Things to Watch: 1.21 Gigawatts With RE-volv, Part 2

In the first part our interview with Andreas Karelas, Executive Director of RE-volv, who was fresh off of completing his second project at the Kehilla Community Synagogue, he let us in on his revolving funding model, why he chose solar, the U.S.’s energy infrastructure, and sketched a picture of a 100% renewable energy infrastructure. The first part can be found here.

SN: I noticed a lifestyle value-shift while living here in Europe. The quality of life is significantly higher and there’s more of a focus on what type of society is being built. So it makes sense that there’s more of a focus on better social welfare, more concern for the environment. Where my mom lives in Ohio, they just began recycling maybe two years ago, and it’s still kind of a big deal. In my neighborhood here, recycling is more accessible; there are bins for glass, plastic, paper, and clothes about 100 meters from my door.

AK: And that’s the main thing: we need to shift from being more concerned with growth and materialism to experiencing the quality of life. For example, becoming vegan or vegetarian, or growing your own food in your garden, is a shift that needs to happen and is something I feel strongly about. RE-volv may, in the future, include more of this type of outreach in our work, but since this is my first venture, I feel like I have to keep an extremely laser-sharp focus on our specific objectives. But it would be great if more climate groups sat down and talked more about issues like adopting a vegetarian diet, particularly since the United Nations figured out that more greenhouse gas emissions come from livestock than from transportation. 

SN: Yes, meat production has a devastating effect on the environment, which is one of the reasons I became a vegetarian. I felt like I could do something about the problem through making this change in my lifestyle.

AK: Yes, and for me solar energy is a great starting point for a lot of these conversations because it’s something that most people can get behind right away. And that’s because, in most parts of the world, it’s going to save people money right away.

SN: And that’s my question, because we’re both very privileged, but there are people in other parts of the world who are energy poor and that’s also an issue. Because it’s all well-and-good that I can go solar with a Western income, but it’s also important that it’s accessible to those with lower incomes, or lack of income, for that matter.

AK: In most places in the U.S. where people are already hooked up to the grid, there are solar leasing companies like Solar City, Sungevity, and SunRun that offer leases similar to RE-volv. These companies pay the upfront costs for the install, meaning at no cost to the customer. The monthly bills are paid to the solar company and end up being around 15% less.

However, even in places that don’t have the grid, like in parts of the developing world, where large numbers of people use kerosene or a diesel generator to light their homes, solar still ends up being significantly cheaper. Diesel fuel and kerosene in those parts of the world are extremely expensive, and people consistently have to bear these costs. A small solar energy system, on the other hand, can be financed or purchased relatively inexpensively and people can have free light for 30 years. There’s a group called Elephant Energy in Namibia*, and one of the things they do is they finance these small solar systems—for example, a solar panel, a light bulb, and a battery—that cost around 300 USD. However, since many people don’t have 300 USD, they set up a financed system where customers pay a few dollars a month through their mobile phone. If for whatever reason a customer can’t make a monthly payment, then their power is shut off until they settle the outstanding amount. After a year or two it’s paid off. So there’s actually a ton of innovation going into this whole area. The potential is huge.

SN: That is great, but for a lot of people this may seem too good to be true. My question for you is how would you convince someone who would be more skeptical of your cost-saving argument to go solar?

AK: First of all, again, in a lot of places in the country [The U.S.]  there are solar leasing options available where you put zero down, you get solar, and you save 15%. For most people, it’s a no-brainer and they’ll do it.

 For people who don’t have access to financing or a solar leasing provider, even if they pay for it up front, in California at least, the average solar system costs around 9,000 USD for a home.

SN: So it doesn’t cost that much, but most people don’t have that kind of expendable income, especially not the kind that is earmarked for solar.

AK: Exactly, not everyone’s going to have the funds. But if you do there is a significant return on the investment because after about eight or nine years you’ve paid off your electric, and this system that you now own is going to keep producing power for another 30 years. Alongside this free energy, solar also increases the value of your home. Furthermore, you could also install a battery for electricity storage, so in the event of a power outage you could not only have power when your neighbors don’t, but provide power for other households.

The last thing is that it’s also energy independence; this is homegrown energy, right here in the United States.


* Elephant Energy is based in Denver, Colorado and also works in the Navajo Nation.