Running on sun… by proxy?

On several occasions, I’ve visited businesses that are known for their sustainability work, and I’ve seen that they don’t have all the ‘eco’ features that you might expect. Why don’t they have solar panels? A rainwater collection system? Light pipes? (There are quite a lot of other architectural improvements I might list.) The reason they can’t have these things is often because they’re working out of rented premises, and this means they can’t put in all the equipment that they might otherwise have done.

Some ‘eco’ businesses choose to buy their energy on a tariff that promises renewable generation, in an effort to regain some of the lost ground. That reduces the damage to their ‘green’ image a little, but… what if you could have solar panels by proxy? Who says a solar panel has to be on the roof of your building, just because you funded its installation? Energy is just a commodity, readily fed into the grid and then used wherever it’s needed. Money – the return on your solar investment – is even more readily stored and transmitted.

Understand this: the big ‘sustainability crunch’ of the early 21st century is going to be all about energy. We’re facing a crisis because a succession of UK governments have failed to face up to difficult, long-term questions. Issues such as energy security (what to do if that nice Mr Putin decides to cut gas supplies next winter) and climate change (the extent to which we can afford to disregard our Kyoto Protocol obligations) have to vie with popularity (few people vote for the party that puts a nuclear power station in their neighbourhood) and simple economics.

Renewable energy is interesting to some, although in many cases the payback period is formidable. It’ll be interesting to see if investment in renewables harms liquidity in the years to come, but even if a person or business has money to spend and is entirely happy for it to be tied up for decades, not everyone can join in the ‘dash’ for renewables.

Piggy bank, and solar panels

Solar energy: money for nothing, or the longest of long-haul investments?

Would I want to have an array of solar panels on the roof of my home in rainy Yorkshire, looking desperately out of place on a 200-year-old building? Not really – and since it doesn’t have a south-facing roof, its energy-generating potential is somewhat limited. Despite all this, the investor in me is attracted to the idea of putting my money into a renewable energy scheme.

Enter CloudSolar, slogan: “No roof? No problem.” Given the negative effect that cloud cover has upon solar generation, the name is obviously one of those immune to irony things, but the basic premise is intriguing: just because you want to buy a solar panel, why should you have to find a place for it? Instead, buy a micro-share in a solar farm and have them take care of siting and maintaining it.

Solar panels on a home

Environmentally sound. Aesthetically… not so good!

CloudSolar take a 20% cut for what they do, and they plan to send you a payment (the other 80% of the money received for the sale of ‘your’ electricity) every three months for twenty-five years.

Each panel, rated at 250 watts, is priced at US$750. (Is that good? A quick search suggests that a branded 250W panel currently goes for about £207/$325 on the Internet, but that’s for the panel itself, without the associated equipment, the installation, or the place to put it.) For those with a different amount to invest, CloudSolar offer discounts on multiple panels, and half- and quarter-sized ones are also available. A key feature of the deal is that you own the panels that you buy; if circumstances change, it seems you can claim your property back. Meanwhile, the panels are guaranteed for twenty-five years, after which they can remain in place as long as they function. That 20% fee also covers them against theft, and damage.

This could be huge. Even if people only manage to invest a small amount, a sufficient number of citizens could put a big hole in carbon emissions from electricity generation. If CloudSolar are right in their claim that over 25 years, one of their panels will deliver enough electricity to run an average household for seven months, that means you’d need 43 of the things in order to operate a carbon neutral home. (In simplistic terms, not including however many more you’d need to offset the carbon from the manufacture, installation and servicing of your share of the solar farm…) Still, it’s a start; and 43 CloudSolar panels would only cost you $32,250… which isn’t much money, compared to the price of a house nowadays. (The average UK house price is around £192,000, which is $303,000.) Best of all, they’re not just asking people to give up all that money in order to be ‘green’; they’re inviting them to make an investment that pays real dividends.

CloudSolar promotional information

CloudSolar don’t guarantee a return on investment, but their business model is refreshingly different [image: CloudSolar]

The technology is nothing new, but the business model is intriguing – and far better than those ‘plant a tree to offset your guilt’ schemes that are just about completely unregulated.

I’m not suggesting that any reader should pursue the CloudSolar option: like any major investment, you ought to speak to your financial advisor before you take the plunge. Might CloudSolar go bust? I have to wonder if they’d prove to be like every double glazing firm I’ve ever done business with; you know, the ones that close down around the time that the warranty claims begin…

Are they offering a reasonable deal? You’d have to get a professional to read the small print. The currently unspecified charges for having CloudSolar remove your panels and ship them to you might come as a nasty surprise; I really couldn’t say. Also, while you’re free to invest in an American solar farm if you want to, you might find that there are financial incentives to a home-grown solar solution: if you’re in the UK you should have a look at the Energy Saving Trust’s information.

A setback for CloudSolar came when crowdfunding service Indiegogo shut down their campaign, refunding over $440,000 to the backers. This was because the CloudSolar campaign breached Indiegogo rules by inviting backers to participate in a profit-sharing scheme… but what had originally been a successful campaign, comfortably exceeding its target, seems likely to resurface. Even if crowdfunding doesn’t offer a route to investment, it’s clear that a lot of people want what they’re offering.

Solar enthusiast homeowners who have a suitable roof might also want to investigate A Shade Greener, whose business model is to fit solar panels entirely free: this means that they benefit from the governmental feed-in tariff, not you… but when you’re in the house you get to use whatever the panels deliver for free – and the rest of the time, the surplus electricity they sell is at least preventing some greenhouse gas emissions.

So many different business models! I suspect that the price of grid electricity can only head upwards for the next couple of decades as the older nuclear and perhaps coal plants get decommissioned; running on sun (one way or another) is looking increasingly attractive, and it’s becoming easier to do, at last.

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