Going Green, Faster: How Online Platforms Can Accelerate Renewable Energy

By Stephen Abbott, Senior Associate, Rocky Mountain Institute
Jun 1, 2016 8:05 AM ET

As a founding team member of Rocky Mountain Institute’s Business Renewables Center (BRC), Stephen Abbott works with companies interested in procuring renewable energy at scale. Since its inception in 2014, the BRC has grown to include over 90 leading companies within its membership, and the BRC team has gained special insight into corporate renewable energy markets. 


Renewable energy is poised for explosive growth. Utility-scale wind and solar installations, unsubsidized, provide cheaper energy than new fossil fuel generation. Meanwhile, distributed energy resources such as rooftop solar are already saving consumers money around the globe and will continue to gain traction as prices continue to fall.

Businesses in particular are clamoring for more renewable energy options: in 2015, corporate buyers purchased 3.2 GW of off-site renewable energy, and many have joined RE100, a global initiative of influential businesses committed to 100 percent renewable electricity. 

However, for many potential customers and investors, renewable energy markets remain too complex and opaque. Online platforms are being created to address these problems by educating consumers, tapping new sources of capital, and connecting buyers and sellers. 

Educating consumers 
The varying regulatory structures and inherent complexity of the U.S. electricity system can make it difficult for consumers to understand their options. 

To help consumers understand energy regulation, platforms like DSIRE, an NC Clean Energy Technology Center initiative, provide overviews of state and federal renewable energy policies and incentives. 

Meanwhile, Google Sunroof and NREL’s PVWatts help consumers identify economically attractive opportunities for rooftop solar. Corporate buyers can also join Rocky Mountain Institute’s Business Renewables Center (BRC) to access primers on common deal structures and the critical issues companies need to understand. 

Tapping new sources of capital 
The surge in renewable development is incentivizing financiers to identify new, low-cost sources of capital. To this end, companies like Mosaic and Wunder Capital pool money from individual investors, while Re-power Capital directly pairs institutional investors with renewable energy projects in need of financing. 

Connecting buyers and sellers 
The relative immaturity of renewable energy markets can make it difficult for buyers to select vendors or locate renewable energy projects. Online marketplaces such as EnergySage and PowerScout address this by allowing customers to compare bids from multiple rooftop solar contractors. Similarly, the BRC’s Marketplace allows corporations to search through a live database of available renewable energy projects. 

Looking ahead 
These online platforms provide consumers with new, simple ways to buy renewable energy, and this expansion will continue as regulations and technologies evolve. 

Faced with broad-based public support for wind and solar energy, regulators are proposing reforms in Rhode Island and New York to expand those states’ markets for renewables. 

Meanwhile, WWF and WRI’s Buyers’ Principles and their signatories are working with regulated utilities to provide companies with options to purchase renewable energy at scale. 

Eventually, companies modeled on Dutch start-up Vandebron could even enable peer-to-peer markets; instead of buying energy from a utility, customers could be able to select specific energy generators based on their preferences. Alternatively, residential and commercial customers might be able to install a programmable device to both manage their building’s energy consumption and optimize their purchases in real time. All of this would be made possible through software, sensors, and online marketplaces. 

It will be exciting to see where we go from here.

Living Progress News is a quarterly digital publication that spotlights stories about people, ideas and technology uniting to solve the world's toughest challenges. Click here to see more and subscribe.