Nonprofits Are Going Solar With Recoverable Grants

Consider it a pay-it-forward model for solar energy.

A solar installation for Harbor House, a nonprofit community development organization in Oakland.
A solar installation for Harbor House, a nonprofit community development organization in Oakland.


A few years ago, we wrote about the Leonardo DiCaprio Foundation offering match funding for donations to RE-volv, a crowdfunding platform aimed at helping nonprofits go solar. While any form of new funding for solar is exciting, the goal of explicitly assisting non-profits — which are not able to benefit from current tax credits — seemed particularly worthy of note.

The scale at the time, however, was not exactly huge. In fact, RE-volv’s list of completed projects was probably still in the high single figures. According to a press release; however, that now appears to be changing for the San Francisco-based startup: “In RE-volv’s first 9 years, we built under $1 million worth of solar. With additional investment in the past year, the team has closed over $10 million worth of solar through 45 projects in 10 states totaling 3MW of solar power that will be online by the end of this year.”

Intrigued by this sudden burst of activity, Treehugger spoke to RE-volv founder and executive director Andreas Karelas to learn a little more about where RE-volv has been and where it is headed. He tells us the shift in scale coincides with a rethinking of the organization’s finance model.

“In our early years, we were seeking to raise money through crowdfunding — and the matched funds from the Leonardo DiCaprio Foundation did help us to install many of our early projects," explains Karelas. "What we found, however, was that the crowdfunding model had hit a plateau. So as we were trying to build bigger projects and raise more money, and our solar ambassadors were getting more project leads of non-profits who were interested in going solar, it was getting harder and harder to raise the capital.” 

Facing challenges with crowdfunding, RE-volv started looking at recoverable grants as a potentially more scalable option. These are giving vehicles that offer donors the opportunity to recoup their funds, plus a small return, so they can re-grant those same dollars to another cause — a "pay-it-forward model for solar energy."

“Foundations essentially offer us a grant, which we promise to pay back with a little interest if we are successful," says Karelas. "What this really amounts to is borrowing money at below-market rates, which then allows us to finance solar for non-profits and offer them energy savings from day one. As such, we have this triple impact where we are directly deploying clean energy, supporting the mission of a non-profit by saving them money and recycling money back into foundations too.”

This model attracted the attention of a former RE-volv donor, whose company, Trisolaris, made a $10 million commitment. According to Karelas, the team at RE-volv initially expected to deploy this money at a rate of about $2-3 million per year, and yet what they found was an explosive growth in demand from non-profits.

“We were so successful that we closed $10 million in the last year," he says. "As much as 2020 was a train wreck, it was an incredible year of growth for us. We deployed more solar than we had in the past decade… by tenfold. And while that initial investment partnership has ended, we now know — and are able to show to other potential investors — that we can deploy $10 million very quickly, and be successful doing so.”

Now RE-volv is looking to replicate this success, with a goal of raising another $10 million in the next six months, which it will deploy in the next 12 to 18 months. And once that has been achieved, Karelas says the next round of funding will likely be closer to $15-20 million.

Even at this rapidly growing scale, there is far more demand than RE-volv is ever likely to be able to meet alone. But what the ultimate goal really is, says Karelas, is to change the story around solar and who gets to benefit: 

“We are very focused on low-income communities, communities of color, disadvantaged communities, and those who have been traditionally left out of the solar opportunity," he says. "That’s because a big part of our mission is to demonstrate that it is possible to finance projects in communities that have been left out. Over time we can demonstrate that we are able to finance these projects, and hopefully, that will unlock capital from other sources too.” 

In an effort to raise awareness and reach out to potential funders, RE-volv is hosting a webinar on May 4th with a philanthropic advisor from the impact investing platform CapShift to discuss recoverable grants and the RE-volv “Solar For All” investment opportunity. Anyone interested in attending can register here.