There are nearly as many models of community solar as there are communities to adopt them. Solstice, a DOE SunShot grant recipient and nonprofit, is breaking down barriers to solar energy adoption using an online platform and community-organizing techniques pioneered in Obama’s presidential campaign.
We recently sat down with Solstice co-founder Sandhya Murali, and Forrest Watkins, Solstice’s development officer. Below are some highlights from our conversation:
What is Solstice and how did it come to be?
While in graduate school at Princeton, Solstice CEO Steph Speirs and co-founder Steve Moilanen worked with an Indian think tank exploring opportunities for scaling up the deployment of solar microgrids, which are being used to expand energy access to the ~300 million people in India who lack electricity. Steph’s research took her to the field, where she realized that the off-grid rural villages she visited were often in a better position to obtain solar power than households in her own country.
Upon returning to the US, they joined forced with co-founder Sandhya Murali to achieve the goal of putting affordable solar in the hands of every American, regardless of income or the type of roof they possessed. In pursuit of this mission, they chose to seek scalable, sustainable solutions to make it easy for households to subscribe to local solar farms.
Since its founding three years ago, Solstice has grown to include 17 team members from a range of personal and professional backgrounds. The team has done community outreach and enrolled households in 13 solar farms across Massachusetts, New Jersey, New York, and Washington D.C., led the creation of inclusive solar policy in New York, and is working with the U.S. Department of Energy to remove barriers to solar for low-income Americans.
How does Solstice achieve its mission to make solar accessible to every American?
Approximately 80% of Americans cannot install rooftop solar panels, because they do not own their home, they have inadequate savings and credit, or because shading and orientation make their rooftop ineligible. Meanwhile, community solar developers’ customer acquisition and management costs are rising. Solstice uses an online platform and community organizing techniques connect households easily to local solar gardens, while crafting innovative financing solutions to make community solar contracts accessible to low- to moderate-income (LMI) communities.
Solstice has deep experience in community organizing. Its co-founders started their careers working for the Obama campaign, so they knew the potential of using network effects to spread solar to the mainstream. Our secret has been maintaining a mission-oriented approach to expanding solar implementation. When we go into communities or start conversations with potential customers, we’re not looking first and foremost to make a sale, we’re looking to learn about them, to figure out if community solar is right for their household, and if it is, to share that opportunity and our conviction that community solar is the best way to bring solar to every American.
What were some of the major lessons learned in launching Solstice?
Building a truly values-driven social enterprise will always be a challenge. Many businesses are trying to do good, but few have built those impacts into the core of their institutional makeup. It can be challenging to work within traditional business frameworks, that are often set up with a singular focus on profit, and still make space for our own objectives of fighting climate change and expanding social and economic inclusion.
We wouldn’t be anywhere without the support of mentors and funders who share our mission and values. We’re also extremely grateful for the support of funders such as Obvious Ventures, Echoing Green, Techstars, Pipeline Angels, and Dorm Room Fund, which have supported our growth and our initiatives to expand awareness about community solar and get new households involved in solar energy.
This 1.4 MW community solar farm, developed by BlueWave Solar, sits atop a capped landfill in Dover, MA — an ideal location in terms of minimizing impact to the local environment. Solstice was responsible for enrolling customers in this solar farm.
What are some notable projects and grants that you have been a part of, including the SunShot grant you received in 2016 – and how have they impacted your ability to execute?
The SunShot grant that you refer to has made it possible for us to move forward with a project that we have always wanted to tackle: finding better ways to qualify customers for community solar. Currently, nearly everyone in the industry uses FICO scores to ensure that the customers they enroll in their projects will be able to consistently pay their solar bill. Financiers often require scores upwards of 700, a requirement that less than half of the American populous can fulfill. Yet across income brackets, most households consistently pay their utility bills, and those who are disproportionately excluded — low-income Americans — are precisely the ones that would benefit the most from the savings that community solar affords its customers.
