Personal experiences from small-scale solar investments: Trine

In this article, I’ll share my experiences investing small amounts in Trine, a for-profit company, that uses crowdfunding to finance small solar energy social development projects, whilst giving good interest rates to the investor. I’ll briefly discuss energy access issues, how Trine is tackling this and my personal experiences. All graphics are credited to Trine, with permission to use in this blog.

Over 1 billion people lack reliable electricity access, but if you are reading this, you’ve got electricity access, something we probably take for granted. Its something that’s considered so basic we don’t give it any thought. We enter a dark room, flick a switch and we’re able to carry on with whatever we planned, be that basic things such as preparing a meal, reading a book, or catching up on the days events with friends and family whilst being able to see their faces. After spending 18 months volunteering and working for a Peruvian non-profit WindAid Institute (read more about one of my projects here), I can appreciate the challenges involved in providing clean electricity to those without and whilst making it affordable and reliable.

I was exposed to the idea of crowd financing, whilst participating in a sustainability lab. Whilst discussing how to finance sustainability projects, I discovered that in various countries people ‘voted with their feet’ by leaving banks that have shown to be using customers money in unethical investments. These banks were forced into adopting new practices such as renewable energy assets due to customers demanding ethical investments. One such company to have been brainstormed by participants of one of these sustainability labs (myClimate YES Labs) is Trine.

localbusiness zambia

Trine aims to raise investments from crowds of everyday people, starting from €25, to help solar entrepreneurs increase solar energy adoption in Africa. The easy to use Trine platform regularly has new projects ready for funding. Trine facilitates their solar partners/entrepreneurs by supplying the capital to purchase off-grid solar kits. They then sell these systems on a Pay as You Go (PAYG) basis to people who sometimes have no electricity access, or have a huge daily expense from unreliable fossil fuel based electricity systems. A big barrier to entry for people in energy poverty is the high upfront costs, which is why this method is a great enabler, by allowing the user to repay the total cost over a defined period.

If you’ve read enough and are excited to invest in solar energy with Trine you can use my referral link here Join Trine, and when you invest you get €10 in addition to whatever your investing. Full transparency here; I also get €10 to invest in a Trine project when you invest. If you want to understand more (as I did), I may be able to answer some of your questions.

Their website explains things clearly in simple language and I encourage you to read their FAQ. At the end of this post, there are some really useful links to carry on your research as I recommend you to do, as none of this article contains financial advice.

My Experience

I’m very happy I decided to invest in October 2017, the platform is very easy to use and was able to load my electronic wallet by making a payment with my credit card, you can also do SEPA international transfer via online banking which is fairly straightforward but make sure to investigate into the international fees your bank may apply (I’m British, the system may be different elsewhere).

The two projects I invested in had 50% backing by the UK Aid and Fosera, meaning if the solar partner failed to repay the loan, I would receive 50% of the total sum I had invested. This is investing, after all, you take on a level of risk to gain the higher interest rates. For me I’ve taken the point of view that should this happen, I’ve made a small donation that hopefully has helped give a small number of people access to electricity. The projects had 24 month periods at 5.1% interest on the initial investment. Here’s a short story about one of the projects and you can read about them in the links below.

End User Story

customer-photo.jpg

Kenneth Musanda (left) is one of our esteemed customers. He has a solar home system (SHS) which he relies on for all his lighting needs. He uses his solar radio to keep up to date with current affairs, as well as keeping his household entertained. Through a VITALITE competition, Kenneth’s consistency and loyalty resulted in him being awarded the “Certificate of Loyalty” and a free month paid off his SHS to VITALITE(solar partner).

What I will share with you is my repayment history so far. It’s been, as it was laid out from the start, and I get an email notification from Trine each time the repayment is in my wallet. I’ve since taken that repayment amount and re-invested it into another project (BBOX3X in the transaction history).

trine1 - dashboard

trine2 - impact

In your dashboard you get an ‘Impact Summary’ showing you the positive impact your investment has made over the lifetime of the solar equipment.

trine3 - transaction history

You get a breakdown of your ‘Transaction History’ the in’s and out’s of your account. And ‘Expected Repayments’ that are due with their schedule;

trine5 - repayments

Also a useful ‘Tax summary’ to help with your tax assessment;

trine4 - tax

My Concerns

It seemed to good to be true, investing in a project to help people escape energy poverty, whilst also receiving interest on our money. I decided to contact Trine via their messaging service to ask some questions, and within a week I had a response. I have since followed up with additional questions and got a response within 2 days. Could you say the same about other investment firms or you bank?

