Other avenues to solar energy

How one solar company is empowering people across the world to grant nonprofits and community centers access to clean energy.

The first thing I notice upon entering Other Avenues Food Cooperative is the scent — or rather, the rich variety of scents that create an olfactory journey through the market. Straight ahead are the coffees — “French Roast,” “Mind/Body/Soul,” “Love Buzz,” “Fog Belt.” Beyond them are shelves upon shelves of teas — “Wise Woman,” “Mama To Be,” “Happy Man,” “Clear Mind,” “Clear Skin.” I drift over to the aromatherapy section, just across from the homemade body oils and candles corner. Each step — from the organic cheese section to the fresh produce — brings a new aroma, and when I close my eyes it is easy to forget that I am in a grocery store and not a day spa or a Japanese garden.

I can’t spot a single brand that I recognize — all of the six packs are local craft beers, the pastas whole-grain and modestly labeled, and the pastries individually wrapped and marked with just an orange price sticker. The produce is all organic, local and fair trade, and apparently the market’s dress code calls for beanies, dreadlocks and loose clothing. Even the older folks sport tattoos. It feels like the Haight-Ashbury San Francisco circa 1972, not the Sunset District San Francisco of 2016.

But above the hemp and the wicker baskets and the Klean Kanteens and the hand-painted signs, invisible to the tattooed baby-boomers, sits a distinctly modern 32-kilowatt solar array. Perhaps only a few of the shoppers realize that the refrigerator from which they grab their kale is powered by the sun’s rays. But almost none of them realize that the funds for the solar array poured in as micro-donations from people as far away as Nigeria and Cyprus, its donors contributing to a pioneering model designed to accelerate the growth of solar panels on similar nonprofits and cooperatives nationwide. I’ve come to see one of three such facilities in existence thus far, the beginning of a trend that could enable nonprofits that traditionally could not afford it to tap into solar energy, and empower people across the globe to combat climate change in the process.

Back behind the cooperative in a cramped garden lined with refrigeration units, I cling to a rickety ladder and peer up at the rear end of Darryl Dea, one of the worker/owners at Other Avenues, as he describes the changes in San Francisco since he moved here.

“The Sunset [District] is one of the areas where it’s still kind of affordable. You have the city downtown and this is like a totally different thing out here,” he says, clambering off the top rung of the ladder onto the roof and gesturing at me to join him. I stand next to him taking in the view of the sun hovering above the ocean. The roof would be the perfect place to pull up an armchair, crack open a beer and watch the waves crash on the shore to the west, but nearly every inch of space is occupied by a gleaming array of black solar panels. The sun reflects back onto our faces, and Dea quickly suggests we return inside. Minutes later, we are sitting in a cooled room papered with graphs of sales data and flyers for home-brewed beers, the sweat evaporating off of our skin.

Dea had been trying to install solar power at Other Avenues for years, but he kept running into obstacles. At first, he had high hopes for San Francisco’s PACE program, which was supposed to make solar much more affordable, but it turned out to be far too slow and never worked out. He then almost leased a system from Solar City, but decided against it after a discussion with a friend who told him, “Don’t go for them, they’re a corporation, man. All they wanna do is take your money.” When he looked into simply buying a system, it proved to be too expensive. Nonprofits can’t take advantage of federal tax credits because they don’t pay taxes, and credit concerns make it difficult to find financing.

Opportunity ultimately arrived in the form of a casual conversation between one of Dea’s co-workers and a shopper. The customer was named Andreas Karelas, and he had just founded a company named RE-volv, whose mission is to put solar on enterprises exactly like Other Avenues.

RE-volv’s headquarters sits eight miles to the east, nine floors above the honking vehicles on Market Street in downtown San Francisco, surrounded by buildings whose heights and prices rise far above those of Other Avenues. While the host building’s lobby is ornate and old-fashioned, the workplace (shared with the California Clean Energy Fund) has the feel of a Silicon Valley startup, with equations and flowcharts scribbled in black Sharpie on glass. It smells of hand lotion and new furniture, and hosts all three of RE-volv’s current employees.

Karelas leans forward as he lays out the question that he has made it his life goal to address: “What can we actually do about climate change when our leaders are not able to move on it?”

