Investors who ‘couldn’t care less’ about clean energy are giving money to a solar finance fund promising big returns

Solar installers from Baker Electric place solar panels on the roof of a residential home in Scripps Ranch, San Diego, California, U.S. October 14, 2016.

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Solar installers from Baker Electric place solar panels on the roof of a residential home in Scripps Ranch, San Diego, California, U.S. October 14, 2016.
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REUTERS/Mike Blake

  • Wunder Capital connects investors with commercial solar projects that need financing.
  • The commercial solar market is growing, and is primed to continue.
  • The company says many investors don’t necessarily care about the environment – they just see solar as a smart investment.

A common perception of impact investing is that you have to make sacrifices to put your money behind a good cause.

Bryan Birsic, the CEO of Wunder Capital, a solar investment startup, says that’s exactly the wrong way to think about it.

“Impact investors want to feel as though the positive impact their money has is a cherry on top, a tie-breaker, or whatever analogy you want to use,” Birsic told Business Insider. “They do not want to feel like they’re sacrificing return.”

Birsic founded Wunder Capital, which is based in Boulder, Colorado, with two other ex-pats from the New York City tech and banking worlds: Dave Riess and Sam Beaudin. According to a company spokesperson, Investors get returns between 6% and 7.5%, depending on the timeframe of their investment.

How Wunder works

For a minimum investment of $1,000, accredited investors, who must meet certain income or net-worth thresholds, can put money into one of Wunder’s managed funds.

The funds are used to give commercial enterprises – like small businesses, warehouses, and schools – loans to help them switch to solar power. Returns are generated as the businesses pay back the loans (plus interest) for the technology. The money is then deposited directly into investors’ accounts.

Wunder also provides advice and expertise to companies looking to switch to solar power, and matches solar installers with projects.

Solar electric panels on residential building in down town Los Angeles

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Solar electric panels on residential building in down town Los Angeles
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Thomson Reuters

“It’s like a solar index fund,” Ilyas Frenkel, Wunder’s director of growth, told Business Insider. “And solar is growing massively.”

Wunder was started in 2014 and raised $3.6 million of venture capital in a Series A round in March 2016, Frenkel said. The company is looking to close a Series B early in 2018.

The company also recently launched a new fund, Wunder Capital 5, with a 5-year term targeting a 7.5% return, Frenkel said.

The commercial solar market is primed for growth

Birsic says that Wunder’s focus on solar isn’t only for environmental reasons, though that’s a large part of the company’s mission.

Analysts divide the solar market into three segments: Residential, commercial, and utility-scale.

While the growth of residential solar has slowed down in recent years, the utility-scale solar market is booming due to declining costs.

In 2017, the residential sector grew 1% quarter-over-quarter, according to the Solar Energy Industries Association. The slow growth, according to the SEIA, is largely a function of national installers scaling back operations, as well as a weaker market in California and the Northeast.

During the same year, 58% of all new solar installations were utility-scale, according to the SEIA. And the cost of installing solar panels across all market sectors has dropped 70% since 2010, thanks in part to federal tax credits.

Commercial solar prices alone have fallen 58% since 2012, according to the SEIA. The commercial market – led by companies like Apple, Wal Mart, and Amazon – has grown 31% year-over-year, according to the SEIA. And that’s where Wunder sees opportunity.

An employee walks between rows of solar panels at a solar power plant on the outskirts of Dunhuang

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An employee walks between rows of solar panels at a solar power plant on the outskirts of Dunhuang
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Thomson Reuters

“We like to think that there’s this big underserved need,” Birsic said. “Commercial should have grown three times or four times more that these other markets have, so there’s a big opportunity in playing catch-up there. And it helps these businesses to go solar.”

As the only firm that directly connects investors with commercial solar projects, Wunder is breaking ground in the industry. Other solar finance firms, like SolarCity and Sunrun, focus more on residential projects, according to The Wall Street Journal.

It’s important to note, however, that Wunder isn’t a hardware company. It’s situated in the “services layer,” meaning that its expertise lies in fundraising and bringing in customers to buy solar panels.

Many of Wunder’s investors don’t really care about the environment, Birsic said. They just like Wunder’s returns.

“We have investors that couldn’t care less that solar is clean power,” Birsic said. “They simply like the risk-return profile. Understanding that is really important for understanding how the impact-investing market can grow.”

An earlier version of this story originally ran in July, 2016.