When 120 gleaming panels, each one the size of a ping pong table, are hoisted onto its roof next month, Oakland Chinatown’s thirty-year-old Asian Resource Center will become the first organization in the city to take advantage of an innovative solar energy financing program aimed at connecting people with solar projects in their community.
“Our goal is to open the floodgates to investment in solar energy,” said Lisa Curtis, a project manager at Solar Mosaic, the Berkeley-based solar energy financing company that developed the new model for using small personal investments to fund solar projects on the roofs of nonprofit organizations active in serving their communities. “If we can do it in Oakland, we can do it anywhere,” Curtis said.
Founded in October 2010 by Danny Rosen, Arthur Coulston and Billy Parish, Berkeley-based Solar Mosaic is using Oakland as a proving ground to test for the first time its model of this crowd-funded community solar, with plans to finance five to seven projects, of which the Asian Resource Center (ARC) project is the first.
Solar Mosaic is a relatively new addition to a number of incentive programs intended to help Oakland residents go solar, including Energy Upgrade California, California Solar Initiative and Sungevity. But whereas those programs help residential or business owners put solar installations on their own homes or businesses, Solar Mosaic’s model allows people who want to invest in solar but don’t have the right kind of roof, don’t own property or just can’t afford their own system to buy a share in a community solar project—and, the idea goes, eventually collect returns on the investment.
It works like this: A person invests in a community solar project by buying one or more “tiles.” A tile is not a physical solar panel, but rather a symbol representing a $100 share in that community solar project. Once a project reaches a target number of crowd-funded tiles, the installation of solar panels can begin. The community organization receiving the solar project signs a 20-year lease with Solar Mosaic for use of the panels, in which it agrees to pay Solar Mosaic for the power it gets from them, but at a lower rate than what a utility company would otherwise charge. The community organization thus benefits by saving on energy costs and when it pays Solar Mosaic, Solar Mosaic can turn around and pay back investors.
The idea is that this crowd-funding model relieves organizations from having to provide huge upfront costs. The arrangement allows Solar Mosaic to offer leases with zero-interest rate financing, as compared to bank rates which often run in the three to five percent range.
With a lease signed last month and construction scheduled to begin in the next two weeks, the ARC project is set to be the first in the Solar Mosaic pilot program to move beyond the planning stage. The project, which will entail installing 120 panels in three different arrays on the roof of the two-story, 45,000 square-foot building, is projected to cost around $150,000. Tile sales—623 of which have been sold so far—will help pay the total costs, along with help from a donor who has asked to remain anonymous but has so far contributed more than $360,000 to the Solar Mosaic projects in Oakland, Curtis said.
The ARC installation is designed to generate 28.8 kilowatt hours, or enough electricity to power seven homes, during a single day. According to Curtis, this should mean $112,000 in energy costs savings for the building over the next twenty years. The project is also supposed to provide more work for the employees of Sun Light and Power, a solar installation company that aims to hire 30 percent of its personnel from green workforce development programs in the East Bay, and were contracted by Solar Mosaic for the ARC project installation.
The Asian Resource Center, located in the heart of Oakland’s Chinatown, is home to ten commercial tenants and nine nonprofits that provide services ranging from mental health care to resources for immigrants and refugees. It’s a two-story former warehouse that currently buys its power from the Pacific Gas and Energy Corporation (PG&E) and is owned by an affordable housing developer and community outreach group called the East Bay Asian Local Development Corporation (EBALDC). Nine of EBALDC’s buildings have already been outfitted with solar. But this time, said EBALDC’s Erick Swenson, the group decided to take advantage of Solar Mosaic’s financing pilot.
“The relationship between Solar Mosaic and EBALDC was one that began, quite naturally, as part of a community information session,” said Swenson, the East Bay Asian group’s fundraising and communications director. “It really is a great match.”
Solar Mosaic is partnering with the Ella Baker Center, a human rights and environmental activism nonprofit in North Oakland, to find organizations that serve low-income communities and communities of color, and might be good sites for future solar projects. Among the groups that have expressed interest and are being considered for Solar Mosaic projects are St. Vincent DePaul, People’s Grocery, East Side Arts Alliance, East Oakland Boxing Association, Intertribal Friendship House, Laney College and Youth Uprising. “It was one of those things where no one wanted to be first,” Curtis said. “But once these organizations recognized that they could save money while helping the environment and creating jobs in their communities, there was a lot of interest.”
Plans for these future Solar Mosaic community projects range in cost and size, from a handful of five to ten kW projects to one project that would generate 50 kW daily, with the average project costing around $50,000. While these plans are still in the development stage, Curtis remains hopeful that the Oakland pilot program will prove that Solar Mosaic’s model works and that people want to support solar in their communities.
A groundbreaking ceremony at the Asian Resource Center is planned for sometime in mid-October. An exact date has yet to be confirmed. Visit Solar Mosaic’s website for more information.