Consumer interest in rooftop solar is higher than ever. The most recent numbers from Pew Research show 89% of U.S. adults favor the expanded use of solar power, while only 9% oppose.
Historically, this interest has only been met by solar salespeople, which can create a consumer protection risk. The Federal Trade Commission (FTC) has taken notice: in 2016, I was one of 10 speakers invited to Washington, D.C., by the FTC to discuss the growing consumer protection issues in the residential solar industry. And while governmental efforts like these can help, savvy customers have already started turning to another trusted resource for support: their utility and its online resources. In response to this trend, utilities across the country are now launching solar initiatives to better serve customer demand.
Why are utilities taking on this new role? In addition to bolstering consumer protection, utilities also seek to lessen customer confusion around solar, and help their customers make informed decisions, ultimately increasing customer satisfaction as a result.
A recent Cogent report shows that the existence of utility-sponsored resources strengthens the utility-customer relationship.
Comparing Utility Solar Initiatives
Not all utility-led solar initiatives are created equal. In fact, there are a spectrum of solar-friendly actions and initiatives that utilities can (and often do) undertake. This spectrum ranges from providing educational resources, to offering rebates and incentives, to ultimately offering a solar shopping program or platform that helps their solar-interested customers connect with local contractors and take the next step toward installing solar.
Until now, there has not been a standard, cohesive framework for comparing and categorizing the suite of potential utility-led residential solar initiatives. While demand for residential solar is growing across the country, the absence of this framework has left customers, utilities, policymakers and regulators without a benchmark with which they can compare one utility’s solar actions to another’s.
EnergySage has recognized this need and established an industry-first framework to help all stakeholders analyze, compare and ultimately learn from this growing array of utility-led solar initiatives. This framework represents an innovative new way to analyze and compare the solar-friendly actions taken by utilities on an apples-to-apples basis.
Introducing the Solar Initiative Spectrum
There is a range of actions that utilities can and are taking in response to customer need. This spectrum of solar initiatives covers:
- The level of educational content utilities provide.
- The amount of tools or online resources they offer.
- If they offer any utility-specific incentives, rebates, or financing.
- If they run any programs that actively enable people to comparison shop for rooftop solar options and connect with installers.
Source: EnergySage internal research. A full list of utilities per stage of the spectrum is available upon request.
Advancing along the spectrum of solar initiatives gives utilities an opportunity to increase both customer satisfaction and consumer protection through four straightforward steps. The first is to provide educational materials that support their customer’s decision-making processes around solar. For utilities are already providing this content, the next step is to add informative new tools and resources to their website, such as solar calculators, curated lists of local solar installers or ratings and reviews of equipment and installation companies.
From there, utilities can begin to offer financial incentives that improve the economic rationale for solar, from net metering to rebates to solar loan options. Lastly, to take the final step in guiding customers along their solar buying journey, utilities can augment existing content and tools with territory-specific solar shopping, connecting their solar-interested customers to local, pre-screened solar installers through a comparison-shopping marketplace experience. EnergySage has been honored to help a number of utilities along each stage of the spectrum, including National Grid, Eversource, and New York State Electric and Gas Corporation (NYSEG).
Utilities have a range of options when setting up their solar shopping programs, too. On one end, some utilities choose to offer programs on their website purely for inbound customers to find and explore. On the other end, some utilities decide to conduct outbound marketing activities to alert their customers to their solar program’s features and benefits.
Utilities have a large opportunity to satisfy customer demand for rooftop and community solar. According to our internal research, less than 10% of residential customers today are served by a utility that has launched an advanced solar initiative – specifically, offering a program that helps their customers better understand and shop for rooftop & community solar. As a result, the majority of utilities still have a large opportunity to fulfill their customers’ overwhelming demand for renewable energy and reinforce their position as a trusted advisor for all home energy needs.
Electric Vehicles and Energy Efficiency Upgrades
Why this matters: solar adopters will buy electric vehicles (EVs), and invest in energy efficiency (EE) upgrades. Solar customers are typically energy-conscious homeowners and have many related interests as a result. Nearly three-quarters of EnergySage residential solar shoppers are also interested in energy storage solutions.
What’s more, almost one-third are interested in EE upgrades, and one-fifth want to learn more about EV charging stations (Figure 1). As utilities build trust by helping their customers better understand and shop for residential solar, they will create new opportunities to serve as a trusted energy advisor for additional home energy upgrades – such as home batteries, electric vehicles, and energy efficient HVACs.
Solar is an Opportunity for All Utilities
As the wave of solar interest continues to build across the US, utilities have an incredible opportunity to position themselves as the go-to resource and advisor for all home energy decisions. And as the adoption of renewable energy technology drives increased electrification, the case becomes increasingly clear for utilities to play this role. When utilities offer educational tools and resources to their customers, they ensure that the customers who are pursuing solar make an informed decision and pay a fair price.
—Vikram Aggarwal is the CEO and founder of EnergySage, a website for homeowners and businesses to compare custom solar quotes from pre-screened installation companies.