Solar is a lot like the perfect diet. Both are designed to give you optimum energy, both use abundant natural resources for fuel, and both are only feasible if you have a lot of money.
A trio of graduate students at Princeton’s Woodrow Wilson School is looking to change that last part. Steve Moilanen, Conor Godfrey, and Stephanie Speirs hope to bring solar to those who are priced out of the market by expensive equipment and because they rent domiciles over which they have no say regarding their energy supply. Their project, Solstice Initiative, is one of seven in the Keller Center’s eLab Summer Accelerator Program, a 10-week summer launching pad for student startups that shares its projects with the world — and potential real-world investors — on Wednesday, August 13, at 2:30 p.m. Attendance is free and open to the public. Visit kellercenter.princeton.edu/elab.
What’s unique about Solstice Initiative’s plan to democratize solar energy is that there is no intention of hooking people up to solar power itself. The idea, says Moilanen — the project’s “unofficial CEO” and main brain behind the initiative — is to leverage solar investment in order to lower the energy bills of those who cannot afford solar or do not have access to it by making commercial entities into mini-power stations.
It works like this: Start with a large commercial entity, such as a college campus or big-box store, that has the space to house a solar array and supply power for its own operations. Next, the entity carves out a minority portion of their array and parcels it out into solar shares. Third, the entity sets up a benefit program (like a 401k for solar) in which the employees can purchase a solar share and, by extension, enjoy the solar savings on their own utility bills. A Solstice customer would not change his energy setup and would keep paying his electricity bill through the utility company, but as the entity’s solar-generated power goes back into the grid, subscribers are rewarded accordingly with lowered energy bills. Solar gets promoted and customers shut out of solar markets get the monetary benefits of solar customers without the hassle of installing it on their roofs.
The idea came to Moilanen while he was daydreaming in class in his second year graduate studies at the Woodrow Wilson School. The class had been focusing on energy issues and an almost-actual light bulb went off in his head that there was a way to have people benefit from solar power, even if they didn’t use it. Seven months of working it through with his colleagues brought out the model Solstice Initiative is following.
The three, “fast friends from the beginning,” Moilanen says, started the Community Solar Garden in Washington, D.C., in 2012, an initiative to build a community solar garden that would provide low-income renters with access to affordable solar power. This became the project selected for the eLab incubator.
How to implement the idea, from selling it to businesses, to state-by-state issues, to how subscribers can reap the financial rewards of someone else’s solar investment have proven daunting, Moilanen admits. “We quickly realized that a large part of solar is a real estate game in some sense,” he says. Apart from the occasional new volcanic island that sprouts up in the ocean, nobody’s making any new land, and it takes a lot of land to set up a solar array that would power residential areas. The National Renewable Energy Laboratory states that solar stations generating around 20 megawatts typically need at least five acres.
This has made college campuses an ideal starting ground, Moilanen says. They often have open areas, and many already have solar arrays. They have also proven far more receptive to Solstice Initiative. Moilanen and crew have approached a few big-box companies, but, predictably, have been dismissed. “We’ve gotten a fair dose of humility for ourselves,” he says.
Moilanen says the first wave of the Initiative is looking for entities (i.e., colleges) with existing solar systems, which is what is happening now. He wouldn’t say who Solstice Initiative has on the hook, but Moilanen says there is a good chance the project will have a pilot enterprise before long. “We want to move on to a pilot project after summer,” he says.
The initiative itself is easily replicable. Moilanen is confident that once a few accounts are set up, big-box retailers that can offer employees low-cost buy-ins as part of the employee benefits package will come around. And large retail employers like Walmart or Home Depot, he says, can benefit from more than having employees help them pay for solar arrays. Large chains typically have a lot of turnover, often due to wages, Moilanen says. Having a program that actually saves employees significant energy costs could be a way to stanch expensive turnover rates, which require expensive training of new employees all the time.
Moilanen was born and raised near Minneapolis by two attorneys, his mother in the criminal field and his father in securities. Moilanen followed his father’s advice to “stay as far away from law school as humanly possible” and graduated from Brown in 2008 with a bachelor’s in international relations and affairs. The timing worked perfectly for him to get involved in the Obama campaign, which led to him getting a job within the administration. In 2009 he became a policy analyst for the federal Department of Energy and at the Office of Energy and Climate Change at the White House. In 2012 he enrolled at the Woodrow Wilson School.
His colleagues have similar pedigrees. Godfrey, Princeton born and raised and a 2008 graduate of William and Mary, was an intern at the National Workrights Institute in Princeton. He was also a Peace Corps volunteer who in 2010 began helping American power companies invest in South Africa. While in Washington, D.C., he co-developed a software company that helps people conduct enterprise conferencing. In 2013 he became a Wilson graduate fellow for the U.S. Mission in Ouagadougou. He now serves as “unofficial CFO” of Solstice Initiative.
Speirs, the unofficial COO, is a Yale graduate who also worked for the Obama campaign and parlayed that into jobs in the administration. In 2012 she enrolled in the Wilson School and became an expert consultant at the federal Council on Foreign Relations. She was also a summer portfolio associate at the Acumen Fund.
Moilanen knows the trio has its work cut out for it, but he says they are guided by a basic goal — letting everyone in on a good thing. “Solar technology’s time has come,” he says. “It’s long been the domain of homeowners.” And this, says Godfrey, is about to change. “This is a totally new conception of how to purchase power,” he says.