'Solarize' program gives rise to new business models
By Lee van der Voo
The "Solarize" program, which spread from Southeast Portland nationwide, is prompting new approaches to buying solar and running solar businesses.
A couple of trend-setting businesses are popping up in a space created by Portland’s former Solarize pilot, the community-driven effort to help solar customers pool their residential solar purchases for better pricing and smoother logistics.
Solarize recently wrapped up its program after five years testing bulk-buying in the residential solar market.
The program was developed by residents in Southeast Portland and quickly caught on in other neighborhoods. Its growth was ultimately stewarded by the city of Portland with funding from the U.S. Department of Energy and support from the National Renewable Energy Lab in Colorado. Solar Oregon and Energy Trust of Oregon were partners.
Solarize collected solar-interested customers together through its program, opening timed enrollment periods in selected neighborhoods, then lowering costs for buy-in by teaming up with installers that could discount rates through their own savings on marketing and education when handed hot leads. Solarize helped smooth the buying process by hosting competitive bidding for a contractor and tackling logistics.
Through its active life, the program installed 1.6 megawatts of distributed solar —panels on a variety of rooftops — on 576 buildings through six neighborhood campaigns in Portland, said Andria Jacob, a clean energy manager with the city and overseer of the program.
Solarize meanwhile cut costs by 30 percent for buyers, and is credited with creating 50 jobs. The program has since sunset, but not before distributing federal grants to 13 other Oregon communities to replicate its model and helping the National Renewable Energy Lab develop a Solarize Guidebook. Since the guidebook’s first publication in 2011, dozens of communities, companies and contractors around the nation have pressed the collective-purchasing idea forward.
“We’ve seen the geographic dispersion of the Solarize program and we’ve seen this evolution of workplace Solarize offerings,” said Jason Coughlin, a solar project finance specialist at the National Renewable Energy Lab, who said install prices now hover between $3.75 and $5.25 a watt, depending on geography, in the programs.
What’s new, however, is that workplaces are offering Solarize programs to emphasize their own sustainability missions, or at least sanctioning Solarize programs by allowing brownbag lunches and other info sessions in the workplace. Among examples, Coughlin pointed to the city of Denver, Colorado State, several federal agencies, Ch2MHill and the National Renewable Energy Lab in Colorado as participating in an effort that prompted about 100 new “solarizing” customers to sign on.
But perhaps most interesting is that private sector companies are now finding a niche as the Department of Energy’s direct support of Solarize programs ends.
Oakland-based GroupEnergy, for example, is delivering procurement programs to pool clean energy-buying power in the workplace.
Focused on employee engagement, GroupEnergy clients include Adobe’s Green Team, Bank of America, the Bay Area Climate Collaborative SunShares program, and Genentech. The company researches and chooses vendors and helps participants lower energy bills through renewable energy. It works either directly with large employers or through nonprofits and governments. It also counts ICLEI as a customer - the Local Governments for Sustainability USA – and administers its new Energy Benefits clean energy procurement program.
One Block Off the Grid, based in San Francisco, launched a similar venture, so far capturing opportunity in California, Colorado and Arizona where residential solar markets are hot, according to Coughlin. The for-profit venture, also known as 1BOG, establishes programs in target cities and then assists in lowering costs, building a bridge between customers and installers and cutting down on confusion. The company’s focus is its three-month campaigns, but 1BOG has also developed web tools to ease solar adaption, including a mapping tool that lets customers compare solar technologies for their home.
Coughlin said news of ICLEI’s involvement in the sector through GroupEnergy likely means that ICLEI will lead the charge in distributing the Solarize model to new communities. The nonprofit association is a member group of cities and local governments dedicated to sustainable development. It counts more than 550 large cities and 450 small and medium towns in 84 countries as members, including 12 in Oregon: Ashland, Beaverton, Bend, Clackamas County, Corvallis, Eugene, Hillsboro, Lake Oswego, Lincoln City, McMinnville, Milwaukie and Portland. Coughlin said new Solarize efforts in Oregon could likely come through the ICLEI pipeline.
Smaller, stand-alone nonprofit-led efforts meanwhile appear to be getting results. Seattle-based nonprofit Northwest Sustainable Energy for Economic Development has installed 237 killowatts of solar on 56 buildings. The Massachusetts Clean Energy Center installed 829 killowatts of solar on 162 buildings. And Vermont Public Interest Research Group installed 300 killowatts of solar on 60 buildings.
As private markets and nonprofit groups take over, Jacob says Portland’s job is about done.
“The model is built and the tools are there and the point of it was that it shouldn’t necessarily need ongoing funding if it’s really replicable,” she said.
She’s since turned her attention to developing community shared solar projects — or off-site projects for people who are interested in solar but have a shady lot or buyers who want to invest in solar but at a lower price point than putting solar on their own rooftops.
If you are commenting using a Facebook account, your profile information may be displayed with your comment depending on your privacy settings. By leaving the 'Post to Facebook' box selected, your comment will be published to your Facebook profile in addition to the space below.