Back in April, President Obama signed the Jumpstart Our Business Startups Act (the JOBS Act), and one of the most heralded elements was so-called crowdfunding. The law sought to solve a major problem: It’s hard to finance small-scale business ventures. Wall Street only cares about multi-million-dollar plays, and securities regulations make small-dollar projects rather difficult (and costly) to jointly fund.
The act could have big implications for community-based renewable energy projects.
Right now, there are two kinds of community-based renewable energy projects, the charitable or the persistent. Solar Mosaic, for example, was founded and funded on the concept that many environmentally motivated people would help finance local solar projects with zero-percent-interest loans. They succeeded in building several projects, but the model is constrained by the limited universe of people who have money at hand and are willing to let it be used for no reward.
The other kind of renewable energy project allows participants to get some kind of financial reward through sheer persistence, overcoming enormous regulatory and legal barriers to success (some of which I covered in this 2007 report). It means finding a complex legal structure to capture federal tax credits despite needing investors with “passive tax liability” or sacrificing federal incentives for simple ownership structures like cooperatives or municipal utilities. It means having “accredited” (rich) investors or only soliciting investors through personal relationships. This community wind project is an illustration, as are several solar projects in this report.
The JOBS Act may finally allow thousands of regular folks to make a modest return (5 to 10 percent) by investing in local renewable energy projects.