Things To Watch: 1.21 Gigawatts With RE-volv, Part 4

In the third of our four-part interview with Andreas Karelas, Executive Director of RE-volv, we spoke about competition for scarce resources, Gandhi, Martin Luther King Jr., Hermann Scheer, and how solar will change the fabric of society.

If you haven’t read the first three parts, you can catch up here.

The fourth and final part is below.

SN: A question about RE-volv’s projects. You’ve done two projects—the dance center and the synagogue—and you fund your projects through crowdfunding. Do the clients come to you or you to them?

AK: It goes both ways. For our first project, the Shawl-Anderson Dance Center, we went to them. I heard they were interested in going solar from another solar company, reached out to them, and they came on board. The people at the Kehilla Community Synagogue read an article about us in the newspaper and gave us a call. We’ve gotten a number of other proposals, some churches have contacted us, and for others I approached potential clients. For example, there’s a cooperative grocery store I go to and I approached them and they are interested, so we’re putting a proposal together.*

SN: It sounds like you have enough work on your plate, then.

AK: We do, we definitely have a couple more projects. In fact, recently, since we finished the Kehilla Community Synagogue, I’m getting a number of phone calls every day from people wanting to find out about doing projects. I think the big question for us is how to scale this model quickly and get more people involved in the crowdfunding and in the movement-side of RE-volv so we can continue to develop.

SN: You have a lot of “good” problems. You also have to grow the pool of funds before you can start really earning interest on it. Have you had trouble crowdfunding so far?

AK: That’s a good question. The first effort went smoothly. Our goal was 10,000 USD and we hit the goal halfway through the campaign, ending up raising a total of 15,000 USD, which was awesome. It blew us out of the water how much people came out and supported us. For the second one, our goal was 55,000 USD and we ended up raising 56,000 USD, and that one was more of a nail-biter. We were going into the last couple of weeks with a pretty big margin to go and even the last couple days we still had a long way to go, but that’s the thing with crowdfunding: a lot of people come in in the last few days.

These experiences made us realize the limits of crowdfunding and that it doesn’t just take off on its own like you would hope. Your network is key. So for future campaigns, we’re going to have to strategically partner with other groups to widen our potential resource pool. This is what we’re busy with now.

 SN: This is great. It seems to me that you have enough interest to sustain your business—it’s good that you don’t have to chase people down.

AK: People love it. It’s a great win for them—they save a lot of money—and other solar companies won’t work with non-profits because there’s tax credit issues.

SN: Really?

AK: Yes, much of the solar industry is either focused on residential homes or sizable commercial buildings with large roofs. The reason why is because both of these customers get a federal tax credit, which is worth about 30% of the system cost. If you’re a non-profit, you don’t pay taxes, so you don’t get a tax credit. These small projects don’t make companies a lot of money, and without that tax credit it’s just too much of a hassle for the big solar companies. Hence, a lot of these community centers, churches, and schools want to go solar and there aren’t that many providers that are operating in that space. This is the space RE-volv operates in, and these small enterprises often want to work with another non-profits and like the fact that it’s not just helping themselves, but helping the next three community centers go solar.

SN: It’s not often that I look at a model that’s actually fair and equitable—this could actually work. Is that scary for you, because it’s so convincing in itself that it’s almost fool-proof? Are you scared it’s not going to work out?

AK: Honestly, you’re hitting on a subject that’s super close to home right now. I’m not scared that it’s not going to work, but there’s nervousness about how this all works and how to go from where it is to where I see it going. Despite this, I have faith that everything will work out because we have a great crowdfunding model that is coming at a time where this type of solar financing is gaining momentum, and because this is a good thing for the world. And, honestly, every entrepreneur knows you have to approach projects knowing they could fail. Even if this project does fail, I’ve still learned a lot from the experience. I’ve also made a lot of good connections, met a lot of great people, and I’ll use this information to go on to the next thing. It’s exactly like Thomas Edison. He tinkered with the light bulb for how many years? He failed time and time again until he figured it out. I’m 31-years-old and in my life, partly just because the time I’m living in, I see no greater use of my time than trying to avert and mitigate climate change and promote this renewable energy powered world that we’ve talked about. So that’s what I’m doing with my life. If RE-volv is the vehicle for a short time and then I do something else, great. I’ve got no qualms either way.

You can find out more about RE-volv here.

* Update: since the time of this interview, RE-volv and the Other Avenues Food Cooperative in San Francisco have signed a contract for a 36kW solar energy system. The crowdfunding campaign will launch in January. Read more about the project here.