Payment Plans

I was concerned about the solar customers taking on debt for a system that potential they were unable to afford. Hanna and Andreas from Trine, explained that the end user would get a payment plan broken down to weekly/monthly payments, and its likely the end user saves money by buying solar, and not having to buy kerosene/ paraffin to be be burned in fossil fuel based generators. These examples are based on follow up questions with Andreas of Trine to give a sense of the money involved for the end solar users, to help understand the first project I invested in.

  • Existing Monthly Energy cost (kerosene/paraffin/diesel) : 900 KES (€6.8 / £6)
  • Solar Energy system payment monthly plans : 780 – 4100 KES (€6.60/£5.80 – €34.50/£30.65)

Depending on the project and business model, typical repayment times, are between 6 – 36 months, then one of the following is likely;

  1. Capital and interest is repaid, user no longer has monthly energy costs and the energy from that point on is free. After the warranty period any further maintenance costs are the owners.
  2. Other users opt into a service agreement with the solar partner.
  3. Users will pay for the energy forever (just like most humans in developed countries)

Personal Opinion

If after 3 years someone now has disposable cash from having free energy that’s fantastic, they have the choice of whether to save that money ready for when they need to replace components or use that available cash however they see fit. At the other end of the spectrum users pays for their electricity service, which is now coming from clean reliable source without the associated health risks of fumes from using fossil fuel generators. After spending some time volunteering & working in international development (ICS- Raleigh and Engineers without Borders), I’m a firm believe that donations of infrastructure aren’t sustainable. If something is gifted, it’s not generally looked after, and not appreciated. If you’ve purchased something at a fair price or by making service payments that you can afford, it’s much more likely to last over the longer term, because you’re financially involved, and have invested in the project.

Warranties on Equipment

A key part of what we did in Peru with WindAid Institute with our renewable energy systems was maintenance and servicing the equipment and systems. So I enquired about the warranties for the solar equipment the solar partners buy and support. One of my projects detailed it had a 3 year warranty on the solar system itself, and 1 year for accessories, such as phone chargers and light bulbs. These warranties are from the date of manufacture, and I’m unsure on what the the lead time is between purchase and delivery. Provided solar panels don’t suffer from impact, its pretty common for a solar panel to last in excess of 20 years with a small amount of degradation. A key part is the batteries in the system, however Trine shared general life expectancies of 8 – 10 years for the systems batteries. I’d imagine it depends on project and solar partner, but Andreas further reported most carry spares that customers can purchase, or the solar partners offer repair services.

Final Thoughts

Trine’s website is easy to use, full of information and staff have been very responsive to my queries. I love getting their email with update on new projects, and notified when I’ve had a repayment of my loan. I’m a renewables advocate and the fact that one individual can use their money to help improve someone’s quality of life, whilst gaining interest is simply fantastic to me. One feature I haven’t yet tried is withdrawing from the online wallet, but Trine’s payment merchant Lemonway is very well known, and don’t anticipate a problem.

My referral link is at the bottom in Further Resources, but currently its only available to Europeans, although Trine is working on being able to accept citizens from the United States. For amounts over €1000 on some select projects, Trine is offering an additional 2% interest on your investment. However these should not be treated as savings accounts, you will not have access to the money you invest until the advertised period, please check the details of each project carefully.

Investment Process

Here’s what the platform looks like when you invest after registering and supplying some personal information. Find a new project, read about it and then invest.

In this example €250 would be invested, you get a clear breakdown of when the repayments are expected, and the total with interests at the end of the loan period (4 years). Very simple and clear.

trine6 - new investment

Other features on the platform then update depending on the investment amount such as;

trine6 - new investment 2

 

I encourage you to read more about Trine and their projects if you’ve spotted something I’ve missed or disagree with my comments I’d love to discuss them with you, thanks for reading. Email: stuart.llewellyn@gmail.com

Further Resources

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