Growing up, he says, he was eager, optimistic and an active environmentalist. With the dawn of what he calls “clicktivism” — sharing, posting and petitioning in massive online efforts — he realized how many people wanted to do something but didn’t know how to channel their passion into tangible change. Karelas himself boasted a B.S. in economics from American University, a dual master’s degree in International Affairs and Natural Resources & Sustainable Development (through a program co-hosted by American University and the UN University for Peace in Costa Rica), and significant work experience in the nonprofit field. He’d also written a thesis on solar energy policy. Yet still he struggled to affect useful action in a powerful youth movement that wanted to address climate change but had no way to do it.

“So often, people are aware about climate change, they know it’s real, yet there’s this huge disconnect. There’s a sense of ‘I can’t do anything about it, I’m just little old me, I’m just one person,’” he explains. “I felt the same thing.” So Karelas searched for answers. He worked with the Center for Resource Solutions in San Francisco in 2007, creating and implementing certifications for houses with clean energy. He spent time at a school for field studies in the Turks and Caicos Islands in the Caribbean putting together solar proposals. He interned at the American Council on Renewable Energy in Washington, D.C., educating himself on the status and growth of national environmental policy. But it was in the explosion of Kiva and online micro-donations that he found his true inspiration, and in 2011 Karelas founded RE-volv.

The concept is simple yet innovative: a revolving seed fund that uses donations to finance a solar project at a nonprofit or cooperative. RE-volv takes care of the hard work, organizing a month-long crowdfunding campaign to raise enough money (generally around $50,000) from accumulated small donations to set up a solar array. It shoulders the upfront cost, and covers the setup, operation and maintenance of the system for 20 years. It even guarantees the amount of electricity that the system will provide annually. If the panels’ production falls short of projections at year’s end, RE-volv pays the difference. In return, the recipient pays RE-volv a monthly lease payment that is 15 percent less than what it would have paid its utility (Pacific Gas & Electric, in the case of Other Avenues). After 20 years, the community center takes ownership of the panels, and all subsequent electricity generated is totally free.

The novelty, however, lies in the investment return. Instead of taking the interest paid on the solar panels’ lease as profit, or returning it to the original donors, RE-volv reinvests the money in new solar projects with their own crowdfunding campaigns. In this “pay it forward model,” one project’s stream of lease payments can spawn three or four new projects over a 20-year span. Thus, the seed fund acts as a self-sustaining and growing entity, even if donations lag. In fact, once RE-volv completes 100 projects, Karelas claims, it will be able to pay for a full new project every three or four weeks without ever crowdfunding another dollar. And its website allows its donors to track every dollar that they spend on a project and to choose which additional projects they want that dollar (plus its interest) to fund next — the interactive aspect.

“Even if you donate $5, you can see that $5 go toward a project and reduce carbon emissions,” Karelas explains. “It gives you a direct impact, but it also connects you to a community of people who are crowdfunding together.”

RE-volv’s model exists as a middle ground between other creative means of giving solar to community-based nonprofits. On one end of the spectrum, the investment model allows investors to put money into a solar project and receive returns over time through lease payments, making a profit. Companies such as Collective Sun, Village Power and Divvy use this model as win-win for investors and nonprofits. Meanwhile, nonprofits like Everybody Solar simply allow communities to donate to a solar project that is given free to a community center, acting more as a charity and less as a business. “We’re the only nonprofit that’s combined crowdfunding solar with the revolving fund,” Karelas says, smiling. “That’s what’s so powerful about this model: it takes advantage of compounding interest to create a positive feedback loop. That’s our special sauce.”

It’s easy to envision donations pouring in from the surrounding neighborhood for a community-based solar project: a few dollars from the regular customers at Other Avenues, a few more from nearby solar enthusiasts, and a final portion from RE-volv donors. Such a project might draw some outside attention, but one would expect the majority of the money to come from local sources.

This assumption could not be further from the truth. Only about 10 to 15 percent of the investment for a project comes from within the community; the rest pours in from sources up to thousands of miles away.

Over its first three projects, RE-volv has received about a thousand donations. They came from people in 38 states in the U.S. and 22 countries around the world. “Which totally blows my mind,” Karelas says. “We’ve had donations from Cyprus, from Nigeria, from the Philippines. Why are these people donating to put solar on, I don’t know, a dance center in Berkeley?”

Andreas explains that most people are interested in the program’s interactive and pay-it-forward aspects. Even with an average donation size of only $75, the quantity and diversity of payments has allowed RE-volv’s first three projects to be funded in full.

