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A Kickstarter for green energy

By Internet standards, crowdfunding has been around forever. The idea to tap into online communities to raise money first became popular in 1997, when fans of the British rock group Marillion raised $60,000 to fund a U.S. tour for the band. Since then crowdfunding sites such as Kickstarter have been used to raise money for everything from blogs to clothing design companies and independent films. Now investment firms are getting into the act.

Today Mosaic, an Oakland startup, announced that it is going national in its effort to raise money from online investors to fund rooftop solar systems. It is, in a sense, the first crowdfunded green investment firm. Says Co-founder Billy Parish, who previously had launched the Energy Action Coalition, a non-profit that gets youth involved in clean energy and climate solutions, “We’re creating a new platform where people can profit from the clean energy revolution.”

Each investor in Mosaic is promised a return on his or her investment, typically around 4% to 6% a year over 5 years. So far Mosaic has raised $1.1 million from 400 individuals to fund the installation of solar systems on twelve projects including a $40,000 system on a building housing an Oakland non-profit called the Youth Employment Partnership. Mosaic keeps a fee of 1% of the money raised, and its investors get a fixed return.

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The two year-old company, which in addition to the money it has raised online, has received $3.4 million in seed money from San Francisco-based venture capitalist Sunil Paul of Spring Venture as well as others. Mosaic also got a $2 million Department of Energy grant in June 2012. Now it wants to scale. But there’s a problem: the Securities and Exchange Commission. It’s one thing to solicit small amounts of money from individuals and groups Mosaic knew. It’s another to start peddling hundreds of millions in equity to the general public over the Internet.

Wanting to help entrepreneurs create jobs, Congress as part of the JOBS ACT created a provision for “cloud funding portals.” President Obama signed it into law in April of 2012 and gave the SEC a deadline to create rules and guidelines to protect investors who want to invest in online outfits like Mosaic. The SEC has yet to issue their regulations.

In the meantime Mosaic has done an end run around the SEC by working with state securities laws. It can now offer its investment to anyone in California or New York. In the other states, investors have to be “accredited” which means hefty net worth and income requirements. (A net worth of over $1 million excluding one’s house and an annual income of over $200,000.) If the SEC eventually approves cloud funding portals, investment companies like Mosaic could go national without registering in each state.

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If cloud funding gets the green light, it could eventually disrupt a financing model that so far has been the purview of big banks. “We like decentralized investing, says Parish, “Individuals can directly invest in clean energy projects and get a great return.” So instead of putting money in the stock market, you’ll be able to invest in companies like Mosaic and maybe even feel good about making the world a bit cleaner.