More Midwest banks see opportunity to finance solar, energy efficiency projects

By Frank Jossi, Energy News Network

Smaller, regional banks and credit unions are increasingly looking to help homeowners finance solar installations in a sign of growing recognition of the opportunities in clean energy finance.

Frank Jossi

In the Midwest, Iowa-based Decorah Bank & Trust is among the latest to begin marketing loans for solar and other clean energy projects. The community bank recently relaunched a digital subsidiary called Greenpenny to serve residential and commercial customers in Iowa, Illinois, Missouri, Minnesota and Wisconsin.

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It joins longtime Twin Cities clean energy lender the Center for Energy and Environment and a handful of credit unions and other community banks offering products in a space traditionally dominated by larger, national firms.

Clean energy advocates are hopeful the availability of local lenders will increase options for borrowers and provide a greater comfort level for those who might be less inclined to trust online lenders or large national banks.

Jeremy Kalin, a partner with Avisen Legal who helped the Minnesota Credit Union Network create its CU Green solar loan program, said typical residential borrowers are sensitive to “long-term value and trust” when looking for lenders. A personal connection to a bank or credit “makes a difference.”

The process often starts with referrals from solar installers. St. Paul-based All Energy Solar offers Greenpenny and Center for Energy and Environment loans to customers, as well as national lenders.

“Historically, we find the national players pushing the envelope here very consistently with innovations and competing with each other to offer a diverse array of financing options that will help each customer to get the most value out of their project,” said Ryan Buege, All Energy Solar’s vice president of sales and marketing. Still, he said, if more banks developed clean energy loans, more consumers would likely become more comfortable installing systems.

Jessica Reis, vice president of communications and marketing for Greenpenny, said the bank creates a transparent loan process with no hidden fees or upfront charges, a contrast with some national lenders who use such fees to lower interest rates. The bank calls every customer who applies and communication continues via phone or email.

Drawing on local knowledge

Greenpenny relaunched last year after struggling with an earlier rollout during the pandemic. Now the Iowa credit union has been adding staff to manage a growing portfolio. Decorah Bank & Trust CEO and President Ben Grimstad said his father, Larry, had started lending to organizations doing renewable energy projects decades ago because of his environmental interest.

Decorah, home to Luther College, has a strong ecological ethos that allowed the bank to gain experience financing more than 100 local projects, most of them solar. Grimstad wanted to expand the bank beyond Decorah and decided to create a digital offering to leverage the bank’s experience with clean energy.

“We are about a year and a half into it and it’s gone pretty well,” he said.

Greenpenny provides solar loans and a green mortgage product for efficiency, geothermal, battery storage and other carbon-reducing projects. The digital bank serves residential customers as well as small- to medium-sized commercial and industrial projects, but not utility-scale wind or solar farms.

The loans are secured by the value of the equipment, from panels to storage devices. Greenpenny President Jason MacDuff said the bank tries to set up loans that match the amount clients save monthly on their utility bills from a new solar or HVAC system. The loans require no money down.

“These borrowers, by definition, are all homeowners that tend to skew pretty sophisticated and because they’re making a pretty big investment in their home, they tend to have the means to be able to do that,” MacDuff said.

A unique short-term solar loan Greenpenny offers matches the tax credit a customer receives. The customer pays a small interest payment and then pays off the loan when the federal government disperses the 26% tax credit. A second loan covers the remaining 74% of the project’s cost.

The average residential loan size is $40,000, with commercial projects from hundreds of thousands to millions of dollars. He noted that the bank may soon finance as many as seven community solar projects in Minnesota. But plenty of deals fall through because of low reimbursements for energy by utilities or other issues.

When he joined the company in 2021, he was surprised to find so few banks offering clean energy loans. “For us to accomplish the renewable energy transition this country needs, we need more banks to be in the game helping finance these projects,” MacDuff said.

Growing solar portfolios

In Minnesota, the largest local option remains the Center for Energy and Environment, which has established partnerships with several cities and neighborhoods and last year financed $22.7 million in projects. Of those, 145 loans totaling $3.5 million were for residential solar, up from 89 loans in 2019. Lending services director Jim Hasnik said the organization had been lending for years for efficiency improvements before it developed a solar loan in 2014.

The loans vary in term and loan-to-value size, with interest rates increasing as the length of loans climbs. Project sizes have grown, and business has been brisk this year as the popularity of solar has grown. The center requires installers to have a builder’s contractor license following a recent string of solar company bankruptcies in the state.

Solar loans remain a niche product. The Minnesota Credit Union Network’s CU Green program launched with two credit unions — Affinity Plus Federal Credit Union and Hiway Credit Union — and has seen no others join the effort. Mara Humphrey, chief advocacy and engagement officer for the network, said some credit unions have begun discussing whether to add solar loans to their portfolios, but she believes many still lack understanding of clean energy projects and will have to see demand grow before creating products for customers.

Affinity Plus had a rocky start before dropping a requirement that homeowners first hire someone to conduct a home appraisal. Members can now apply digitally for loans and receive the money the same day.

Chief Retail Officer Corey Rupp said the new solar loan program did more volume in six months than the home equity-based one did in four years.

“I think homeowners are a little more comfortable with it,” Rupp said. The credit union is now studying loans for electric vehicles, commercial efficiency, and solar projects.

About this story

The author: Frank Jossi is an independent journalist and consultant based in St. Paul and a longtime contributor to Midwest Energy News. Frank has been a Fulbright journalism teacher in Pakistan and Albania, and a program director of the World Press Institute at Macalester College.

This article first appeared on Energy News Network and is republished here under a Creative Commons license.

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