The first, the Shawl-Anderson Dance Center in Berkeley — a nonprofit aimed at youth empowerment through dance — was a 10-kilowatt installation that covers all of the center’s electricity needs. Next, RE-volv crowdfunded $50,000 for a 22-kilowatt system at the Kehilla Community Synagogue in Piedmont. Other Avenues, the company’s largest project thus far, is expected to save $300,000 in electricity costs over 20 years.

Currently, RE-volv is in the midst of three installations that are farther afield: the Isla Vista Food Cooperative near Santa Barbara, the Riverwest Food Cooperative in Milwaukee and the Serenity House (a community outreach center) in Philadelphia.

With its initial success, RE-volv is expanding rapidly. It has a revamped website to roll out its own crowdfunding platform (rather than relying on Indiegogo). It is well underway with its college ambassador program, in which teams of three to six students at schools across the country can apply to be trained and launch their own campaigns with local partners. Already, students at Villanova, Swarthmore, Dayton, Wisconsin and UC Santa Barbara are pursuing projects with nonprofits ranging from nature centers to synagogues. In this way, RE-volv can outsource the campaigning, press releases and fundraising to interested students while simultaneously training the next generation of solar leaders.

“The whole point is about empowering people, people who care about the environment, who want to take action,” Karelas says. “Let’s give them a simple way to do something about climate change.”

In the late 1970s, when hippies and radicals thronged the streets of San Francisco, a group of households in the Sunset District became disenchanted with supermarkets and strived to obtain their own food. They began to circulate leaflets with guidelines for buying fresh, organic and local produce, and banded together to form buyer’s clubs so they could purchase food at wholesale prices and distribute it among the members. They called this Bay Area-based movement the Food Conspiracy.

Other Avenues grew from a garage enterprise of Food Conspirators into a storefront business and stood by its values even as hundreds of food cooperatives grew and fell around it. For years it struggled on the cusp of bankruptcy, but community loans and surges in customers allowed it to keep its doors open, buy the property and expand its staff base to over 20 worker-owners. Today, they preserve what they call the “legacy of the People’s Food System” by buying organic, sustainable and fairly traded products, and educating their customers on the importance of their buying choices.

For Dea, solar energy was a natural next step for Other Avenues, even in foggy coastal San Francisco. The food cooperative’s solar array has reduced its monthly payments to PG&E from $1,700 to $30 every month, and even including its payments to RE-volv, it comes out well below its original electricity bill. Now, Dea is focused on educating those who think solar isn’t possible in such a notoriously overcast area. Other Avenues and RE-volv periodically co-host education events to help spread the word about the possibilities of solar in San Francisco.

Dea points toward the front of the store as he recalls the 45-day campaign to raise money for Other Avenues’ solar system. “We had a physical thermometer there in our front window,” he says, raising his voice to be heard over the bustle at the checkout counter. The strategy for putting solar on Other Avenues was what Karelas describes as a “full-court press,” with a strong online presence, national outreach, media coverage and community engagement. When donations lagged, Karelas gave the project a shot in the arm by tapping into his core group of donors, who agreed to match any other donations for a short period of time. Other Avenues did what it could from the store’s end, and planned two weekends in which 10 percent of the store’s proceeds went to the fund. Customers wrote checks when they found out about it.

Dea smiles broadly as he recalls the highlight of the campaign. “Someone was like, ‘Hey, why don’t you try tweeting?’ So I opened a Twitter account and tweeted at every possible person — celebrities, sports stars, anyone who I thought had disposable money. And then, I actually got one person to retweet me!” He laughs, drawing chuckles from the other workers in the room. “I got a retweet from Ed Begley, Jr.! That was the highlight of my tweeting career.”

(Homepage photo of Tonto Apache Tribe building in Arizona courtesy of U.S. Department of Energy.)

Alan Propp is a Stanford undergraduate completing his degree in human biology with a concentration in “Human Interactions with the Environment,” and starting a M.A. in environmental communication. His work has explored both global and local environmental issues, and he hopes in the future to continue his focus on innovative pathways to renewable energy. Since coming to Stanford, Alan has traveled extensively, taking a class in the Peruvian Amazon Rainforest, studying abroad in Australia and working with NGO’s in Washington, D.C. and Ghana. Outside of his work, his passions include soccer, volleyball, piano, working with Camp Kesem (a camp for children whose parents have cancer) and traveling.

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