The first person whose home blazed with electric light was J.P Morgan. The financier also owned the first business lit with incandescent bulbs. In the latter case, Thomas Edison himself was on hand to flip the switch.
Edison needed funders like Morgan, and later the Vanderbilt Family, because he was launching an endeavor that required huge capital expenditures. He was establishing the groundwork for the electrification of a planet, and to accomplish his goals he needed big finance.
Fast forward to the present: J.P. Morgan Chase is now the world’s second largest financial company, General Electric is the world’s third largest company of any kind, and the U.S. electric grid is the largest machine ever built.
Our energy system and our financial system have always run in tandem. The two grew up together and they have played off of each other to become history’s largest and, arguably, most centralized industries.
With that in mind, let’s turn to a question that many people are asking these days: how do we get off of fossil fuels? How do we reinvent our energy system so that it doesn’t completely wreck our planet?
Plenty of modern-day Edisons are already on the job. Twenty-five year old Danielle Fong is revolutionizing how we store energy. Elon Musk has built an electric sedan that Consumer Reports recently called “the best car we’ve ever tested.” Tony Fadell, who designed the first 18 generations of the iPod, is now running Nest, a company that aims to save the world by reimagining the thermostat and home electronics.
But if we look back to the beginning, we see that energy innovations are only half of the solution we need. If we want a new energy system, we’re going to need to build a new financial system too. Who will be the modern-day Morgans to our modern-day Edisons?
One answer is: You.
And everyone we know.
Here’s the story….
The Big Shift
Think of the challenge of transitioning to clean energy as a massive capital misallocation problem. We’ve spent a lot of money building a global system of fossil-fuel power plants, electric grids, mountaintop exploding bombs, ten story tall shovels, 5,000 foot deep wells, hydraulic fracturing rigs, arctic icebreakers, and…the list goes on. Shifting the world onto a clean energy path means shifting massive amounts of money towards investments in a whole new energy infrastructure.
The key word here is “investment.” In recent years, costs for technologies such as solar and wind power have plummeted, while the costs associated with all of our fossil fuels have either remained flat or risen. Many experts agree that the task of building a clean energy economy has become one of the best business opportunities of the century.
So why aren’t financiers flooding the clean energy space with capital? Actually, they are. Global investments in new clean energy generation capacity rose 600% between 2004 and 2011. And this year will be the third in a row in which worldwide investments in creating new clean energy capacity exceed investments in fossil fuel energy capacity.
The trouble is: it’s still not nearly enough. To sustain a safe climate, we need to be investing in new clean energy generation capacity at somewhere between three and six times current rates.
We’ll never make that leap with a business-as-usual financial system. In fact, our current financial system is biased against investing in clean energy. That is, it is much better at creating more fossil fuel energy than more clean energy. The “playing field,” as pundits like to put it, is not level. As a result, clean energy developers face a chronic shortage of capital to build their projects.
This shouldn’t be surprising. After all, our largest investment institutions have spent their entire histories learning how to effectively finance huge, centralized energy projects. Our banks have not yet developed—and may never develop—the processes necessary to invest in a new energy paradigm that favors many small, distributed components. Likewise, our financial regulations and legal structures have evolved to facilitate massive pipelines and power plants, not solar panels and home energy upgrades.
To put it simply, our financial system is shaped exactly like the energy system we’re trying to leave behind. So why not create a new financial architecture that mirrors the agile, decentralized, small-is-beautiful energy future we so desperately need?
Signs of Progress
Outside the energy sector, the concept of decentralized finance has already brought about major upheavals in established industries. New web platforms are democratizing investment, destroying old monopolies and creating new approaches to finance that are good for both lenders and borrowers.
Take, for example, recent developments in the art world. Not long ago, artists often had to look to foundations or wealthy patrons to raise funds for new projects. But in a few short years crowdfunding has emerged as a major new facilitator of creativity. Last year, Kickstarter announced that it had channeled more funding to creative projects than the National Endowment for the Arts. Thanks to the web, we have moved from a world in which funding for the arts flows from the top down to a world in which it flows in many directions simultaneously.
Or, for a more radical example, look at the rise of peer-to-peer lending. The consumer credit industry used to be dominated by huge banks and credit card companies. It wasn’t until 2008 that Lending Club facilitated its first $5,000 peer-to-peer loan. Now Lending Club and Prosper have serviced more than $2 billion in loans. These companies are cutting out the middlemen in financial transactions, making it easier and cheaper for borrowers to secure small loans, and profitable for individuals to lend money to other people.
The revolutions underway in financing for the arts and consumer lending point the way to a revolution in financing for clean energy. One difference is that energy is a much larger industry. Democratizing clean energy investment will make it possible for people to directly participate in an immense wealth-generation opportunity—an opportunity to rebuild the infrastructure at the very center of modern life.
A vision of distributed finance for distributed energy is already becoming reality. Across the country, communities are finding ingenious ways to finance and build their own local energy projects. Some forward-thinking states and utilities, realizing that it’s better to be ahead of the future than behind it, are starting to pitch in with new laws and policies, too.
My company, Mosaic, is aiming to leverage the power of the web to flood clean energy with a new source of capital. Recently, we went live with our largest project to date—a 487 kW solar array on top of the Wildwoods Convention Center in Wildwood, New Jersey. Investors can put as little as $25 into the project and earn a projected annual rate of return of 4.5% — better than Treasuries, better than most bonds, and on par with the S&P 500 over the past decade.
Each dot in the image above represents one of the 823 people who have so far invested in solar power for the Wildwoods Convention Center. None of these people are industrial titans. The investors in the image above come from every walk of life and from every kind of place.
And yet all of Mosaic’s investors do have something in common with J.P. Morgan. They’re enabling a new energy revolution, just as Morgan enabled the old. By the simple act of investing, they’re helping to secure a better future for our kids, our communities, and the planet. Now, we can all be clean energy barons.