneer in crowdfunding to finance small solar-system projects (Greenwire, Jan. 31, 2013). People can pay for a 4.5 interest over eight or nine years, then that money is transformed into loans for people who need an extra financial boost to install solar panels.

CloudSolar combined both of these approaches. The company used the popular crowdfunding site Indiegogo to raise $300,000. Potential customers shelled out cash for a panel or even half a panel that will later fund its first solar farm, Sun said.

CloudSolar began as the brainchild of Sun, a Boston University doctoral student who not only knows solar but their cells, as well. He and a Georgia Institute of Technology doctoral student, Xiaohang Li, and Cory Absi, an undergraduate from Boston University, formed their company this past year.

They surpassed their $300,000 goal with buyers from as far away as China and Australia pitching in, finishing their crowdfunding campaign with $445,706. Now with money in its pocket, the company is prepared to kick-start the fine print, regulations and logistics of that perfect sweet spot for land, sun and market, Sun said.

At present, the company envisions at least a handful of solar farms maxing out at 20 megawatts combined. Sun was reluctant to disclose the exact locations but said the company is evaluating New Jersey, California and New England as potential sites for its first one. An ideal farm sits on roughly 5.5 acres of land, with at least 1.5 MW of solar arrays soaking up the sun, Sun added.

Prospective sites also have good state and federal tax incentives coupled with solid net metering regulations, Sun said.

Owning a panel doesn’t guarantee buyers earn the energy flowing from it, Sun said. But panel owners can check on their contraptions through an app that Sun and his colleagues are designing. Meanwhile, Sun said they will use available net metering regulations to tap into local transmission lines owned by public utilities that already have a solid customer base.

Panel owners will get 80 percent of the profits from their grid, which should pay for itself in 10 or 12 years, Sun added.

Sun hopes to have the first farm running by mid-2016.

Meanwhile, Yeloha takes a more middle-man approach when thinking rooftop solar.

‘Good neighbors’

Yeloha started out as a “wild concept” for a solar-system sharing network, said Rosner, who has spent nearly eight years in the solar industry in his native Israel and the United States.

“The biggest challenge was to take this wild and extreme concept and translate something that could fly,” Rosner said.

So Rosner — alongside his partners, Idan Ofrat and Paolo Tedone — went small. Very small. Yeloha wants someone to exchange his or her perfect, flat, shadeless roof for solar panels paid for by someone who doesn’t own a perfect roof or even a roof but wants his or her electrical power mix to include some solar-sourced energy.

Yeloha’s website in almost-blinding bright-yellow advertises for “sun partners” and “sun hosts.”

Sun partners, as Rosner described them, pay upfront or a subscription for installing solar panels on a donated roof from a “sun host.” Size and generation vary, but the sun host also gets a share from the power mix, Rosner said, without chipping in for installation.

“We’re an orchestrator or a platform for people to collaborate and make it accessible,” Rosner said. “We want to build a system that doesn’t require too much money to make.” He added that the company over time will depend on subscription fees to finance its business.

Meanwhile, the $3.5 million the company raised in a round will pay for the initial installations, Rosner said. The solar energy feeds into the grid through net metering credits.

Rosner hopes to have the first rooftop solar system installed by this summer.

‘Just in the startup phase’

Renewable energy developer veteran Adam de Sola Pool has mentored both these startups and said that while both incorporate current popular trends, they “are done in a different way to open the markets for people who live in apartments.”

Or, in Pool’s case, those who own homes shaded by trees and don’t want to cut them down. In particular, he’s invested time and his own money (Pool’s a proud CloudSolar panel owner, he said) into CloudSolar’s venture.

“I really believe that Michael [Sun]’s system allows you to say that it is my panel … and take it with you five years later,” Pool said. With Yeloha’s approach, you still “solve the problem of geography. … Both these companies are solving the problem of geography.”

But while they cleared the hurdle of capital for now, Pool said the companies now have to leap through the construction and regulatory hoops. In particular, Pool said CloudSolar’s Sun must “build the farm and prove that it works as a model. [Sun’s] halfway there, but not all the way there.”

These companies offer a unique angle in the solar industry, Pool added, and all that is needed is to prove they work.

Both Sun and Yeloha’s Rosner said they plan to expand — maybe go global — and believe their models can easily meet a demand for solar from people who might not necessarily qualify under traditional methods.

Both CEOs said these models tie in a community.

“What we provide is a more holistic view of the community,” Rosner said.

Sun echoed his sentiments. “These are not investments,” he said. “These are ownerships and provide an opportunity to have access and have a [personal] stake.”