Kids in England, who have been raising money to fund solar for schools in Africa, now are bringing the concept closer to home.

Solar Schools, a new scheme founded by the high-profile climate change campaign 10:10, is harnessing the power of crowdfunding to finance solar panels on school roofs across Great Britain.

By setting up a proposed solar project, schools create their own personalized website with fundraising ideas and goals, and then engage parents, teachers, local businesses and the children themselves in an effort to meet those goals and  install a solar array.

Visualizing success

Each school’s site includes a running total of the amount of money raised, as well as a visual representation of solar panels that allows donors to upload a photo, image, or logo, as well as a message of encouragement for the kids.

James Taylor, a teacher at EP Collier Primary School, credits the format of the website as having a huge impact on the success of the fundraising:

“Because of the system, the website built day-by-day. That was really important from the children’s perspective. Every day, even if they only saw it more by a fiver or a tenner, they saw it move up. I remember putting up the website in my classroom one day and it hadn’t moved. Zane was furious – “I can’t have this not move” – so he went home and made his parents buy 15 quid’s worth of panels that night because he needed that number to move.”

10:10 Solar Schools Project from Life Cycle Films on Vimeo.

Policy uncertainty spurs crowdfunding initiatives

Solar Schools is not just an innovative lesson in effective fundraising, however, it is also an example of how solar advocates have shifted some of their focus in changing economic times.

Like any emerging industry that is battling established and well supported incumbents like the fossil fuel monoliths, solar and other clean technologies still need financial assistance to compete on a level playing field. Until recently, the U.K. solar industry had been growing rapidly thanks to some of the world’s most generous government subsidies in the form of feed-in tariffs.

Those subsidies, however, were cut dramatically due to political pressure for austerity, leaving solar advocates searching around for other models to keep the industry viable. Madeline Carroll, PR director for Solar Schools, argues that her initiative was a logical response to policy uncertainty:

“Back in 2006, a Sustainable schools consultation highlighted a UK government aspiration that by 2020 all schools should be "models of energy efficiency and renewable energy, showcasing wind, solar and biofuel sources in their communities ...". But since 2006, the solar industry in the UK has been through a near 'boom and bust' phase. High FIT levels saw a proliferation of private 'rent a roof' and council schemes. But with the FIT cuts many of these schemes are no longer available, and any grants or support have, in the most part, either been slashed or completely removed.  That's where Solar Schools come in!”

Interestingly, crowdfunding for solar is taking off in the U.S., too. An initiative called Mosaic recently reported that it had sourced more than $1 million worth of support for solar projects since it was founded in 2011. 

Can subsidies and crowdfunding coexist?

While schemes like these may, in part, be spurred on by uncertainty around government subsidies and legislative support, the real hope lies not in an either/or approach to solar funding, but rather a combination of predictable, long-term government support and a grassroots movement for citizen funding. With President Barack Obama reaffirming his commitment to fighting climate change in the U.S., and a recent energy bill in the U.K. being hailed as a victory for clean energy and a signal of a more stable long-term policy environment, there’s real hope that this might actually happen.

Our tax dollars can and should play a powerful role in kickstarting the clean energy revolution. Combined with our donations and civic engagement, they could prove unstoppable.

Who’s going to crowdfund another coal plant, after all?

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