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Crowdfunding: locally compelling, but that’s it
If you've got money there will always be strangers willing to take it off your hands.
One could, if so inclined, go to a crowdfunding site right now and put cash into a new vegan cafe, a fantasy board game, and recording sessions for an unheard-of local band. And then invest anything left in a community-based wind project.
Crowdfunding is emerging as a source of funding for new wind developments.
Last week, for instance, crowdfunding platform Trillion Fund and developer E2Energy revealed they are seeking to raise the first £1.25m of a total £5m to invest in community wind schemes. The deal offers a return of 7.25% a year over three years on investments as small as £50.
In theory, this sounds great. Developers can access funding from individuals who want to invest in something that it both ethical and offers healthier returns than the vanilla savings accounts at high street banks. However, we also see issues that should make developers and investors tread carefully.
Now, crowdfunding isn’t new. It has been around in one form or another since the 1700s, when author Jonathan Swift introduced the concept of ‘micro-loans’ with the Irish Loans Fund. But the growth of online banking and social media has made it far more popular.
Companies and individuals around the world are estimated to have raised $2.7bn from the public in 2012, which was up 81% from 2011, according to research firm Massolution. This grew to $5.1bn in 2013 as investors have grown more confident.
So how far will crowdfunding grow as a funding source for the wind sector?
Undoubtedly, some people will be attracted to these investments. The promised return of 7.25% a year over three years in the Trillion Fund and E2Energy fundraising is far better than the 2.7% you could get by tying up your cash in a three-year fixed-rate bond.
But this 7.25% return reflects the fact that there are also big risks with these kinds of deals. It is risky to invest in only one company or scheme and, for investors, it would be wiser to put their money into a fund that invests in a range of schemes.
Crowdfunding also causes headaches for investee companies.
Self-styled punk brewery BrewDog is happy to invite hundreds of its backers to annual general meetings, but most other firms would rather keep their many backers at a distance. There are ways that firms can get around this by bundling all investors into one structure, but it is a hassle that requires upfront planning.
That isn’t to say there is no place for crowdfunding. Since it is a good way for developers to quickly raise cash for projects that are too small for established investors, and there is evidently an appetite to invest. Indeed, the £6.2m raised by 1,300 people for Abundance Generation shows that there are individuals willing to commit to the schemes.
However, micro loans still require micro management. And in a market that continues to expand, that presents a whole new level of financial and operational management that many large-scale commercial developers would rather avoid.
For community engagement, it’s a compelling concept. For raising and managing capital for projects deployed at utility-scale, it’s quite another.