Power is everyone's business
Being incorporated in California as a co-op makes it possible for the organization to crowdsource funding. This comes with some limits: for one thing, members must be California residents. And California co-op law requires that if you pay returns to individuals, the amount they invest has to be under $300. So the SF Energy Co-op has set their maximum investment at $250.
Being a co-op also means not being restricted under SEC rules, because the donations are kept low and members have a vote. In fact, the Co-op is very democratic: regardless of the amount you contribute, you get one vote. This gives people equal ownership in the green energy they’re supporting.
Unlike with a donation to a nonprofit, you will get a return on your investment in the SF Energy Co-op. Profits are shared equally among members who, with an expected rate of return of 5% - 7%.
And because the amounts invested are small, the SF Energy Co-op model lowers the bar for investment, allowing anyone to get a piece of green energy for as little as $10. Wynns likes to call it “solar for renters” -- which is also solar for the 75%.
Wynns hopes there will be opportunities to raise the Co-op’s investment limit once the JOBS Act goes into effect later this year. But in the meantime, the low bar to investment does allow most people to participate.
Even with small amounts, the SF Energy Co-op can do big things. As Wynns notes, “When we prove we can get a decent return on investment on a $50 share, we can prove that solar is profitable for everyone.”
While funds for the Co-op projects come from member investments, financing structures can vary. For most projects, the Co-op will serve as a third-party owner, all Co-op members being part owners. As the owner, the Co-op will maintain a lease or power purchase agreement.
The first project is slated to be a solar PV system for the Bernal Heights Neighborhood Center in San Francisco. For this project, the Co-op might serve as financier rather than owner, because of a city solar program that allows the neighborhood center to get a bigger rebate for the system if they own it.
Whatever model is used, the payback period for the project is expected to be just a couple years.
Spreading the model
The message of the SF Energy Co-op is that we don’t need to wait for the government to take action but can act now at the grassroots level. Wynns is hoping that the Co-op will be a model for other communities and will serve as a seed to teach others how to follow suit.
Like the founders of the other startups profiled in this series, Wynns sees his role as going beyond the success of his own organization. While he hopes his model will succeed, he has a larger vision for what he’s doing: “Our job as community leaders on energy is not necessarily to make our own thing work (though we do have to prove that the models work) but to popularize that everyone should be invested in green energy.”
This article was first published on Mosaic's blog. Photos courtesy of Solar Mosaic.