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UWM Students Kickstart Solar Project in Milwaukee

Susan Bence
Milwaukee Public Radio
Mike Ballo below the rooftop slated to be lined with 10 solar panels.

River Revitalization Foundation is a nonprofit headquartered in what originally was a brick ranch along the Milwaukee River, upstream from downtown Milwaukee. Surrounded by restored shoreline, the south-facing portion of the building’s roof will soon be topped with ten solar panels.

Credit Susan Bence
River Revitalization Foundation executive director Kimberly Gleffe shows off donated solar panels.

That’s if Mike Ballo achieves his goal to raise $10,567 to install the panels. The panels themselves were donated to the foundation.

Ballo, who is about to graduate from UWM with a degree in electrical engineering, says he’s always been interested in renewable energy.

“I started out as a civil engineer (student) but I was like ‘Hey, I really think renewables and solar is my passion', so I made that switch second semester freshman year.” Ballo adds, “I can happily or proudly say I made the right choice.”

His team is one of seven, made up of university students around the country, raising money for solar projects.

They’re all coordinated by a nonprofit based in San Francisco called RE-volv. It crowdfunds solar projects to cover the upfront costs for nonprofits and cooperatives.

In turn, those organizes pay back RE-volv through a 20-year lease-to-own contract.

“If you get one solar system installed that will in turn (help) three future projects,” Ballo explains. “Because as local nonprofits such as the River Revitalization Foundation pay RE-volv over their 20-year contract, they’re still saving more than 15 percent off their usual energy bill, but part of those proceeds also go into the solar seed fund and that’s what funds future projects.”

Hence, he says, the name RE-volv.

Ballo along with his fellow project leaders flew out to its headquarters for training. He learned the ins and outs of solar financing and policy. “Just a lot of important stuff, that I’d say you wouldn’t learn as part of your undergraduate degree,” Ballo says.

Back in Milwaukee, he and the team got to work. “We’ve produced a massive email list. So we sent our campaign video to everyone. We sent out a newsletter to everyone when the campaign kicked off,” Ballo says.

They threw a kickoff fundraising event at a local sports bar. “Just to get the community excited about us.” Ballo adds, “We also did a kick off guest speaker event / banquet at the Fireside Lounge in the (UWM) student union.”

The team reached 30 percent of its goal within two weeks. “Which is great, because as a crowdfunding campaign, because if you reach 30 percent in the two weeks, the odds of it being successful are over 90 percent, I think,” he says.

RE-volv came to life five years ago and Ballo predicts its model will click. “Eventually the solar seed fund will grow so big that there will be no need of teams like ours, because they’ll be completely self-perpetuating,” he says.

Since my conversation with Ballo, his team has reached 48 percent of its goal. The campaign has been extended and will be ending on Monday, April 10.

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Susan Bence entered broadcasting in an untraditional way. After years of avid public radio listening, Susan returned to school and earned a bachelor's degree in Journalism from the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee. She interned for WUWM News and worked with the Lake Effect team, before being hired full-time as a WUWM News reporter / producer.