Building a More Sustainable World: Catching up with Raise Green

The team behind Raise Green — Franz Hochstrasser, Matthew Moroney, and Kwasi Ansu (each of whom holds an MEM from the Yale School of Forestry & Environmental Studies) — describes their ultimate goal in ambitious terms: they envision “a healthy, just, and sustainable world that we all own and benefit from.” Recently, they accomplished a key early step on the way to this goal: the installation of a crowdfunded solar panel array on a New Haven building. We caught up with the team, who participated in CITY’s 2018 Summer Fellowship, to learn more about their recent work.

A few weeks ago, your project's crowdfunded solar panel array was installed at the Button Street location of this year's Jim Vlock First Year Building Project (a partnership of the Yale School of Architecture and Columbus House in which architecture students design and build housing for low-income or homeless residents in New Haven). How did it feel to see the solar panels arrive and be installed?

Honestly, we felt a symphony of emotions when the installation was complete — everything from pure elation to relief, and some strong inspiration. We were reminiscing on the first workshop from the Tsai CITY Summer Fellowship retreat, where Peter Boyd facilitated a discussion on mission, vision, and goals. We each were asked to separately answer the question of what would we do if the business could only accomplish one thing by the end of the year. All of us independently had written down that our primary goal was to execute on this proof-of-concept project to provide Columbus House low-cost power and help further their mission of providing housing and homeless services to low-income residents of Connecticut.

With this project installed, we are growing quickly. We’re looking for more talented folks to join our collective. Sign up at www.raisegreen.com and send us a note if you’d like to replicate this model hundreds and thousands of times over.

Can you tell us a bit more about the process that led to this installation?

How much time do you have? The whole process took roughly ten months from inception to installation, largely because this approach has never been taken (to our knowledge), so there was institutional inertia to counteract at almost every step. The project started as a casual evening conversation around a fireplace with Gioia Connell (MEM/ARCH’20), who was starting to work on the 2018 Jim Vlock Building Project. After creating the Raise Green business model last spring, we found that a lot of the people we spoke to about it had trouble visualizing the new asset class we we’re trying to create. We needed a pilot project to prove our concept, and the Building Project presented a rare opportunity at the forefront of design, innovation, and social good.

Our first hurdle was to get the Yale School of Architecture (YSOA) and Columbus House to take a chance on us. They put their confidence in us to merge renewable energy project finance with equity crowdfunding to yield an innovative financial product that could add to the sustainability of the project. After receiving the blessing of YSOA and Columbus House, we created New Haven Community Solar. It wasn’t always pretty, as we had to convince legal, financial, solar experts and community members to understand and buy in to our vision, but it came to life one conversation at a time.

The most stressful portion of this adventure, by far, was during the campaign to raise the capital to make this project a reality. Our marketing and campaign efforts went through countless iterations. Day after day we watched as the needle did not move! We questioned ourselves, we questioned our model, we lost sleep, strained relationships, and even battled depression at times. The importance of having engaged and proactive partners can not be understated. We engaged local leaders in the New Haven Energy Task Force and the New Haven Environmental Advisory Committee, and others across the state and country. We eventually began to get traction. But it wasn’t until the final week of the raise that enough investors bought in, allowing us to hit our goal and move forward with the project.

Overcoming the many institutional and behavioral barriers to pioneering a new asset class of green crowdfunded equity in community projects is extremely challenging. Opening this path offers an invaluable avenue to activate and empower individuals and community-based organizations to take agency over their piece of the clean energy transition. These tools are largely unfamiliar and untested until now, which invokes understandable caution. Fighting through these barriers was vital research and development. We are using this experience to build a template, our “originator packet,” that will help community leaders replicate the model, so that what took us ten months will take them ten weeks or less as we scale up.

The New Haven project is one demonstration of the broader model for crowdfunding sustainable projects you hope to foster through Raise Green. How would you describe your vision for Raise Green?

Our vision is a healthy, just, and sustainable world that we all own and benefit from. Lofty, we know, but we believe another economy is possible using innovations in financial technology. Our mission is to confront looming environmental challenges today with impactful projects that increase equity and reduce pollution exposure in vulnerable communities, and create new investment pathways that are accessible to anyone. The world only has 7-12 years to mobilize massive amounts of capital toward clean energy and climate solutions that build a resilient low-carbon infrastructure to bend the emissions curve and avoid the worst impacts of climate change in our lifetimes. There is no time to waste. Ultimately, we would like Raise Green to be an engine for creating crowdfunded community climate cooperatives that enable inclusive growth and share the ownership and benefits of the clean energy transition. Together we can democratize and own the decarbonized, climate-resilient future we want and need.

Your team received one of the Startup Yale prizes and took part in CITY's Summer Fellowship last year. What role did that experience have in your development of Raise Green?

We found the Summer Fellowship at Tsai CITY to be valuable and we’re thankful for the experience. The mentors within Tsai CITY are accessible and devoted considerable time and energy into us. They also are always willing to tap into their own networks to make connections with people outside of Yale who can be helpful. More than just the network, our team really fed off the collaborative and almost familial energy that Tsai CITY promotes. Connecting with and learning from other fellows was really a highlight for us during the summer, and that camaraderie and those friendships continue to inspire us. We also have to acknowledge how well Tsai CITY fed us! Without their culinary support to supplement our budgets, working that summer would have been much more challenging.

Thinking about the process that's taken you to this point, what would you say has been your biggest takeaway or lesson learned?

The success of our model relies on amplifying network effects of enthusiastic supporters and partner organizations. We learned a lot of lessons about the level of community organizing, marketing approaches, and strategic partnerships that it took to execute on this type of project.

Beyond that, we learned to be more confident in ourselves and what we are building. Our business model is feasible largely because of a recent shift in the regulatory landscape. Many professionals in this sector are still clarifying procedures, which forced us to confront strong headwinds and a great deal of skepticism. We were told time and time again that what we are trying to do is impractical or simply not possible. Thankfully, we remained confident enough in ourselves and our research, that we have been able to overcome all the obstacles in our path thus far. More than once we have been confronted with challenges we thought could cripple Raise Green. We have managed to work through all of them as a team, but there are many more on the horizon.

The biggest takeaway is that the community needs to want and support the climate solution being proposed. By personalizing the ability to develop and fund climate solutions, we localize the same challenge of political will that has presented itself at the national and international stage, but crucially, we give individuals self-efficacy in the face of that challenge. We could not have accomplished any of this without the support of our family, friends, and networks to get us through this one project. We will need the concerted engagement of a much broader community to get us through the next ten, and the next ten thousand.

Learn more about Raise Green here.

Laura Mitchell