The POWER Interview: Tech-Enabled Financing Supports Solar Sector

More and more businesses are looking to use renewable energy as they set decarbonization goals, with public companies often pushed by shareholders to adopt environmental, social, and governance (ESG) initiatives. The same is true of private enterprise, as business owners look to take advantage of tax credits, rebates, and more to pursue cleaner sources of energy and meet their own ESG goals.

Controlling energy costs is another driver for companies installing solar power. Part of the cost equation involves securing financing. That has led to the creation of groups focused on innovative financing structures for renewable energy projects to facilitate their construction.

Duncan Hinkle is the co-founder and head of business development at Sunstone Credit, a technology-enabled clean energy financing platform that helps businesses go solar. Hinkle has worked in solar on both the development and installation of projects as well as in solar specific financing for more than a decade.

Sunstone, with corporate headquarters in New York City, provides flexible financing solutions for all types of businesses. The company is known for its fully online process, which Sunstone says is more efficient and involves less paperwork than more traditional financing. It recently provided financing for a rooftop solar system for Astraglass Innovations, at the company’s Vineland, New Jersey, production plant, helping Astraglass take advantage of the state’s Successor Solar Incentive program.

Duncan Hinkle

Hinkle has said businesses should look at solar power as a way to generate cash, in part by preserving cash reserves through financing to avoid a large initial capital outlay to install a system. He has said solar also can help generate cash flow by reducing the energy costs associated with running a business.

Hinkle recently provided POWER with insight into his company and how innovative financing supports commercial installations of solar power.

POWER: Tell us a little bit about Sunstone Credit and where the idea came from?

Hinkle: Sunstone Credit is a clean energy financing company that is making solar energy more accessible for businesses of all sizes. We do so by working with a national network of solar installation partners to provide business owners with loan financing they can use for solar panels.

We got the idea for Sunstone while working at a solar installation company called Astrum Solar. We would always hear from (residential) customers how they were interested in solar for their business, but at that time financing options for small-to-medium commercial projects were confined to complex and expensive power purchase agreements, and options for debt financing simply did not exist. So, we set out to change that in 2021 by starting Sunstone Credit.

POWER: Why did you decide to focus on commercial solar?

Hinkle: We wanted to focus on the commercial solar market because, as mentioned above, it was extremely underserved. I call it the final frontier of the solar industry. Homeowners and large enterprises have long had access to the financing needed to go solar, but the same could not be said for small- and medium-sized businesses. So, even as a multitude of recent factors like the Inflation Reduction Act (IRA) and a need for energy independence have made solar a fantastic investment, the commercial solar space hasn’t grown at the same rate as other solar sectors. Part of the reason is that most businesses have, until now, not been able to pursue solar energy because of the lack of financing options.

We wanted to help bring more solar projects to life, and felt like there was a great opportunity to do so in the commercial market. We’ve developed easy-to-understand solar loans that businesses of all sizes can use to finance their own solar systems, and in turn, save money and contribute to a cleaner tomorrow.

POWER: Outside of environmental impact, what are some of the benefits of going solar?

Hinkle: We have seen solar benefit businesses in a variety of ways, including:

    • Economic incentives: Whether it’s tax credits or money saved on utilities, switching to solar can have a significant impact on the bottom line. It’s also worth noting that thanks to the IRA, tax-exempt businesses, like non-profit organizations, can receive direct cash payments from the IRS (Internal Revenue Service) when they complete a solar installation.
    • Aligning with customer and investor values: Going solar can help businesses both retain and attract customers. Studies have shown that consumers will spend more money to support companies with sustainable practices. We’ve also seen that investors are now placing more of an emphasis on sustainability and are looking to add environmentally responsible companies to their portfolios.

POWER: Should businesses consider investing in batteries to pair with their solar panels?

Hinkle: That really depends on the region in which the business is located and the use case. There are a couple of reasons for this. The first is, due to recent alterations to net metering regulations in places like California, incorporating battery storage to complement a solar setup has the potential to maximize a solar system’s value.

Secondly, the persistent power disturbances in California, Texas, and other areas have intensified interest in energy storage among solar consumers aiming for enhanced energy self-sufficiency.

POWER: Sunstone was among the companies at September’s RE+ clean energy event in Las Vegas, which includes POWER as a media partner. What were some of your takeaways from the conference?

Hinkle: We had a great experience at RE+. I’ve been attending that conference for over 10 years and seeing it grow to the level it achieved in 2023 was exciting. It’s a great opportunity for Sunstone to connect with our partners across the country and it was extremely energizing to be among our peers for a few days and discuss new ways we can work together to grow the commercial market.

Outside of the excitement around commercial solar, something that was very encouraging was the growing diversity among the solar community. It’s great to see broader representation among CEOs in all the different solar companies. I appreciated all the efforts RE+ made to be welcoming and supportive of people of all backgrounds and the number of events dedicated to diversity.

One of the events our team joined was focused on women in renewable energy. That’s been an intentional focus of Sunstone’s since day one. There were several hundred women in attendance, and it was really great to see our industry make an effort to ensure that everyone has a seat at the table.

POWER: What excites you most about the commercial solar market and where it’s heading?

Hinkle: What excites us most is that more businesses now have an opportunity to make the switch to renewable energy. Solar systems are not cheap, and this has presented a huge roadblock to businesses that wanted to go solar.

However, there are now financing options that are tailored specifically for these businesses to install solar. These loan products will empower more businesses to go through with solar projects that appeared to be unobtainable just a few years ago.

We’re very excited about where the industry is heading and look forward to helping more businesses save money, reduce their carbon footprint and take advantage of the many benefits of solar power!

Darrell Proctor is a senior associate editor for POWER (@POWERmagazine).

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