How Edison Feng of Sunnyfounder is Making Solar Energy Accessible For All
Edison Feng is trying to turn the whole world into a power station—well, at least the numerous under-used rooftops of his native Taiwan, and perhaps further afield. Sunnyfounder, the company he founded in 2015, is the island’s first green energy funding platform. It employs a crowdfunding model to allow people to invest in solar energy for as little as US$450, dividing installations into units so that people can, for example, choose to invest in just a single panel.
In the process, the company is helping to overcome a number of problems that have beleaguered attempts to make small scale, domestic solar power the rule rather than the exception: the difficulty of finding suitable sites, the complexity of building and installing them, and what is for many people the prohibitively high cost of getting involved.
Originally from Taoyuan, near Taipei, Feng studied mechanical engineering, focusing during his master’s degree on solar cell materials. He then went to work as a project manager for Unitech Electronics, a company making mobile phones, but soon found that something was missing.
“After a couple of years, I realised that I was not able to find a good reason to do the job, as millions of mobile phone sales don’t mean too much to me,” he says.
He started to research the solar market more closely. “I found out that there are three main obstacles to people joining in: not enough funding, no suitable rooftops, and no knowledge of how to hire a contractor. As a result, we came up with an idea that solves these obstacles.
“My team and I believe that it’s not a trade-off between sustainability and financial perspectives. We came up with a solution that provides people with a very simple way to become a citizen power plant partner.”
He started Sunnyfounder alongside four co-founders out of an office of less than 100 square feet. The company soon encountered challenges, thanks to the groundbreaking and rather complicated nature of what it was trying to do.
“The model was too innovative for people to believe in back then,” he says. “We needed to find people who were willing to pay as owner of part of the plant, people who were willing to rent out their rooftop, and people who were professionals to do the construction. We couldn’t do anything if we missed out on any of them.”
There are three main obstacles to people joining the solar market: not enough funding, no suitable rooftops, and no knowledge of how to hire a contractor. As a result, we came up with an idea that solves these obstacles
Finding suitable sites has always been a big challenge, mainly because roofs in Taiwan are often owned by numerous people. So the company changed its business model, a move he credits as one of the best decisions he has made, away from asking people to submit their rooftops for solar power installations and towards sourcing rooftops through construction contractors.
“It means we purchase projects from several contractors; as a result, the only work left for us is to find people who are willing to pay to own part of the plant,” he says. “The first dozens of projects on our platform went this way, and it restarted the business because we gained credibility and got plenty of projects after that.”
The company now has about 430 sites that collectively generate about 15 megawatts of electricity. It serves about 30,000 customers, more than half of them in the Taipei region. Most are aged between 26 and 48, and more than half are female. The company has found from customer feedback that more than half are primarily motivated by financial returns, but a growing number of those who join solely for financial reasons find themselves also increasingly motivated by environmental concerns after they’ve done so.
The average size of their investments is about NT$40,000 (US$1,400). Sunnyfounder sends its customers about NT$100 million in electricity fees each year, a figure that is growing fast. Customers typically start receiving payments within about two months, and it takes about 10 years to pay off an investment, after which all payments are pure profit for the customer. Sunnyfounder makes its money from the margin between the investments from customers and the fees paid to contractors, and on operation and maintenance of the sites.
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The next step for the company, says Feng, is international expansion, and it is currently in the process of looking for suitable overseas partners. They will need to be in places with the right infrastructure and policies in place, though, he says, with government and regulatory support critical to the successful operation of this kind of business. Fortunately, the company has found an environment in Taiwan that has allowed it to flourish; it has, for example, a 20-year agreement with leading local energy producer Taipower.
“Credibility is critical to this business, so we need guarantees from utility companies to purchase all of the electricity generated by the solar power plant, and the government is doing a great job on that.”
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