Solar finance startup SunFunder, an investor in Arc Finance partner SolarNow based in Uganda, has closed a US$2.5 million Series A funding round, a milestone for investment in off-grid, small-scale solar. Alongside support from Khosla Impact and Better Ventures, SunFunder secured funding from Schneider Electric, a major multinational player in energy products and key investor in Arc partner Simpa Networks, which manufacturers and distributes solar home systems with a proprietary metering system in Uttar Pradhesh, India.Read
Schneider’s involvement is a boon for SunFunder in particular and for small-scale energy finance in general. The role that both have played in working with Arc Finance partners makes this deal something Arc Finance is proud to highlight.
Based in San Francisco and Tanzania, SunFunder provides short-term working capital and project finance loans for solar home systems, microgrids and commercial solar projects in emerging markets. The company raises debt capital through the Solar Empowerment Fund, offering accredited investors a risk-reduced, fixed-income investment opportunity in diverse portfolios of high-impact solar loans across multiple countries and solar technologies. The company is creating a solar finance ecosystem that aims to catalyze billions in financing for solar beyond the grid.
Schneider’s partnership in this venture is a true watershed. An energy giant that has operations in 100 countries and annual sales of US$30 billion in 2013, Schneider has products ranging from circuit breakers to power plants, distributed solar products to AC and DC microgrids. Its involvement is a sign that small-scale solar is moving beyond a niche market and into a mainstream, global one. For Schneider, financing will unlock working capital in order to finance distribution of its wide range of products. Schneider is working on launching its new US$80 million energy access fund with bilateral agencies like the U.K.’s DFID and the EU’s EIB to help unlock capital.
SunFunder, which has provided US$425,000 to Ugandan Arc partner SolarNow (an Arc case study of which can be found HERE) plans to raise and deploy US$100 million in the next three years into solar projects around the world and to expand its capacity in local markets, starting with East Africa. The IEA estimates that the world requires US$44 billion of investment to expand electricity infrastructure to achieve universal energy access by 2030. Of that US$44 billion, it is estimated that US$26 billion will be put towards toward decentralized systems that have been largely powered by renewable energy, according to SunFunder.
SunFunder’s platform for attracting capital to the small-scale, off-grid sector includes the Solar Empowerment Fund (SEF) – a debt facility that issues Solar Notes to accredited and institutional investors, offering a rare opportunity to invest in a diversified, vetted, and high-impact portfolio of off-grid and grid-deficit solar projects with an attractive risk/return profile. In Sept 2013, SunFunder closed its first issuance of Solar Notes, raising US$250,000 from four investors.
In addition, SunFunder is continuing to fundraise from accredited and institutional investors and from its crowdfunding platform, in which non-accredited investors anywhere can invest as little as US$10 in any of the projects listed on SunFunder.com (and is profiled in an Arc Finance briefing note on Crowdfunding, available HERE).
Once a project is fully funded, SunFunder facilitates low-cost financing to the solar partner to fund its implementation. As projects get repaid, investors earn their investment back (without interest, due to current regulatory limitations), which they can invest again or withdraw. SunFunder’s solar partners pay a modest interest rate on the financing that they receive, which is passed back to SunFunder’s investors as Impact Points, which can be reinvested into other projects. See Arc’s Briefing Note on Crowdfunding for a more detailed explanation of how this works.
Ryan Levinson, CEO of SunFunder, shares Arc’s view that access to reliable finance is the main barrier preventing solar energy providers from reaching scale and leapfrogging the grid in target markets. “In the last two years, SunFunder has established a solid track record and proven that the market is economically viable. This investment round will allow us to expand our capacity in local markets and substantially grow our loan portfolio,” he says. For more on Ryan’s thoughts, see Arc’s YouTube channel for a panel discussion video at Arc’s Innovations in Finance conference.
So far, SunFunder has financed more than US$1.7 million for solar projects, with 15 solar companies in six countries, and maintains a zero percent default rate, helping over 140,000 off-grid people in developing countries access affordable solar energy.
At Arc Finance, we’re proud to see SunFunder and Schneider, funders of two key Arc partner organizations, pass this key milestone. As this important and young sector attracts mainstream financing, it demonstrates to new investors that investing in renewable energy for off-grid customers is a sustainable commercial venture – and here to stay.