Bringing solar to the masses

Ages ago, Grist ran an interview with Anya Schoolman, a neighborhood activist who organized her Washington, D.C., community into a solar co-op. By forming a coaltion, the group was able to run a daunting gauntlet on the way to installing solar panels on 50 homes. Together, homeowners successfully lobbied for changes in local regulations, forged an agreement with their power company, performed outreach and education, and negotiated reduced costs with equipment suppliers.

It’s an inspiring story, and now it’s also a business model. One Block Off the Grid — aka 1BOG — organizes homeowners into collectives and uses their aggregate purchasing power to pry lower prices out of equipment manufacturers. 1BOG also handles all the messy red tape, in return for a commission on the installed solar capacity.

The start-up is small, but business is good:

> “Over the course of 2009 we put in about 550 solar systems, which probably puts us on par with the top five installation companies” in the nation, [co-founder David Llorens] said. “We want 2010 to be the year where we bring solar to the masses…

> In its northern New Jersey campaign, the company got a group discount rate of $5.45 per watt, which it says is a 16 percent reduction over standard rates for solar in the region.

> In Los Angeles, the company said it got a 23 percent discount for homeowners.

> While solar-power brokering may be its bread and butter, 1BOG is looking to extend its group purchasing approach to other offerings. The company recently launched a campaign in the San Francisco Bay Area to get people to sign up for discounted Prius plug-in hybrid conversions.

It’s an innovative scheme for bringing down the entry costs of clean energy. 1BOG is most active in California, but has done installations across the country. You can visit their web site to see whether solar might make sense for you.

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  1. Rob Gonzalez - February 10, 2010

    Great idea, but, especially at that scale, they need to focus. Even though at 10,000ft. they’re providing community bargaining tools, they’ll be a lot more successful and be able to grow faster if they stay focused on solar communities and leave the Prius gig and others until later. Tech companies deal with this all the time, “We’ve come up with something amazing that can change everything!” But only those that focus tend to win and grow.

  2. Suzy - February 10, 2010

    Enjoyed reading this article. Change that counts is to my experience, bottom up! I am inspired by this article and am sharing it with my neighbors in my neck of the woods.

  3. Kathy - February 10, 2010

    I like some aspects of 1BOGs plan but was disappointed when they came to our area and brought in a big solar company from elsewhere instead of working with local companies. While they are entitled to a commission for their work, it isn’t really a “community” activity when they negotiate with big solar corps to get the best prices. While I’m all for people going solar and getting off the “grid” I think greening America will take a change in consciousness, not just lower prices for electricity.

  4. Rob Gonzalez - February 10, 2010

    Oh, come now! They have to pick and choose battles. They don’t have to be “local-everything” in order to make a substantive impact. If it works better for them to negotiate with the bigger, non-local vendors, fine. Their mission is to empower local communities to switch to solar, anything super-green beyond that is just bonus.

  5. grrlfriday - February 10, 2010

    Here in San Francisco there are over 10,000 illegal units, nobody knows exactly how many. Those units, and the buildings they are in, are not able to get permits to put in solar power. SF City Hall refuses to legalize them, don’t ask me why. It generally has to do with very outmoded requirements for off-street parking. If City Hall had its way, every single ground floor in this pre-car city would be converted from housing to garage space. That’s how “progressive” our supposedly left-leaning city really is.
    Until these competing policies get untangled, upbeat-sounding initiatives like Go Solar SF, & groups like 1BOG, will be limited in the scope of what they can accomplish. I dream of the day when obstacles such as these are finally removed, and we can really move forward with the green initiatives that benefit us all.

  6. Ralph Jacobson - February 11, 2010

    In response to Rob Gonzalez, I know there is a great frustration with how long it has taken for our fair nation to “flame on” with widespread solar deployment. And maybe the big boys CAN come in and do it faster and cheaper than the local small businesses. But here I am, I’ve dedicated 20 years to building a viable solar installation business, educating my community, building the market where there was none – and for the past year I’ve been working with others in my community to develop a model that empowers a much wider cross-section of local people to invest in photovoltaic technology. A local business model! So along comes somebody from California to “do it for us” because we haven’t done it for ourselves yet? I find that thought quite discouraging. Why should I even try to accomplish anything in my community if people are going to come in from elsewhere and take over the market which I have given 20 years of my career cultivating?

  7. Ed - February 12, 2010

    In response to Rob also, If we don’t start looking at more local vendors, then when will it stop? A Chinese company coming in to install everywhere, because they are cheaper?! We have to change our way of thinking, we cannot solve our problems by doing the same things that have landed us here in the first place. I hate to say it, but the world needs to become a larger place again.

  8. Rob Gonzalez - February 13, 2010

    Ed & Ralph: I hear your concerns, and at a personal, specific level it’s hard to disagree without sound callous, but, honestly, it’s fine by me if the Chinese or whomever come around and offer solar panels at a compelling value proposition. Ed, what is sounds like you’ve been up to is actually critical to the US being able to effectively compete against the Chinese; local relationships and community cannot simply be imported from overseas. That said, the technology certainly can.
    What it sounds like they’re doing in this article is shipping a business model or community model around to areas that maybe don’t have the local leadership that you’ve been putting forth. Honestly, I see no problem with that. It’s market economics. A lot of people, in theory, want solar and want green, but in practice find it too expensive or too much of a pain. So, and I think this is what they’re doing, imagine if they took what Ed’s learned plus some community negotiating tactics, packaged it up into a great manual that could easily empower a local leader to take initiative, and also had a way to let people say, “Yes,” to solar in an easier way…great stuff. Lowers the barrier to entry, increases use of solar, gets more people less reliant on the fossil fuel-backed grid, and does all of this without extra government mandates and risky legislation.