Solar Mosaic: One tile at a time

31. July 2012 | Markets & Trends, Industry & Suppliers, Top News | By:  Jonathan Gifford

During the Intersolar North America, held in San Francisco July 10-12, pv magazine took the chance to turn the spotlight on some key firms in the City and Bay Area. Part two of our series features "crowdfunding" solar startup, Solar Mosaic.

Coders working on laptops on beanbags at the Solar Mosaic office.

Solar Mosaic weds a digital startup culture with environmental ideals.

Crowdfunding has made a major impact on how creative industries and innovative new products are being funded right around the U.S. Major crowdfunding site Kickstarter had close to US$1 billion dollars pledged last year and almost half the projects pitched got off the ground. Solar Mosaic is turning the model, where individual investors can make small contributions towards a larger project, to the solar field and is set to change how photovoltaics are funded in California and beyond.

Solar Mosaic been called "solar for renters" and will open up the chance to invest in rooftop solar installations to the many millions unable to do so, because they don’t own a suitable property themselves. The company was founded in October 2010 and it pairs online savvy and digital startup values to the solar space.

SpringVentures and a group of anonymous "angel" investors funded Solar Mosaic and Sunil Paul, a founding partner at SpringVentures described the firm as occupying a third space, between green business and tech companies. Coining the phrase "cleanweb", Mosaic has the look and feel of a tech startup, coupled with the values and environmental mission of a green economy firm.

A proof of concept phase, or "beta phase" in startup parlance, raised over $350,000 to install five solar projects on the roofs of community organizations, with over 400 people investing money at zero interest. Already, some of those people are beginning to receive back the money they put in. Mosaic recently raised $2.5 million from venture capital investors and was awarded $2 million from the U.S. Department of Energy to take its crowdfunding solar model to scale.

Due to a mandated "quiet period" from regulatory authorities, Mosaic was unable to comment on its new model, though from its regulatory documents it’s easy to decipher that it is working to offer returns on the solar investments.

pv magazine went inside the Oakland-based firm to found out how it works.

Inside Mosaic

Ping-pong table: Check. Table foosball: Check. Bean bags: Check. On entering the Solar Mosaic offices, on the banks of the San Francisco Bay in Oakland, the classic Internet startup props are all in place. In the modern office space, which is flooded with sunlight on a warm Friday afternoon, Solar Mosaic’s small team tap away at MacBooks in a quiet but casual atmosphere.

With the weekend only minutes away, you could be forgiven for thinking that people would be packing up and planning how to spend their free time. But on this afternoon a quiet industriousness is the only mood. "We’re a committed bunch," explains Lisa Curtis, who goes by the title of community builder.

The notion of a community is central to the Mosaic concept. In the company’s proof-of-concept phase, a community of photovoltaic micro-investors was formed and in the forthcoming full commercial phase, a wider community will be offered the chance to invest in solar, this time for profit.

It was also important for the Mosaic team, that the non-profit organizations which received the installations were also community-based organizations. "We were careful to select organizations that serve low income communities and communities of color and by doing this diversify participation in photovoltaics," explains the lively Curtis.

Mosaic’s model is that the initial investment in the array will be paid off by the organizations, as they pay Solar Mosaic for the power produced by the photovoltaic array. Over time, the array will pay for itself and the individual investors can reap the rewards. The organizations receiving the installations, which included The Asian Resource Center, the People’s Grocery and the Murdoch Community Center and St Vincent de Paul of Alameda County, will save on their power bills over time. Curtis estimates savings to be in the region of $600,000 over 20 years. For non-profit organizations, "they don’t have huge budgets, this is a really big deal!"

Community comes first

Which firms Mosaic contracted to carry out the installations were also important, as a part of the startup’s community engagement values. Mosaic chose installers with long histories in solar but also who employed staff through Green Jobs training programs. This helps some find "steady jobs in the growing green economy, which has a positive impact on entire communities," says Curtis.

While there is little the Mosaic team can say about this next stage, because of the mandated "quiet period", the model looks to be one which could open up solar investment in a whole new way. Solar Mosaic estimates that only 22 to 27 percent of rooftop area in the U.S. is suitable for a photovoltaic array, as many rent, some households don’t have a credit rating suitable to borrow the funds for an array and others just don’t have suitable roofs.

Key, it seems, to the success of the model will the security and ease of use of the company’s website. This is where the tech-savvy principles and skill-set of the Bay Area may come in handy. The Mosaic team is currently 14 people strong, with a third being backend engineers, working to ensure the site operates cleanly and efficiently and users can have confidence in it.

As to the timing of this second stage, much depends on securities regulators, which must access the model and Mosaic itself, to ensure that everything is above board. Mosaic hopes that approval will be given in the coming months and as of now interested investors can register on the Mosaic site. "I hope everyone who is interested will check out our website and sign up," says Curtis, adding "We promise not to spam you, but to pleasantly surprise you with good news. Additionally, everyone who signs up now at solarmosaic.com will have early access to our platform before we publicly launch."

Solar Mosaic was the developer of the first five beta installations, however its second phase will see the startup only work on the financing side. As such, explains Curtis: "Solar developers, please do contact us."

In the beta phase, investments of as little as $25 were the starting point to buy a share of the photovoltaic array and the Mosaic team say that making investments small and affordable, is a part of their mission to democratize photovoltaics. "We’re building a way for everyone to participate in creating more solar energy," says Curtis and a recent $2 million grant for the U.S. Department of Energy is a sign that there is confidence in the model through to the governmental level.


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