Investing with Power and Purpose in the Future of Energy

By Jess Brooks

I recently attended the Yale Impact Investing conference. The roster of conference speakers read like a “Who’s Who’s” of Impact Investing, including long-time leaders and field builders like Debra Schwartz of the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, Clara Miller of F.B. Heron Foundation and Dave Kirkpatrick of SJF Ventures, as well as rising stars, visionaries and ground-breakers like Jenny Abramson of ReThink Impact, Dave Chen of Equilibrium Ventures and Meredith Finn of Salesforce (yes, Salesforce). The conference provided both food for thought and words of inspiration as we work to grow our community of partners at Sunwealth.

An Invisible Heart to Guide the Invisible Hand

Sir Ronald Cohen, considered by many to be the father of impact investing, gave the conference’s keynote address. He referenced economist Adam Smith, whose influential Wealth of Nations introduced the notion of the “invisible hand,” an unobservable market force that helps supply and demand reach equilibrium in a free market.  Cohen pointed out that later in life, Smith was prouder of his earlier, lesser-known work, The Theory of Moral Sentiments, which explained why humans act altruistically, and how society depends on action in the interest of the greater good.  Events like the financial crisis of 2008, Cohen argued, highlight the deficiency of thinking about markets only in terms of balancing risk and reward.  We need to add a third dimension – impact – to the equation.  By considering the impact of our investments, Cohen said, we “bring the ‘the invisible heart’ of markets to guide ‘the invisible hand’” – and build a better world that benefits us all.”

Sunwealth brings that notion of impact – and of building a world that benefits all of us – to renewable energy investment. We talk about democratizing solar – about changing who has access to renewable energy by changing how we invest in it.  We are focused on bringing solar to communities that traditionally have been underserved by capital markets and solar developers – and on demonstrating that these markets offer sound investments – investments that generateenvironmental, social and financial returns. Our goal is to unlock broader sources of capital, and in the process, to help transform our energy system – lowering costs, decentralizing power distribution and reducing our dependence on fossil fuels.

We are investing in the future of energy – and we are building a market.

Building a Community of Partners – and a Model for Renewable Energy Investment

To achieve our vision, we need the right partners at each stage of our work – from the solar developers who help source and install our systems to the organizations, individuals and institutions who purchase the power we generate to the investors who finance our work. We work with:

  • Strong local solar developers, who help us identify solar projects that can provide real and meaningful energy savings for their host sites and off-takers. These developers install high-performance systems built to last, while creating local employment opportunities.
  • Vibrant institutions, including schools, houses of worship, police and fire departments, and local businesses who are committed to purchasing clean energy and who benefit from savings on their monthly utility bills. The diversity of our project portfolio – across geography, project size and off-taker type – helps us push the boundaries of what’s financeable while mitigating overall portfolio risk.
  • Impact investors, individuals, foundations and institutions who want their money to do well and do good, and who are committed to investing in a renewable energy future that benefits all of us.

Investing with Power and Purpose

The Yale conference closed with a panel of impact investing practitioners reflecting on their experiences, and on what it will take to transform the broader investing landscape. Debra Schwartz of the MacArthur Foundation described the need for investors and entrepreneurs who will act with both “fierce urgency” and “a patience that allows them to take the long view.”  Antony Bugg-Levine of Nonprofit Finance Fund recalled Martin Luther King’s sermon on “A Tough Mind and a Tender Heart,” saying impact investors must act with both.  “Tough-headed alone has no purpose,” he explained, “while tender-hearted alone has no power.”

Purpose and power.

At Sunwealth, we are a looking for partners who understand that the future of energy has plenty of both.

Jess Brooks