Monday, September 11, 2017

How to Scale Social Impact Investing Into Solar Energy

Social impact investing is undeniably becoming a major force in finance. It drives capital into triple bottom line projects that make investors' wallets fatter and ordinary people's lives better. It's time to drive more of this capital into alternative energy, particularly the solar power sector. We can do this right here in San Francisco.

The big hurdle in getting the nonprofit sector into the solar sector's pipeline is its inability to use the tax credits that for-profit companies use to buy solar power. Nonprofits trying to buy a solar installation would need a cost of capital close to zero. There are ways to get this done. RE-volv uses crowdfunded donations to purchase solar equipment for non-profits, enabling donors to realize the tax savings that are denied to non-profits. Angaza offers pay-as-you-go financing for solar installers in emerging markets.

I can think of some additional approaches to move adoption along. Any social impact outreach to emerging markets should include mobile payments, particularly mPeza in Africa. The UNFCCC Secretariat recognizes that vertically integrated solar providers using pay-as-you-go financing have an advantage in building off-grid energy systems.

The federal government does its part to help nonprofits afford solar energy. The NREL community solar policy analysis and downloadable scenario tool are useful for communities weighing their financial options. The DOE SunShot initiative now incorporates community and shared solar resources. The EPA's RE-Powering initiative designates repurposed sites a nonprofit can use for generation, and its Green Power Communities are obvious growth markets for solar power. Linking all of these data sources into a coherent business plan should be an imperative for any nonprofit pushing a solar energy installation.

The nonprofit sector is still a largely untapped market for renewable energy. Creative subsidies that push social capital into this sector expand the potential customer base for utilities and others seeking to build out distributed generation. A more resilient power grid is a very desirable goal for policymakers. Impact investing brings that goal closer.