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Nonprofit Finances Community Solar With a Capital Stack That Includes Crowdfunding
The Community Action Fund CEO Lynn Heller Explains How the Organization Financed Part of Its Community Solar Project On Raise Green
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Devin: What do you see as your superpower?
Lynn: I will share something that a friend of mine said when I was on a walk with her. I was telling her what I thought her superpower was, and she came back to me and said, “Well, I think your superpower, Lynn, is that you…” How did she phrase it? I can't remember how she phrased it, but she said basically, “You have the guts to try things that you have no business trying, that you set your mind on something, and you'll go out, and you'll just make it happen.” I guess the short answer to your question would be it is just sort of the guts to–what's the Yiddish word? The chutzpah. I'm not Jewish, but I love that word.
Solar can be expensive and difficult to install on your rooftop, especially for households in low-income communities with older buildings. Renters are typically excluded from the option to add rooftop solar.
The Community Action Fund, a nonprofit, steps into this gap in hopes of allowing everyone to save money on their energy bills and lighten their carbon footprint.
Founder and CEO Lynn Heller says, “Living in Baltimore City, I regularly witnessed lots and lots of poverty. So, I was trying to figure out, all right, how do we create a very scalable model for low-income household access to clean energy? The world is transitioning to clean energy. Let's not leave out huge swaths of the population.”
Under Lynn’s leadership, the nonprofit has attracted a diverse funding strategy, including a tranche of crowdfunding raised via the FINRA-registered portal Raise Green. Everyone is eligible to invest–even I invested!
The funding round was successful, exceeding the target cap of $370,000.
To make this happen, Lynn uses her superpower: chutzpah.
AI Episode Summary
Devin Thorpe is interviewing Lynn Heller, CEO of the Climate Access Fund.
The Climate Access Fund is a nonprofit green bank that focuses on providing low-income households with access to clean energy, particularly through community solar projects.
Community solar allows households to sign up for solar power from a project located elsewhere, such as a large tract of land or a rooftop, and receive a discount on their electricity bill.
The Henderson Hopkins School project in Baltimore is a community solar project that will provide a 25% discount on electricity bills for low-income households in the neighborhood.
The project is unique because it is entirely for low-income households, it has co-benefits such as job training programs and educational components, and the nonprofit owns a portion of the solar asset to share dividends with subscribers.
The Climate Access Fund has raised around $350,000 through a crowdfunding campaign on Raise Green.
The fund initially hoped to give low-income families the opportunity to invest directly in the project but faced challenges due to mistrust from previous bad experiences with third-party electricity providers.
Lynn Heller sees her superpower as having the guts to try things that others may not feel confident in attempting.
She is proud of where the Climate Access Fund has come and its ability to carve out a niche in the industry.
Lynn advises others to listen and learn from different perspectives, collaborate with well-meaning experts, and align themselves with a team to collectively foster innovation and confidence.
How to Develop Chutzpah As a Superpower
Lynn sees the progress at The Climate Access Fund as evidence of the power of having the guts to try something you have no business doing. She explained:
I'm proud of where the Climate Access Fund has gotten today. We have a long way to go, in that we are we have been a startup nonprofit in a startup industry, so it's kind of a double startup, which, I have to be honest, has been difficult at times. We've had to be very nimble as the community solar market has evolved over the last five to seven years in Maryland. We have been very involved with some of the legislative efforts and in advocacy and also, at the Public Service Commission level, the regulations. I'm very proud that last year I originated A law–a bill that passed that session in Annapolis in the state legislature that increased the benefits to low-income households through community solar. So, there are certain tasks that I'm proud of. But I would say overall, I'm proud of the fact that we have been able to carve out a niche for ourselves, again as a startup in a startup industry.
Lynn sees two essential aspects to building chutzpah:
First is the self-confidence to keep trying when you inevitably encounter challenges. Say, “All right. Well, that didn't work. But let's try this. That didn't work. So, let's try this.”
The second is to be inclusive. Build a diverse team that includes people with different skills, perspectives and abilities to take risks. “The best thing folks can do is to listen to other people and learn from other people,” Lynn says. Building a team builds confidence.
Following Lynn’s example and advice can strengthen your confidence, potentially turning it into the sort of chutzpah that can become a superpower that enables you to do more good in the world.
Lynn Heller (she/her):
Founder, CEO, Climate Access Fund
About Climate Access Fund: The Climate Access Fund (CAF) is a statewide nonprofit green bank based in Baltimore, Maryland. CAF leverages public and philanthropic capital to drive private investment into the low-income residential energy market. CAF’s goal is to substantially reduce the energy burden of low-income households through access to offsite, or “community,” solar. CAF offers financial incentives to solar developers who provide attractive savings to low-income subscribers, and it develops projects in historically disinvested communities through community-based partnerships. By demonstrating that affordable solar power can be successfully financed and deployed, CAF is helping to bring an equitable clean energy market to scale in Maryland and beyond.
Other URL: vimeo.com/682058145
Biographical Information: Lynn Heller is the Founder and CEO of the Climate Access Fund, a nonprofit green bank focused on expanding clean energy access in disinvested communities. Lynn has previously served as Vice President of the Abell Foundation, worked as a strategic planning and management consultant, and led start-ups in refugee resettlement, microenterprise lending, voter education, and election monitoring in the U.S. and overseas. Lynn is Board Chair of the MD League of Conservation Voters and past member of the MD Commission on Climate Change and the Baltimore Sustainability Commission. Lynn earned degrees from Princeton University and the Harvard Kennedy School and loves spending time with her husband, three kids and dogs.
Join us for the SuperCrowdHour with Lea Bouhelier-Gatreau of KingsCrowd as she explains how you can start investing for impact with just $100 on August 16 at 1:00 Eastern/10 Pacific. Register at half-price here.
Léa is a Sr. Investment Analyst at KingsCrowd who writes the company's impact investing monthly article, providing investors with the best impact investing deals and market insights. She previously worked for Stanford's accelerator, StartX, and led the first award-winning study on the Malawian startup ecosystem. She holds a degree in Anthropology from France and is currently enrolled in the UC Davis MBA program.