Solarize campaigns are a grassroots effort to help homeowners overcome the financial and logistical hurdles of installing solar power.
As a bulk purchase program, customers can save as much as 25% of the total cost of installation. Interested neighbors join forces to find a contractor, purchase and install solar systems to help customers realize cost savings through group purchasing. Solarize campaigns allow solar advocates to convert “interest” into “action” to break through market barriers and permanently transform the market for solar installations in their communities.
Solarize programs first stated nationally in Portland in 2009. The first Solarize campaign started with one resident in Southeast Portland who wanted to install solar power, but didn’t know where to start or what to ask for. The Solarize idea was developed to organize neighbors to “go solar” together, so that they could collectively make an informed purchase and possibly negotiate a volume discount.
The local neighborhood association got involved and the Energy Trust developed a volume purchasing program to meet their needs. Within six months of starting their campaign, Solarize Southeast had signed up over 300 homes and installed solar on 120 homes. The 120 installations added 350 kilowatts of new PV capacity to Portland, and will produce an estimated 359,000 kWh of electricity per year. The project also helped provide 18 professional wage jobs for site assessors, engineers, project managers, journeyman electricians, and roofers. Over two years and multiple campaigns, residents of Portland installed over 600 solar electric photovoltaic (PV) systems. The initial success soon spread throughout Oregon to include over 25 Solarize projects totaling over 4 MW of installed solar energy.
Solarize projects have several common characteristics including negotiating the lowest cost and easiest deal possible, pre-selection of a contractor, a limited-time offer and the benefits of bulk purchasing so that the more people that sign up the less expensive it is. When a local community group is involved, the scope and scale of the outreach is amplified, and neighbors are more responsive to appeals. Community-led outreach also allows the contractors to save on marketing costs because they do not need to spend as much time generating leads. With neighborhood volunteers generating hot leads, the contractors can focus on site assessments and installations.
Limited-Time Offer: Nothing motivates people like a deadline. A Solarize campaign is a limited-time offer, creating a sense of urgency among residents who don’t want to miss a good deal. The limited time offer also keeps the program true to its market transformation goals: to jump-start the solar market and then step aside. Some contractors may object to the perceived “monopoly” awarded to the contractors selected for the project. The limited-time offer may help mitigate that contractor concern. In fact, a successful Solarize campaign can increase business for non-Solarize installers as well. Installation numbers from Energy Trust demonstrate that Portland actually experienced an increase in non-Solarized installations during the Solarize campaigns.
The Energy Trust’s volume purchase program for Southeast Portland was designed to lead the customer through a simple process, from awareness to installation, over the course of six months. The process included:
Awareness: The Solarize Southeast campaign was advertised in flyers, emails, newsletters, blogs and by word of mouth. Even TV and radio media took notice late in the program.
Education: Workshops and Q&A sessions were offered throughout the community to allow all interested neighbors a chance to ask questions in a supportive environment and to lay out the steps to participation.
Enrollment: Residents enrolled in the program through a simple email to Southeast Uplift. In subsequent projects, this became an on-line application. In some projects, a short questionnaire helped enrollees self-screen for solar suitability.
Site Assessment: The installation contractor provided a site assessment and bid to all enrollees. The Energy Trust also provided an optional Solar Energy Review for participants who wanted a consultation before deciding whether to get a contractor bid.
Decision: The customer decided whether to accept the contractor’s bid at the Solarize program price. A descending price, depending on the volume of installations, encouraged the community to promote the program in order to get the lowest possible price. There were few variables, other than system size and in some cases, a choice of modules, so the customer’s decision usually came down to a simple yes or no.
Installation: The contractor installed the system and helped the customer through the paperwork for the Energy Trust cash incentive, and state and federal tax credits. The program offered a significant discount.
While volunteers propelled the project forward, it required the coordinated effort of many players including: the City of Portland, the Energy Trust and Solar Oregon.