A substantial number of Americans are locked out of the solar market because the best metric we have can’t actually predict their ability to pay. Our solution is to make a better metric. Working with the Department of Energy and academics at MIT and Stanford, we’re using energy customer data to make a metric that will accurately be able to tell community solar developers whether customers will be able to pay their solar bill.
How do you determine good candidates for your program – can anyone take advantage of solar through Solstice?
Solstice was founded to bring solar to every American household, and that’s the work that gets us out of bed in the morning. Unfortunately, there are a number of issues that still limit participation by historically disadvantaged communities.
This infographic goes into more depth on the issues confronting solar adoption and how community solar can address these challenges. Most low-income Americans are renters, and thus can’t commit to an agreement that lasts for 20 years. Solar developers understand this problem and are working to address it. After spending three years advocating for more accessible short-term contracts, we are currently working on a project in Upstate New York that offers 6 year subscriptions and has eliminated cancellation fees. Still, we can’t wait for the day when we can call up a household and tell them that they can sign up for solar energy with no strings attached. We are working hard to make that day happen.
How have the solar gardens (aka community solar) benefited the communities in which they have been installed?
Solar gardens benefit their communities in all sorts of ways that you might not expect. Besides providing renewable energy, fighting climate change, and mitigating air and water pollution from fossil fuels, they also provide direct and consistent savings to the households that subscribe. And while citizens are right to ask about impacts to the local environment, solar farms are increasingly being built in environmentally neutral areas, such as capped landfills, brownfields, and superfund sites. In some cases, they even provide spray-free habitats for pollinators.
Solar farms also benefit their broader communities, bringing revenues to local governments and schools and providing jobs to local construction and electric contractors.
We have also seen cases where solar gardens allow local institutions to subscribe, building their ties to local communities, saving them money on their energy costs, and de-risking the solar farm. That’s what happens when people get together and do good work! (Learn more in the section of this post about the Bridgewater Parish Church.)
What are some examples of top states and regions that are effectively utilizing community solar and what can we learn from them?
Colorado, New York, Minnesota, and Massachusetts are generally viewed as the country’s most developed markets for community solar. Each of these four markets has its own unique features, and the differences in their trajectories in the last few years have taught us a lot about what a good solar policy ought to look like. The rapid starts and stops in markets in Massachusetts and New York, for example, have shown us both how excited people are about community solar, and how regulatory uncertainty and short-term policy structures can limit the development of community solar projects.
Where do you see Solstice in two years? Ten years?
We plan on enrolling 50,000 customers in the next five years. This will provide a total annual savings of >$12 million to American households, many of whom would not otherwise be able to access clean energy. By generating market demand, we will also stimulate the deployment of 250 new solar projects. We have estimated that this will avoid about 285,000 tons of CO2 per year, equivalent to 274 million pounds of coal not burned.
What are some strategies and tips you can offer our readers on marketing to the LMI community? What have you found works best in converting this audience to solar?
We have to remember that when it comes to LMI communities and clean energy, we are dealing with an understandable trust deficit. Unscrupulous companies have taken advantage of LMI communities in the past. That’s why leveraging network effects is the best approach to working with low-income communities. A household won’t sign up because strangers told them it was a good idea; they’ll sign up because someone they already trust got onboard. We’re currently seeking funding to launch more LMI outreach campaigns. As we have more opportunities to work directly with these communities, we plan to codify and publish our learnings and best practices for LMI outreach efforts – both in terms of finding the most effective methods to build trust and sign up households, and putting these communities in positions where they can help drive project outcomes. We publish updates about our efforts in our newsletter and on our blog, so feel free to follow along!
What is a final thought about Solstice that we can share with our readers?
As any entrepreneur will confirm, it takes a lot of hard work to grow a company from the ground up. We draw energy from our work, though, and we think that says a lot about our team and the work itself. Every member of Solstice is here because of our shared values and our belief that our energy systems should work for everyone. It can be a daunting goal, but it also makes this an exciting and fun place to work. (and we’re hiring!)
Interested in learning more about community solar? Do you think you may have a community that could benefit from the Solstice platform? Let us know at firstname.lastname@example.org.