Up to now, the main impediments to powering your home with solar energy have been cost and a confusing sales process, but Dave Llorens wants to change that.
His San Francisco-based startup, One Block Off The Grid, operates as a kind of solar brokering middleman, gathering together large groups of home owners to negotiate cheaper deals with solar installation companies, often saving customers as much as 15 percent.
Llorens also guides his clients through the complex process, simplifying the science of solar energy and breaking down the jargon that throws off most consumers.
It's not like buying a bathroom remodel, where you can look at different contractor quotes and say, 'OK, I like that one,' said Llorens, who prior to launching 1BOG www.1bog.org two years ago, worked in sales for Next Energy Solar, a large Bay Area solar installation firm. You have to know rebates and incentives, and the difference between a DC watt and an AC watt. The average consumer can't know these things. It's like if a plumber came into your home and asked, 'what type of pipes would you like in your plumbing?' And you're like, 'I don't care, I just want it to not leak and do what it supposed to do.'
To simplify things even further, Llorens created a handy Web-based calculator that allows consumers, without much technical knowledge, to plug in some basic information about their home (location, roof dimensions, wood or brick, sunny or shady, etc.) and be provided with a free assessment of the cost of installing the panels.
Llorens said his system works because it saves money for both parties - the home owner and the installer - and eliminates a lot of the trust issues that surround the process of buying solar panels. 1BOG makes money by charging the installer a fixed fee of 25 cents per watt installed, which works out on average to about $1,000 per home.
The industry spends such a huge amount on customer acquisition that this is a huge savings for them and we can pass that on to our members, he said, adding consumers are more likely to sign up if they know they're part of a large group in the same community. If you find somebody on the block who's got solar already, the receptivity to other people on the block for getting solar is like ten-fold. So we're trying to create that feeling.
Llorens explained the company's name is a metaphor, whereby through the act of converting blocks of homeowners - 100 at a time - to solar energy 1BOG is theoretically removing the equivalent of an entire city block from the conventional fossil-fuel dependent electric grid. So if we get enough homes to go solar, metaphorically, we've taken a block off the grid.
Earlier this year 1BOG raised $5 million in funding from venture capital firm New Enterprise Associates, which Llorens said will be used to expand the company's reach from 12 to 24 cities across the country by the end of the year. Currently 1BOG operates in six states, from California to New Jersey. Llorens said a sunny climate and an abundance of government incentives and rebates are the main determinants for the communities they enter.
Last year 1BOG helped place solar panels in nearly 600 homes and Llorens said we'd like to do about 5-10 times that in 2010.
That may be a tough sell in the U.S. where the solar energy adoption rate is less than 1 percent, something Llorens is attempting to change by appealing to the post-recessionary consumer, whose main concern is paring down expenses.
I think most people currently think solar is something that rich environmentalists do and it's not, he said, noting the installation pays for itself very quickly - often within five years - and the consumer then reaps the benefits for the lifetime of the solar panels. You've got three decades of free power. That's the production of a commodity that only increases in value. So the economics look great; it basically crushes all other investments you can make in that situation.
Llorens said the solar industry has been plagued by boom and bust cycles, where consumer demand is driven by government subsidies and when the rebate period ends, so does the demand. While Llorens said he was heartened by the $80 billion for clean-energy investments included in last year's Recovery Act legislation, President Barack Obama needs to do more to promote solar as a solution to consumers.
There's going to be a lot of stimulus headed this way, there's going to be a lot of, I think, scalable, long-standing rebates, said Llorens, who does lots of grassroots marketing, which involves election-style yard signs and hosting house parties to talk about solar. But it would also help if (Obama) stood up and said, hey, you should check out solar. Just check it out, get a quote, because it may save you money.