This Startup Is Bringing Solar Power to the Masses

New York skyline from above by Sam Valadi, solar energy, green power, Yeloha

Photo by Sam Valadi via Flickr

After rent and student loans, the biggest chunk of money that I transfer to a company each month is usually for energy bills. Renting a flat in a big city, I don’t have the option of buying my own solar panels and generating my own energy, so my money inevitably supports the use of fossil fuels and a few, large corporations.

One Boston-based startup, Yeloha, aims to sidestep this issue by matching up people interested in using solar energy with people who are able to create it. Yeloha is already operating its peer-to-peer solar sharing network in Massachusetts and Vermont, and has recently launched in New York.

The green energy equivalent of Uber and Airbnb

Here’s how it works: you join the platform as a “Sun Partner”, and then subscribe online via Yeloha’s “Solar Sharing Network”. Yeloha says that the clean energy will be cheaper than the electricity you currently pay for and you don’t actually change providers – you just get Yeloha credits on your existing utility bill. This means you can switch all your energy to the Solar Sharing Network or try out a percentage to start with. Yeloha’s app lets you see panel performance and savings in close to real time.

On the other side of the trade are “Sun Hosts”, i.e. people with the roof space on which to install solar panels. Sun Hosts get free panels and installation and a portion (typically 25 – 30% for individuals) of the energy generated before the rest is shared to the network.

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We asked Amit Rosner, Yeloha’s CEO who co-founded the company with Idan Ofrat and Paolo Tedone in 2015, what he hopes to provide in New York and where he plans to expand next.

“New York’s new ambitious energy roadmap, called Reforming the Energy Vision (REV), has opened up the electrical grid to solar innovation,” he told us. “The ambitious goal of generating 50% of the state’s electricity from renewable sources means that solar has a bright future in the State. We believe that New Yorkers are environmentally conscious but most haven’t had a way to directly participate in the shift from fossil fuels to solar energy until now.

“As we move forward, establishing our Solar Sharing Network as a means to deploy clean solar energy and make it affordable and accessible to everyone is our main goal, and that ultimately means nationwide coverage.” Nationwide coverage is an ambitious goal, but the U.S Department of Energy has predicted that 30 to 50% of the solar market will be shared solar schemes like Yeloha’s by 2020. Its SunShot initiative aims to make solar cost-competitive with other forms of energy by the end of this decade.

Why? Surely there are large companies waiting to monopolise solar energy? Rosner pointed to Greentech Media Research’s finding that only 9 million US households own their own home, have a high enough FICO (mortgage score) and a solar panel friendly roof to produce their own solar energy. That leaves 92% of households renting, living in apartment blocks or in houses with shaded roof space. With the rise of the sharing economy, together with increasing energy bills, Yeloha has a huge base of potential future Sun Partners.

“You don’t need a roof to plug into solar power anymore.”

Europe (well, parts of it) has already explored similar, sometimes more radical, ideas of allowing small co-ops and individuals to act as renewable energy providers. As Naomi Klein points out in her 2014 book This Changes Everything: Capitalism Versus The Climate, “roughly half of Germany’s renewable energy facilities are in the hands of farmers, citizen groups, and almost nine hundred energy co-operatives. Not only are they generating power but they also have the chance to generate revenue for their communities by selling back to the grid.”

Both solar and wind power were subject to long term national planning, as part of Germany’s Energiewende (“energy transition”) with more than 1.4 million photovoltaic installations and 25,000 windmills in Germany. This follows a trend in 1970s and 1980s Denmark in which some 40% of the country’s entire energy consumption was renewable, mostly wind, and 85% of Danish wind turbines were owned by farmers and co-ops. In the US, New York’s REV roadmap, which boasts that it will fund 3,000 megawatts of solar projects in the next 10 years and shift 50% of the state’s electricity generation to renewables, hints that state level planning could allow innovative energy startups like Yeloha to flourish.

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Rosner compares Yeloha to Uber and Airbnb in terms of its ability to share resources, in this case solar energy rather than cars or apartments. But he also recognises that traditional energy companies have their part to play, even if the energy creation itself is decentralised.

“We are starting to see support for shared solar from utilities, and our partnership with Green Mountain Power is a great example of that,” he said.

“Utilities are an important part of the Solar Sharing Network. For one thing, the clean solar energy being produced is distributed via the existing utility grid. Utilities are able to leverage the Yeloha platform to deploy shared solar for their customers more efficiently, and in a way that also benefits their distribution system – such as reducing transmission congestion and peak load.”

A few clicks from solar

Registration for Yeloha in New York involves signing up to a waiting list which gets you priority access to subscription options available in your area. Rosner says “a few thousand” New Yorkers have already signed up and all of New York’s utility companies are able to support the platform, apart from Municipal and Long Island utilities.

So when is the service rolling out? “We expect to enter the development phase of our first NY projects this upcoming spring,” said Rosner. “Our team has learned a great deal from our earlier projects in Massachusetts that we will carry forward. The company had to solve many complexities behind the scenes, but makes it as easy as a few clicks to start a solar subscription online.”

Author: Sophie Charara

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