21 January 2014

Can Crowdfunding Help Cleantech Ride the Big Data Wave?

"Big data is a coming wave of 'green gold,'" says Nick Eisenberger of Pure Energy Partners."Information technology will be the most powerful tool to address resource challenges in our lifetime."

Eisenberger was speaking at the Markle Foundation offices in New York, where Agrion, which bills itself as the global network for energy, cleantech and corporate sustainability, convened an impressive roundtable to talk about advances in funding new ideas and uncovering innovation for energy and sustainability.

Moderated by Peter Gardnet of Breaking Energy, the panel featured, in addition to Eisenberger, Benjamin Healey of Connecticut's Clean Energy Finance and Investment Authority (CEFIA), Richard Robertson, Solar Energy Business Development Manager with GE Ventures, and Dr. Jon Roberts of the Clean.Data.Project.

"Energy is where the most data is," said Clean.Data.Project's Jon Roberts. And the panelists agreed its where the most opportunities are in energy, improving its generation, use, and efficiency. Yet not all the necessary datasets are open.

"The biggest obstacle is generational," Eisenberger claimed. "The older generation, my generation, is not comfortable with the 'open' in open innovation."

Richard Robertson explained how GE Ventures has invested in Quirky, a crowdsourcing platform for inventors, and has turned to the crowd for help with design and product naming.

The innovation is out there, Robertson suggested. 

"Sungevity has an incubator in their Oakland facility, and Solar Mosaic [the crowfunding platform] is in that incubator,” said Robertson. “Mosaic is looking at not just solar projects, but wind, energy storage. They're putting projects in the ground." 

At least one audience-participant in the Agrion session, a project finance expert, called into question some of the deals Mosaic and others are funding and the stated returns listed on the Mosaic site. "We wouldn't fund those projects," he offered. "It's like charity."

But that's precisely the point made by Mosaic and others, such as alternative financing renewable energy companies SolarCity, SunRun, and United Wind, among others. They are there to fund the deals no one else will, deals that aren't big enough for the big banks, which is a pretty good sized niche.

That is, in fact, why these new models exist.

For those not familiar with the Mosaic model: projects are listed on its online marketplace, which allows investors pick projects to fund and then provide the capital for rooftop solar installations. The investors are repaid once the project is up and running and generating electricity. Their first projects were mostly on affordable housing in California.

The company provides capital to developers at about 5.5 percent and collects a 1 percent fee, according to some sources, returning roughly 4.5 percent.

“To rapidly deploy clean energy, the industry needs access to low cost capital and lots of it,” Mosaic co-founder, Billy Parrish, told Bloomberg News last year. “We are able to source capital from the crowd and lend that capital to clean-energy developers at lower interest rates than they would get from banks.”

Platforms like Mosaic, which seek a large, “democratic” community of engaged funders, as opposed to the elite accredited few, got a boost last year when the SEC released its proposed guidelines about crowdfunding as it relates to the Jumpstart Our Business Startups or JOBS Act.

If the admittedly hand-picked crowd at the Agrion session is any indication, crowdfunding is here to stay.

However, as several roundtable participants suggested, it may be best deployed as part of a mix of financing options.