After nearly 25 years working for a large national bank, Jason MacDuff and two buddies of his quit their jobs and set out on a midcareer, burnout-busting trip to South America. The odyssey included stops at the Galapagos Islands and parts of the Amazon and Patagonia before finally making it to the bottom of the world at Antarctica. The focus: Exploring how to make a difference on climate change. 

“We met with lots of scientists who dedicated their lives to studying the effects of a warming planet,” MacDuff recalled. A host of scientists, including climatologists, marine biologists and glaciologists, described what the polar regions used to look like, what they looked like at the time, and what they would look like if humans didn’t change their behavior. 

Coming home in late 2019, “I walked away from that experience feeling like when I reentered the workforce and began the next chapter of my career. I really wanted to do something about a warming planet and climate change,” he said.  

After traveling thousands of miles away from Iowa to make that discovery, MacDuff learned that nearby Decorah was one of the largest per-capita solar towns in America. He was visiting Decorah for a wedding when he met an employee of Decorah Bank & Trust who told him about Greenpenny, a new venture the bank had launched to back solar-powered projects. 

“So that’s how I found out about [Greenpenny]. I had no idea that in little Decorah, Iowa — in my own backyard — that this community has one of the highest solar adoption rates in the nation. In fact, we learned just a few weeks ago that we’re second only to Honolulu, Hawaii, in solar energy adoption on a per-capita basis.” 

Decorah Bank & Trust, which has financed more than 100 solar and wind energy projects over the past five years, had been investing in solar for its own branch facilities since 2008, and in 2019 installed a 20-kilowatt solar array at its south Decorah location. With that addition, the bank had installed enough solar to produce 25% of its electricity needs. 

While Greenpenny is a virtual branch of Decorah Bank & Trust, in the summer of 2020 it started  building from scratch its own deposit base, which it hopes to expand nationwide. It’s beginning its lending activities with four states — Iowa, Illinois, Minnesota and Wisconsin. “Our deposits gathered by the Greenpenny virtual branch, if you will, will only be used to finance renewable energy projects. So we’re inextricably linked to the core bank.”  
Legally, Greenpenny is a branch of Decorah Bank & Trust, said Ben Grimstad, president and CEO of Decorah Bank & Trust. “It’s a specialty-branded branch of ours with its own website, because it has a special mission,” he said. “Decorah Bank’s mission is to serve the local area as a community bank. With Greenpenny, [customers] can be anywhere. We’re trying to take [solar lending] out farther to a broader geographic market.” 

Greenpenny provides a new way for energy-conscious people to bank, MacDuff said. “And so they can refer us to friends and neighbors and folks who might have similar values and interests, and the name helps describe what we do very easily for what we will hope is going to be a growing word-of-mouth way of marketing the brand.” 

Currently, the U.S. solar market is about where the wind energy market was about seven or eight years ago, MacDuff believes. The economics of solar have shifted in that time so that many households are able to approximately trade their electricity payments for a financing payment on a solar setup for their home. 

“It’s getting to the point where the economics are really making sense,” MacDuff said. While more efficient, lower-cost panels are coming out on the market, many traditional banks are unwilling to finance the equipment because they don’t understand it yet, he said. With the potential for further federal energy tax credits and possible state legislation ahead, “our anticipation is that solar is going to be a very meaningful source of energy for the four states we’re in, and growth is going to be north of double digits for the foreseeable future.” 

Although Greenpenny is an entirely virtual bank with no brick-and-mortar branches, “we are a community bank at heart, and so we’re people-powered,” MacDuff said. “We want to be virtual and personal, just like a community bank, with really high tech and all the tools and security that you would expect from any bank.” For instance, all deposits are FDIC-insured, and the bank offers mobile banking, remote deposit capture and ACH transfers. 

What types of solar loans are they seeking initially? 

“We’re really open to all sorts of models of financing, because particularly on the commercial side, this is still relatively new. We really look at every single one of the deals that come in front of us,” MacDuff said. Many of the project loans have been for installing solar on existing buildings, but Greenpenny is also open to looking at projects for new construction as well. 
The projects have ranged from systems for farms and small businesses to nonprofits, as well as schools, municipalities, universities and hospitals. “Our commitment is to really work hard to try to make the economics and the deal work for everybody involved,” he said. “And if we can’t make it work, we’re going to be transparent about that and explain why.”
 
The bank is working to build relationships with the 100 or so installers that operate in the Midwest region that Greenpenny covers.  

“We certainly want them all to at least know that we’re here,” MacDuff said. “And yes, we get a lot of business from them referring their customers to us for financing. And we also go and source our own customers — we do a fair amount of digital advertising.”