National solar installers are fighting like never before to acquire customers and market-leader SolarCity, which owned 36% of the U.S. market in Q3 2014, is taking it to a new level.
By bringing in Jon Carson, the national field director for President Obama's 2008 campaign, to lead its new sales effort, the national solar installer and funder signaled a new approach to getting referrals.
“It is one thing to have someone show they are interested online and get a few emails and have a nice app they can go to,” Carson said of the websites and social media SolarCity and other national installers now use. “But when people are connected to a SolarCity energy consultant and a team of people, that is when you will see real results.”
It sounds a little more innovative than it really is. SolarCity’s energy consultants are the sales people who are the point of contact for all installers. SunPower’s My Sunpower is comparable to the MySolarCity website that will be Carson’s jumping off point. Most national solar installers’ websites similarly offer toll free phone contacts, online chatting for queries, and free online estimates.
Most leading installers websites also tout the advantages offered by solar leasing, including no upfront costs, no maintenance responsibilities, and a long-term guaranteed low electricity rate. “Need some reasons to choose us?” Sunrun asks before offering references from “60,000 customers” who are “real people really happy about real big savings.”
Carson likes the metrics of solar customer acquisition, which is different from his experience in leading the Obama administration’s Organizing For America program. “At OFA, we mobilized thousands and thousands of people around health care,” Carson said. “But can you draw a clear connection to how many people we got signed up for the Affordable Care Act because of that work? You can’t.”
In policy and advocacy, “it can be a little fuzzy. Is all the work we are doing to go after climate science deniers helping or not? If you get 1,000 letters to a Congressman, did it influence him?” Carson asked. “I have never worked on anything with such absolutely clear metrics.” And clear metrics, he explained, “make for great organizing.”
Like Sungevity's Share the Sun program that offers a $500 reward “every time a friend goes solar” whether the referrer is a customer or not, Carson’s ambassadors will get a $250 reward for a referral that leads to a new customer. But Carson wants to use that money and his outreach skills to drive solar growth a little differently.
“I am interested in building teams of ambassadors around their city or their county or their state and feeling like they are working as part of a team,” he said. “There could also be teams competing to direct the most rewards money to non-profit organizations like the local Boys and Girls Club or the PTA.”
Three keys to organizing
Carson sees three ways his experience in organizing will drive success at SolarCity. “You have to have something people are excited about and proud to talk about,” he said. “It is hard to think of something people can be more proud of than producing their own clean electricity right on the roof. I see that box as checked.”
Second, there has to be an easy way to bring people in. That is the technology SolarCity and other installers are already using. And the way his experience will most specifically apply is what made him choose SolarCity over other offers, Carson said.
Social and digital media are like “a butterfly net,” he explained. It gets attention. “But when you connect people to other people in person and build that team spirit and build real human connections, you get big, serious results. That is where our energy consultants come in. They are going to be amazing with these ambassadors.”
They will need to be. Competitors with big resources are pushing hard at SolarCity.
The competition coming
Vivint Solar, a unit of home alarm/energy management system giant Vivint created in 2011 and fresh off a successful billion dollar IPO, has quickly emerged as the second biggest U.S. solar installer by capturing about 15% of the Q2 2014 market.
Vivint Solar is building on Utah-based Vivint’s 15-year-old business model that employs thousands of college students in door-to-door commission selling. It is estimated about half of that sales force has difficult-to-discourage Mormon missionary training.
NRG Home/Solar is bringing competition from another direction. Backed by the Fortune 250-level resources of independent power provider NRG Energy and its 53 gigawatt generation portfolio, NRG Solar this year bought Roof Diagnostics Solar (RDS) and Pure Energies Group.
RDS has one of the biggest U.S. solar sales and installation capabilities. Pure Energies is one of the U.S. leaders in online residential solar customer acquisition. Together, they are expected to dramatically raise NRG Solar’s profile as it expands into the U.S.-leading California market.
Solar still provides less than 1% of U.S. electricity, but is expected to surpass 17 gigawatts of cumulative capacity in 2014. There is room for all the players but that isn’t likely to lessen the competition.
“Right now our number one mission is just awareness of the opportunity,” Carson said. He is not worried that creative efforts during the program’s expansion will backfire. “Stuff happens to every organization and every company,” he said. “Some might react by shutting that down. I think that is a mistake when you do the cost-benefit analysis. There are going to be trolls on everything but the benefit of getting people involved far outweighs the risk.”
He also expects his ambassadors to help turn back efforts to erode solar-supporting policies. He expects to see them defending net metering and to be a factor in regulatory proceedings that aim to alter electricity rates in ways that would be unfavorable to solar.
“Before you realize you have an option, your electric bill is just something you pay and you grumble about,” Carson said. “As we get more customers, as we get more solar ambassadors, people are going to understand that there is choice, that there are decisions being made that affect them.”