Massive, and growing, solar panel installer and financier SolarCity announced on Wednesday that it has acquired a startup called Common Assets, which has developed software that enables individuals and small companies to invest in its solar panel projects. Traditionally only large banks, institutional investors, and big companies were able to invest in funds that SolarCity would use to fund solar projects.
The move validates the emergence of new types of financing, like crowd funding, in recent years as a brand new way to develop clean power projects. SolarCity says it’s responsible for almost a third of all new solar panel projects being built on home rooftops in the U.S. these days, so the new investing platform will have a wide audience from the start.
A variety of startups, like Solar Mosaic, have developed software and services that enable accredited investors to put their money in solar projects, for returns between 4.5 percent and 5.5 percent. In some states, like California and New York, anyone can invest in Solar Mosaic’s solar projects.
SolarCity plans to launch its new investing website for individuals and companies soon. The company says the financing platform will be different than other crowd funding sites because they’ll be using debt investments, instead aggregating investments to provide loans for projects (which other crowd funding sites commonly do).
Common Assets CEO Tim Newell and Chief Architect John Witchel will join SolarCity. Witchel was the co-founder and CTO of Prosper, one of the first crowd funding loan platforms launched. Private equity company U.S. Renewables Group (USRG) was a backer or Common Assets.
SolarCity has gone public and grown immensely as a result of its innovation around solar financing. Before companies like SolarCity, companies and individuals had to fund solar panel rooftop systems — which can cost any where from $25,000 to $40,000 depending on the size — with upfront money. But SolarCity has created a business around installing and owning the solar panel project and having the customer buy the solar power for below the cost of the local utility power rates.
Opening up the type of investors that can back SolarCity projects, is also a way for SolarCity to open up another source of funds for its rapidly growing projects. SolarCity went public in December 2012, and was backed by investors Elon Musk, Draper Fisher Jurvetson and DBL Investors. Musk’s cousin Lyndon Rive is the SolarCity’s CEO, while Musk is Chairman.