Synagogue turns to crowdsourcing to make green dream come true

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At Kehilla Community Synagogue, Ralph Silber knows it isn’t easy being green. As chair of the Piedmont congregation’s greening committee, he seeks to make Kehilla environmentally friendly while not busting the budget.

With Kehilla’s new crowd-funded solar power project, however, Silber and his committee are about to do just that.

Andreas Karelas

Working with the S.F.-based solar energy nonprofit RE-volv, the synagogue is raising money through indiegogo — at — to finance a 26-kilowatt-hours system. It is halfway toward its goal of raising $65,000 by mid-January.

If successful, the project will provide 85 percent of Kehilla’s electricity needs and shave 15 percent off its energy bill in the first year, 30 percent by year 20 — for a total savings topping $150,000.

But first the $65,0000 must be raised, every penny of it tax-deductible to donors. The synagogue bears none of the installation costs, but reaps plenty of benefits.

“The [business] model is sweet,” Silber said. “From day one you dramatically reduce how much electricity you get off the grid.”

In some ways, RE-volv resembles THINKnrg, the company behind the solar project at the Oshman Family JCC in Palo Alto. It, too, owns the installation and leases the solar equipment to clients such as Kehilla.

But as a nonprofit RE-volv appeals to those wanting to make tax-deductible donations, rather than soliciting investors seeking returns. To raise money RE-volv uses the crowdsource model, an online form of solicitation that asks charitable-minded donors to pitch in.

Moreover, by the end of the 20-year lease, Kehilla will own the system outright and get free electricity over the life of the system. For RE-volv, revenues from the Kehilla installation will finance three more solar power systems for other community-based nonprofits and cooperative organizations.

It’s called paying it forward.

“This is very much in line with our values,” says RE-volv co-founder Andreas Karelas, referring to the Kehilla project. “That’s what we’re about: creating an opportunity for community members to have ownership and take part in building solar. Our mission is to empower people to invest collectively in renewable energy.”

Karelas says his donor base goes beyond the Kehilla and broader Jewish community: People who care about expanding clean energy in the Bay Area fit the profile and give.

Silber says the goals of his committee are to take steps to green the Kehilla facility, raise the green consciousness of Kehilla members and impact public policy through example. He thinks the current project achieves all three goals.

“If we install solar panels it will reduce dramatically how much [energy] we use,” he said. “We also use it as an educational opportunity for members. We already have a few Kehilla families who will now put solar panels on their own homes.”

Kehilla is not the only Bay Area synagogue to go solar. Congregation Sinai in San Jose installed its 71-kwh system several years ago, and last November earned three “Energy Oscars” from California Interfaith Power and Light. Peninsula Temple Sholom in Burlingame installed its solar system in 2008.

In 2009, Congregation Beth David in Saratoga partnered with SolarCity to install a $700,000 system on its roof, at no cost to the synagogue thanks to a power purchase agreement similar to that offered by RE-volv.

Congregation Shir Hadash of Los Gatos was one of the first in the region to go solar, installing its rooftop system back in 2002.

Now Kehilla is turning to the sun.

“When you do something good, it feels good,” Silber said. “We have 350 families and there’s something about being part of a community that acts on its values that gives meaning.”

Dan Pine

Dan Pine is a contributing editor at J. He was a longtime staff writer at J. and retired as news editor in 2020.