Neighbors Seize Power
Published In: EnergyBiz Magazine November/December 2012
SOLARIZE PORTLAND begin in 2008 when Stephanie Stewart, a resident of the Mount Tabor neighborhood in southeast Portland, Ore., heard about the photovoltaic group purchasing campaigns that were then taking place in the Bay Area. An active member of her neighborhood association, Stewart saw an opportunity for that group to organize a similar campaign for neighbors to go solar together and obtain a discounted price on panels.
The folks from the Mount Tabor Neighborhood Association turned to others for technical assistance and support, including staff from their district coalition office, Southeast Uplift, and Energy Trust of Oregon. A web-savvy designer, Stewart coined the term "Solarize Southeast" and created a website. Thus, the first Solarize campaign was born.
Solar energy has a wide appeal to consumers, but people are often stymied by high upfront costs and complexity in the solar marketplace. The premise of Solarize is simplification of the solar purchasing process. Solarize efforts are characterized by three common elements. They are competitive contractor selection, community-led outreach with a trusted partner and a limited-time offering.
Selecting contractors through a competitive process led by community volunteers eliminates the headache of contractor vetting and selection for individual homeowners. The process provides transparency and builds consumer confidence.
Neighbor-to-neighbor appeals and community-sponsored educational workshops have proven to be extraordinarily successful means of engaging residents and shortening the PV sales cycle. This type of customer acquisition also saves contractors the expense of marketing, enabling them to offer even further discounts on the installation price. Portland's electric utilities have supported the program with staff members who attend the workshops to explain interconnection and net-metering.
The limited-time offering is a proven consumer sales tactic; nothing conveys a sense of urgency quite like a deadline.
Within six months, Solarize Southeast signed up more than 300 residents and installed solar on 130 homes. The 130 installations added 350 kilowatts of new PV capacity to Portland and created 18 professional-wage jobs for site assessors, engineers, project managers, journeyman electricians and roofers.
The Solarize concept quickly spread to other quadrants of the city. The Portland Bureau of Planning and Sustainability saw an opportunity to take the concept to scale and pitched the idea to the U.S. Department of Energy Solar Program. With support from the Energy Department, the Bureau has taken Solarize Portland to every neighborhood in the city and to communities across the state. During the past three years, Solarize has helped Portland add more than 1.7 megawatts of distributed PV and establish a strong, steady solar installation economy.
In fact, Solarize Portland is so successful that Solarize campaigns have spread to communities in Massachusetts, Washington, Vermont and California. Communities wishing to undertake their own version of Solarize can now do so, thanks to the Energy Department's publication, The Solarize Guidebook: A Community Guide to Collective Purchasing of Residential PV Systems, a how-to manual that details how community members can capture volume discounts through collective solar purchasing.
The model has proven so successful that new twists on Solarize keep emerging, such as employer-based group purchasing programs. The Solarize story is far from over.