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Columbia Engineering Students Launch Crowd-Funding Site for Solar Panels

By Patrick Wall | August 27, 2013 11:04am
 The startup Divvy will help schools and small businesses fund solar panels and green energy upgrades.
A Solar Panel Crowd-Funding Site
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MORNINGSIDE HEIGHTS — Two doctoral students in Columbia University’s earth and environmental engineering department have created a startup to help neighborhood institutions fund clean energy projects.

Divvy will let schools, churches and small businesses plan clean-energy projects, and then pay for them through online crowd-funding. Eventually, investors will be able to earn returns through the green energy the projects produce.

“We’re the kind of guys who like to figure things out,” said Divvy co-founder Rob van Haaren, 26.

Van Haaren, who is from the Netherlands, met Florida-native Kyle Fricker at Columbia, where the two bonded over their shared passion for clean energy. Van Haaren researches ways to smooth out power fluctuations at solar facilities, while Fricker studies how to capture the carbon dioxide spewed by power plants.

The two dreamed up the idea for Divvy at a bar one evening. They've built the company nearly every Saturday morning in the year and a half since then.

The idea for Divvy has much in common with crowd-funding sites like Kickstarter, where backers contribute to creative projects, and DonorsChoose.org, which funds school projects.

With Divvy, schools and other community-based organizations get free solar panels, urban wind turbines and energy-efficiency upgrades. The green-minded donors are rewarded with student science reports, gift certificates and the like.

The first school to try Divvy will be the Bronx Design and Construction Academy on East 151st Street in Melrose.

Nathaniel Wight, a science teacher at the high school who is also an engineering graduate student at Columbia, has led his students in a long-term study of the benefits of installing solar panels on green roofs.

But, so far, they have only used small Plexiglas models of solar panels — not the real things.

Through Divvy, Wight hopes to raise as much as to $10,000 to purchase working solar panels, which would feed live data to his classroom.

The panels would be installed on the school’s 1,500-square-foot green roof, which Wight found funding for on his own.

After spending three years convincing city officials to let him install the fully funded green roof, he’s convinced of the need for a company like Divvy to simplify that process.

“For teachers, it’s an invaluable resource,” said Wight, who is friends with Divvy’s founders.

“Ultimately, this is all for the kids," he added. "We're talking about the next generation of architects and engineers.”

Divvy’s kickoff event, when the Bronx Design and Construction Academy project will launch, will occur Wednesday, August 28. Find details and RSVP here.