It’s been going on quietly, behind the scenes, for five years now. SolarCity‘s board chairman, Elon Musk, said back in 2010 that the company needed to get involved in disaster relief and to give as it grew.
SolarCity employees went down to a town called Coden, Alabama, in the aftermath of the Gulf oil spill to set up a solar system, with battery storage, at the coastal response center for the South Bay Communities Alliance. People had lost their jobs when the area was closed for fishing. It became a community gathering place. The company did the same thing after Fukushima, then Hurricane Sandy in New York and New Jersey.
When Hayes Barnard joined the company in 2013 as chief revenue officer, he pushed to formalize this. It became the GivePower Foundation soon afterward with Barnard as its president. This week, the foundation was granted 501(c)3 status by the IRS and is now a public charity. The kick-off was celebrated with a $500,000 donation from Bank of America, a key financing partner.
We spoke by phone with Barnard, along with Jonathan Bass, SVP of communications for SolarCity, about the announcement. They explained that a big part of this is about stakeholder engagement. The foundation allows partners and employees to get more involved in the spirit of giving while growing to, in Bass’ words, “tap into meaning, while connecting our hearts around a common cause.” The company sends select employees out on field trips in groups as part of their recognition program which “is far more meaningful and transformative than traditional incentive trips.”
After all, said Barnard, “when you’re increasing employee headcount by more than 500 employees every single month, you have to find a way to inspire them.”
When Hayes took a trip to Mali and saw the impact of what donating renewable power could do, that was when he had the vision for the foundation.
“What we wanted to do was first, leverage the company’s infrastructure with residential solar, and then, to find a way to get our partners, as well as our employees involved.”
GivePower wants to focus on schools because there are 291 million children around the world who go to schools without electricity. Its commitment is to provide power to one school for every megawatt of solar SolarCity sells. Last year, the foundation provided power to 511 schools. This year, given the company’s sales target of 1 GW, it expects to instal panels on 1,000 schools. Barnard will head to Nepal shortly to install solar on 200 schools there.
The power is there primarily to provide lighting, which has been shown to improve student performance. It also allows for adult literacy programs in the evening, and often turns the schools into community gathering spaces.
The plan calls for the foundation to bring light to remote villages in Mali, Nicaragua, Kenya, Haiti, Uganda, Nigeria, Malawi, Nepal and Ghana. Worldwide, 1.3 billion people have no access to electricity.
“Education is vital to empowering communities and forming tomorrow’s leaders, and we are excited to play a role in ensuring these schools have lighting for the first time,” said Anne Finucane, vice chairman and global chief strategy and marketing officer at Bank of America. “Our new partnership with GivePower Foundation is bringing clean energy to the developing world and is part of our broader strategy to help finance the transition to lower-carbon economies.”
Image courtesy of SolarCity