(Editor’s Note: This is our second of two articles looking at data provided to us by NREL researcher Benjamin Sigrin as part of his SEEDS investigation. To read more about that project and our first post analyzing this data, please see: Who Chooses Run on Sun?)
While some 400,000 California homes and businesses have gone solar, there are still many folks out there who think about solar but ultimately don’t pull the trigger. The SEEDS data provides some interesting insights into the reasons why that might happen - and in the process, provides some pointers for what we as an industry can do better.
To get a handle on why consumers don’t become solar clients, it is first important to know why they were looking into solar in the first place…
It should come as no surprise to anyone that the number one reason that non-adopters cited for looking into solar was to save money on their energy bills. After all, that is what most advertising in the industry is focused on, “Save money by going solar!" Which is fine, as far as it goes, but there is the risk that some of those ad claims create unrealistic expectations among consumers.
Some of the other initial motivators are quite interesting, including seeing solar being installed on another person’s home. This is classic secondary-adoption behavior, and it suggests that we are moving away from the pioneering, early-adopters and into the general public. But unlike those pioneers, the general public is likely to be far more skeptical regarding claims by solar sales people!
So how are folks first connecting with a solar installer? For folks in SoCal, this chart will come as no surprise…
Nearly 60% first made contact by having someone show up at their door! This gives rise to the following likely scenario: consumer has been suffering from high energy bills when an aggressive salesperson shows up on their door, promising amazing savings (and frequently at “No Cost to You!”), and then doesn’t leave until the hapless homeowner signs on the dotted line. The likelihood of this scenario is bolstered by this graph that we used in our initial post…
More than 40% of all solar consumers spoke to only one solar company! Clearly for a sizeable percentage of consumers those high-pressure tactics are effective in closing the sale, but we are very concerned that they are breeding a backlash that will damage the industry in the long term (more on that in a future post).
The second most common way to first come in contact with an installer is via a recommendation, although that only occurs one-third as often as finding a stranger on your doorstep! As solar becomes more mainstream, we expect the number of first contacts by way of recommendation to go up, and hopefully the number of uninvited house guests to decline.
The bottom ranked means are particularly depressing as they include conventional advertising, review/research websites (like Yelp or Angie’s list) and the ever popular, but obviously ineffective, website forms.
These are all the means by which prospective clients are getting into the solar sales funnel, but where are they dropping out? The survey data provides some insights there, too…
Money, it seems, is still the number one impediment to going solar - and this despite the availability of zero-money down leasing programs. (Perhaps people are looking more closely into the fine print of those programs and realizing that they aren’t the great deal that they are cracked up to be?) However, the dataset of folks who did not go forward reaches back several years, and prices (and consumer access to financing) were more daunting years ago than they are today.
Which makes the second reason cited a greater cause for concern: nearly 40% cited the inability to find a “trustworthy and competent installer!" To be sure, there is no shortage of installation companies out there, so it is in the trust and competence areas that we are failing as an industry to meet more than a third of consumers’ expectations!
While we like to think that we score well on both counts (and our clients would agree!), we think there are some simple ways for consumers to overcome this hurdle. First, do some homework - if you want to find a competent installer, go look where they hang out: the NABCEP website. Second, talk to your family, friends, and co-workers. With 400,000 installs in California alone, you already know people who have gone solar, so seek them out and hear what they have to say. And finally, get more than one bid! A solar installation is a major purchase (no matter how it is financed) so it is in your best interest to shop around.
Recent years have seen the number of solar energy systems grow exponentially as the affordability of solar and the environmental benefits make more and more sense for consumers. By the end of 2016 global solar installations will reach 310 Gigawatts! Solar already provides more than 1 percent of total energy produced and that number will continue to climb!
Spreading solar power is definitely a good thing for the planet and our pocketbooks! But there’s an elephant in the room we really need to tackle. What happens to solar panels at the end of their life? In the US, they frequently end up in landfills. As the solar industry grows, so does concern over the environmental impact of the full lifecycle for these rooftop electronics.
