Here’s How You Can Put Solar Panels on Your School for Free

A California company is helping finance photovoltaic arrays for community projects that attract local support.

(Photo: Robert Nickelsberg/Getty Images)

Jun 18, 2014· 2 MIN READ
Todd Woody is TakePart's editorial director, environment.

Here’s a way to put solar panels on your kid’s school, your church, or your library without holding a bake sale or badgering strangers for donations at the local Whole Foods: Just go to Mosaic Places, find a project you like, and click to show your “support.”

For every 50 supporters a project attracts, Mosaic, an Oakland, Calif., startup that finances renewable-energy projects, will donate $100 toward installing a rooftop photovoltaic array. The donations max out at $14,000 and are designed to help community groups attract financing to fill in any cash shortfalls when going solar.

“A community can now bring tangible proof of support and some extra cash to building owners when asking them to put solar on it,” Billy Parish, Mosaic’s chief executive, told TakePart in an email. “Solar installers will be able to take on more customers due to the extra funding from Mosaic Places. Even a couple thousand dollars can make a difference between a solar installation being financeable by a loan or power purchase agreement.”

“It’s based on our belief that every building can go solar if the community is behind it,” he added in a statement.

If that sounds more like the words of an activist than an entrepreneur, it’s because Parish and his Mosaic co-founder, Dan Rosen, were climate change rabble-rousers before they decided to pursue social change by democratizing the financing of solar projects.

Investing in renewable energy projects had been the exclusive province of big banks and corporations like Google, with no opportunity for ordinary investors to support or profit from the explosive growth in solar energy in the United States in recent years.

To give mom-and-pop investors a piece of the green-energy action, Mosaic built an online crowdfunding site that allows anyone to shop for projects and put in as little as $25 for a guaranteed rate of return, usually between 4.5 percent to 6.5 percent. (Investors hang on to their money until a deal is fully financed.) The solar developer pays back the loan with interest from revenues produced by selling electricity to its customers. Mosaic makes its money by taking a cut of the interest payment as well as from other fees.

In April, Mosaic began crowdfunding solar loans to finance photovoltaic installations for homeowners. The company bundles the 20-year loans and lets investors—who may be your neighbors—buy a piece of the portfolio. Homeowners get a no-money-down loan to go solar with a 4.99 percent interest rate—cheaper than what they’d pay a bank—and investors get a rate of return far higher than what a certificate of deposit pays out.

Mosaic Places launched Tuesday, and the site is designed to be more philanthropic, though it’s hardly a solely altruistic effort. “Places is a product designed to drive customer acquisition,” said Parish, putting on his CEO hat.

The donations are “paid out of our marketing budget and will generate more business for us than the program costs,” he noted. “We’d rather spend that budget funding solar projects than on Google or Facebook ads.”

Mosaic has seeded the site with 300,000 potential projects across the U.S.—mainly schools, churches, libraries, senior centers, and the like. If you don’t see your local school, you can nominate it to be included on the list.

I searched for Malcolm X Elementary—yeah, I live in Berkeley—and doing my part to put solar panels on my son’s old school was as easy as clicking a button. (If you’re not a member of Mosaic, you can sign in via Facebook, though you’ll give Mosaic access to your email address, birthday, and location.)

So far, you can’t donate money yourself to a project, but Parish said Mosaic would consider adding such a feature if people request it.