The newest benefits perk: Cheap solar power for your home
So your job gives you a 401k match and free pretzels? Cool, I guess — but your employer just got one-upped by a collection of big companies: 3M, Cisco, Kimberley-Clark, and the National Geographic Society just went in on the first corporate bulk solar purchase program. Now, their employees can install solar PV on their homes for about a third less than the national average. Brokered by the World Wildlife Foundation and solar marketplace Geostellar, the Solar Community Initiative program has the potential to reach over 100,000 people.
The WWF began by looking for sustainability programs to match with their corporate partners. “When we started thinking about major barriers for solar it kept coming back to cost and availability,” says Bryn Baker, WWF’s manager of renewable energy. “By leveraging the bulk purchasing power of that aggregate employee base, we tackled both barriers.”
There are a few different ways to use the power of numbers to defray the cost of solar, but until now, group power purchases have always been limited by geography, mostly because of state laws and specific policies applied by regional utilities. This is the first-ever nationwide solar purchase program, and the first to be sponsored by employers.
That bulk buying power, combined with Geostellar’s nationwide pricing program, is what makes the program work. By tapping the pool of 145,000 employees they were able to work backwards to find low prices that apply across the country. The average cost will be around $3 per watt, depending on the size of the home system. Homeowners’ power savings will depend based on sun availability, roof pitch, and other factors.
Ali Ahmed, a senior manager at Cisco in Cleveland, was the first person to take advantage of the program. He put a 17-panel, five-kilowatt system on the roof of his brownstone. He says the startup process took about two weeks from when he plugged his house into the Geostellar system to when he started producing power.
“Five kilowatts on my roof isn’t going to change a lot, but being able to multiply the effect and share it does something,” Ahmed says. “I like what Geostellar does from a big data standpoint, taking advantage of geospatial technology. They pass that efficiency on to the customer, so there’s not a big effort up front.”
Baker says they wanted the program to be cheap and uncomplicated: Aside from cost, the other major barrier to entry for home solar installs is that it’s really fricking confusing. Potential solar customers first have to decide what kind of array they’d like to install; then they must navigate tax credits, how to work with their local utility, and financing. Baker says that’s why Geostellar was appealing. Geostellar, which bills itself as “The KAYAK of solar,” works with local utilities and installers to aggregate all the moving parts into one place. That means users can set up an entire system with a few clicks on one single website visit. Spend a few minutes plugging in your address, and Geostellar can provide a rough estimate for how big of an array your house can hold, what it would cost, and how much money it would save you.
“We manage the whole process,” says David Levine, Geostellar’s CEO. “We do a detailed system design, and help the person qualify for financing, then we contract with a local installer. We send them the system design we produce, they do measurements to make sure the designs works, then we order the equipment and pay for it.”
While plenty of people agree that bulk purchases are a smart, fast way to scale the growth of solar for the American public, others worry Geostellar’s lowball pricing might push installers to undercut each other to get bids in states where costs are higher.
“The goal is to bring the cost down, but also to have a healthy industry,” says Meghan Barrier, program coordinator at Northwest SEED, which organizes community solar projects in Washington. “We don’t just want it to be a race to the bottom in terms of cost.”
There are also some flaws in a blanket system, because solar is regulated on a state-by-state basis. By scaling it nationwide Geostellar misses out on some state-specific tax incentives. For instance, in Minnesota and Washington, solar users get bigger tax credits if they install inverters and panels manufactured in-state. Levine says they had to compromise on local panels because they didn’t have infrastructure in all the places they would potentially install arrays. There are logistical hurdles, too: Plenty of roofs won’t work because they’re too shady or sloping (mine, for instance, isn’t a great option), some HOAs have rules against solar panels, and renters (for the time being) are SOL. But as far as a large-scale solar program goes, the Solar Community Initiative still rates highly for its broad reach and simplicity to execute.
Because of that, the WWF program has been popular. Levine says that since announcing the program in October, they have 30 installs under contract and another 300 planned. Their goal was to get 1,000 in the first year, which equates to about five megawatts of power; the early numbers in the first few weeks put them on a solid path to surpass that. He says he hopes it’s a model for how to grow renewable energy.
And the WWF isn’t stopping with partner companies. Levine says that they’ve opened up the program to let anyone in the U.S. or Canada participate through the end of the year (the code is “solarmojo” if you want in). He says they’ve already been approached by unaffiliated companies and by community groups (like the Cleveland Sustainability Board) to help roll out similar large-scale programs.
And, at a base level, Baker says she thinks the program helps make solar seem like a viable option for your average American. “We’ve seen that nine of 10 people love the idea of solar, but 97 percent of them overestimate the cost,” she says. This helps people understand the economic and environmental benefits.”
For Ahmed, those benefits are immediately apparent — even in the chill of a Cleveland winter.
“I was very worried that I wouldn’t be producing power, because it’s been so cold here in Cleveland,” he says. “But I have been. I already got my October power bill, [and] there was [only] about a week in October when I was making power and it’s already lower.”