A rooftop photovoltaic solar system provides wonderfully clean energy for the 25-30 year lifespan of the panels. Indeed panels installed in the 70’s and 80’s are still producing power so it is possible the latest technology could last much longer than 30 years! But the fact remains that we need to find a solution to the inevitable piling up of end-of-life panels sooner rather than later if we truly aim to transition to a clean renewable energy source through solar power. Recycling is particularly important because of the valuable, and sometimes rare, materials used to make panels. In addition to glass, aluminum and plastics PV panel production includes the following long list of elements, some of which are not widely available: Si, Al, Ag, Cd, Te, In, Ge, Mo, Ga, Cu, Se, Zn. With limited recycling, these materials could go to waste after a few decades of shining bright as a solar panel…rendering them far from “renewable"!
In an industry that, from a power-generation standpoint, has plenty of environmental credibility, solar manufacturers will have to receive either enough pressure or incentives to develop costly recycling programs. Panel manufacturers certainly are aware of the issue and many would like to ensure their products are as sustainable as possible while taking advantage of reusing panels’ critical elements. The Silicon Valley Toxic’s Coalition reported that 14 of the companies surveyed for their Solar Scorecard have said they would support public policy to reduce waste. Some solar companies are ahead of the game and already have collection programs in place; particularly in Europe where policy already pushes them to do so. Third party companies in Europe, such as PV Cycle, are actually doing quite well in the panel recycling industry, achieving a process for recovering 96% of a silicon panel’s materials! Here in the US, however, there simply aren’t enough places to recycle panels and there aren’t enough panels (yet!) to make developing these solar waste programs economic.
In Europe, solar panel disposal falls under the European Union’s Waste of Electrical and Electronic Equipment (WEEE) directive and is strictly regulated. Universal regulation doesn’t exist in the U.S. at the federal level yet. However, state policy will likely be the initial driver for PV disposal programs.
As the leader in US solar installations with a call to reach 50% renewables by 2030 California should definitely be the state to set the bar in addressing PV waste. In fact, the California Assembly Committee on Environmental Safety and Toxic Materials enacted the Photovoltaic Panel Collection and Recycling Act in 2015. Senate Bill 489 addressed the difficulty in categorizing solar panels as hazardous waste versus universal waste. To be classified as hazardous and subjected to regulation, panels must fail to pass the Toxicity Characteristics Leach Procedure test (TCLP test). But most panels pass the TCLP test. By designating them as universal waste the state can subject them to universal waste management regulations. Also encouraging… SB 489 states the legislature’s intent to:
(1) Foster a comprehensive and innovative system for the reuse, recycling, and proper and legal disposal of end-of-life photovoltaic modules.(2) Encourage the photovoltaic module industry to make end-of-life management of photovoltaic modules convenient for consumers and the public, to ensure the recovery and recycling of photovoltaic modules, which is the most efficient and environmentally safe disposition of end-of-life photovoltaic modules, by developing a plan for recycling end-of-life photovoltaic modules in the state in an economically efficient manner.
The bill requires that the department collect an annual administrative fee for the PV Panel Collection Administration Account. The Photovoltaic Panel Collection Administration Fund is established in the State Treasury and will cover the department’s costs for implementation and subsequent programs followed by all California photovoltaic panel manufacturers, groups, or organizations subject to solar panel recycling requirements.
However, the vast majority of panels manufactured outside California state lines aren’t affected by the state bill. We must work at the national level and with other states to adopt a plan to deal with both domestic and internationally manufactured PV waste if we hope to continue to grow a truly renewable energy resource. Consumers and stakeholders across the solar industry need to work together to demand action!
Almost a year ago, Run on Sun agreed to participate in a study sponsored by the National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) - the premier lab looking into all aspects of renewables generally, including solar. The study, known as SEEDS - Solar Energy Evolution and Diffusion Studies - is a Department of Energy-funded, industry-wide effort to “identify the drivers and barriers to the adoption of residential solar power." To achieve their goal, the research team, led by Principal Investigator Benjamin Sigrin, asked residential solar installation companies to provide them with lists of both clients who went forward, and contact information for people who, for whatever reason, did not.
We now have some results and they are fascinating. (One caveat - we do not know from the report provided to us the sample size for the industry as a whole or even the number of our clients who responded. If we get that data we will update this post.)
In this first of two parts we will look at what the data has to say about those consumers who chose to become Run on Sun clients. In Part Two we will see what the data says about “those who got away.”
There can be lots of reasons for choosing to go solar, but for almost everyone the high cost of energy is a major driver - especially during the summer. So one of the interesting charts that we are able to share with you shows just how high that cost is for most of our clients:
(In all of these charts, the red bars represent the results from Run on Sun clients, while the grey bars are the overall averages for the survey as a whole.)
The largest segment of our clients are spending in the $100-200/month range during the summer, with a median of $235, compared to the national average of $183.50. (If your bills are lower than $100/month, a solar system will take a long time to pay-off economically.) But another 50% or so are seeing bills well above that, with some over $800/month! Ouch! If your bills are anywhere near that high, you need solar NOW!
While support for solar is overwhelming among Millennials, very few of them own homes where they could be installing solar. So what is the age of most solar adopters?
Not surprisingly, the bands between 45 and 65 are the most heavily populated, with the median age of Run on Sun clients coming in at 55 - just slightly younger than the overall median age of 58. While the survey didn’t evaluate attractiveness, we are quite confident that not only are they younger, but Run on Sun clients are way better looking, too!
Run on Sun’s clients tend to be more affluent than most…
Part of that is no doubt due to where we operate - Pasadena and the surrounding cities tend to be more affluent than many other parts of the country. Another factor would be that since we have been in business now for 10 years, some of our earlier clients were purchasing systems when the installed price was twice what it is today, thus requiring a greater household income!
Going forward, as growing numbers of people with more modest means realize how much solar costs have declined - and how high their energy bills are going - we would expect to see more participation on the lower end of the economic scale.
A final point regarding the rest of the market. Much of the industry is built around leasing - which we don’t do for a host of reasons - and that has historically been viewed as the way for people with lower household incomes to get into solar. But today, with PACE financing and solar-specific loans (as well as the return of home equity lines of credit) becoming more broadly available, we will be able to help folks with lower incomes get into solar without getting stuck with a lousy lease.
Ok, didn’t see that coming! Again, part of this might be where we do business as the Pasadena area is pretty progressive these days. That being said, we welcome prospective clients of all political persuasions! Really!
We know that going solar is a bright idea but does it follow that the smarter you are the more likely you are to do so?
This is my favorite graph of the bunch!
While the overall market is centered around folks with a bachelor’s degree, the majority of Run on Sun’s clients have professional degrees (e.g., lawyers) or Ph.D.’s! As a recovering lawyer myself I find this result gratifying. Part of the motivation for founding Run on Sun arose from when I was looking to have solar installed at my own home and was dismayed by the lack of knowledge from the people who were trying to sell me a system. I figured then that there would be a niche for a company that could answer a potential client’s questions in a sophisticated fashion that wasn’t tied to a sales script. Ten years later and it looks like we have filled that niche!
Given all that education, it should come as no surprise that our clients really do their homework before deciding to go solar…
This is a very telling chart, both as to Run on Sun and to the overall industry. The majority of our clients have spoken to at least 3 companies before deciding (something we always advise them to do), with more than 20% contacting 5 or more! That is a lot of research! Which suggests to us that the more research you do - the more likely you are to choose Run on Sun!
But it is a bit startling to realize that over 40% of the general market only speaks to one company. We suspect that means that some pushy salesperson shows up at the door and they don’t leave until the hapless homeowner has signed on the dotted line - most likely to some no-money-down, lousy lease!
In contrast, we don’t do business that way, which is why none of our clients come from that segment. That probably means we are leaving money on the table, but we like the fact that our clients know exactly what they are doing when they choose Run on Sun!
Of course the most important question you could ask of folks who have gone solar is: Would you recommend going solar to your friends, and beyond that would you recommend the company that you chose. So how did we do?
* The net promoter score measures the percentage of respondents that were considered promoters (responses greater than or equal to 8) minus the percentage that were considered detractors (responses less than or equal to 7). The net promoter score is useful for assessing market performance compared to other installers.
On that first question we did amazingly well! Over 92% of our clients would recommend going solar to their friends and neighbors as compared to just 63% for the market overall.
But what about Run on Sun specifically?
That result is also terrific with 85% of our clients saying that they would recommend us, compared to just 52% of the overall market. That being said, we constantly strive to improve, and we would really like to get that “would recommend score” up to 100%! (And the industry as a whole needs to do quite a bit better at meeting expectations.)
So that is what we know about our clients who responded to the survey. In Part Two we will take a look at those that got away. Watch this space!
In today’s world of endless information at our fingertips it is unsurprising that most people interested in solar begin with online research. It is also undeniable that the amount of information available to consumers is enormous, and helps people to be more informed than ever prior to investing in a solar system of their own. But as the solar industry grows, the accuracy and transparency of online information seems to be deteriorating, and nowhere is that deterioration more dramatic than from the mind-boggling number of companies engaged in solar lead generation.
As a home or business-owner innocently entertaining the thought of going solar from the safety of your laptop or smartphone you will likely come across a majority of search results from solar lead generation companies. There are a number of reasons this is problematic. First and foremost, when clicking on these results, and worse giving out your personal information for free solar quotes, you may have no idea you are engaging with a lead generator — rather than a qualified installation company.
For a solar PV installation company it is expensive and time consuming to reach consumers with an interest in purchasing a solar system. Installers are often happy to fork over cash for supposedly “qualified leads” to avoid this uncomfortable piece of the business. Thus, lead generation for solar became a lucrative niche service, and their business model seems to be working, given the number of new companies offering to sell us leads (an actual local installer) every day. Some lead gen companies are nothing more than telemarketers cold calling the masses. Others use search engine marketing techniques to capture people who are shopping around for information.
Here lies the crux of this post. The few supposedly “qualified” leads that we have received (as an inducement for us to sign up) have had two possible outcomes. First scenario: we call and introduce ourselves and mention that their interest in a free solar site assessment was brought to our attention via company X — and they promptly hang up! Or second scenario: they tell us they mistakenly clicked on something and now solar companies won’t stop calling.
We’re in this business to help people reduce their carbon footprint and electric bills. The last thing we want to do is harass people! That’s why as a company, Run on Sun does not buy solar leads.
Frankly we are worried about the reputation of solar as an industry if misleading click bait and telemarketing is how we are going to present ourselves to consumers. Online lead generators are essentially poaching customers away from local installers, taking a cut, and then selling the lead back to multiple installers who then descend upon the hapless consumer! Lead gen companies do not add value in the process and in many cases, create confusion or set up unclear/unrealistic expectations for the potential client. It stands to reason that a telemarketer with no experience in solar installation will not be able to give accurate answers to your questions.
Some online lead gen companies also have calculators (see right) meant to give you a sense of how much you could save with solar but these calculators are almost always inaccurate. Only a proper site visit to assess the many factors specific to your property along with an assessment of your usage history will lead to an accurate proposal detailing your return on investment and savings analysis.
We cannot stress enough our recommendation to simply do a bit more sleuthing on the website or company asking for your information before clicking on that “Have Solar Installation Contractors Contact You” button. Are you looking at an installation company, or just a lead gen mill? Do they have qualified installers on their staff (and preferably are NABCEP certified)? Are there positive reviews from past clients in your area?
When you’re ready to invite qualified installers to your property to do a formal assessment, contact the companies you have found to have a solid reputation by clicking on their online assessment request form or giving them a good old fashioned phone call. Avoid the lead gen trolls, and maintain control over the process!
It is official! One million solar systems have been installed across the United States providing more than 27 gigagwatts (GW) of clean energy over the past 40 years! This incredible milestone becomes even more impressive when you consider that projections have us reaching 2 million installations in just 2 years.
Every day at Run on Sun we are proud to be part of the solar movement helping our communities access clean renewable energy. Solar is no longer a fringe technology, nor is it a solution for the future. It is powering homes and businesses nationwide today, and the more solar we install, the more jobs and economic growth we support.
On Tuesday, May 3rd at 10AM EDT solar supporters across the nation are participating in a social media “thunderclap". Join us in celebrating and sharing this historic achievement and what it means for our energy future by spreading the word across your networks. Working together to raise our voice in unity shows our business leaders and lawmakers that solar is here to stay. We are #MillionSolarStrong! Join the SEIA organized movement and thunderclap here.
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