Solstice Asks: What’s Holding Customers Back?

By Jill Cliburn

Group photo of the Solstice team

As a business led by women of color, with a nonprofit arm also headed by a woman, Solstice has made a commitment to reflect the diversity of the communities it serves. (Credit: Solstice Initiative)

Since 2014, the women-led and culturally diverse solar-services company called Solstice has worked to make community solar easy and accessible for just about everyone.

Community solar looked like it would be a good bet for the tens of millions of energy customers who rent their housing or have homes with poor solar orientation. 

But Solstice Co-Founders and Co-CEOs Steph Speirs and Sandhya Murali recognized that many potential subscribers would fail to meet the lofty FICO credit score requirements that were standard on most early community solar applications. 

They came up with a solution — an alternative EnergyScore, based on an analysis of some 900,000 utility-customer-payment records and related data. 

The Solstice EnergyScore does a lot better than FICO at identifying the broad swath of customers who deserve a chance to sign up for their share of the sun.

That creative work and continuing innovation has made Solstice a leading community solar-services provider in states like Massachusetts, New York and Illinois. 

Solstice also works directly with solar developers who want to tap into the company’s secret sauce. Yet the challenge of making community solar accessible to just about everyone is a big order — maybe even too big for a successful startup. 

For that reason, Solstice launched the nonprofit Solstice Initiative, which pursues market research and pilot programs in traditionally excluded communities. 

According to Lauren Levine, executive director of Solstice Initiative, some findings from her organization’s latest research on community solar contract acceptance have underscored the need for changes that should be common sense. 

For example, a renewable, one-year contract term scores much better with potential subscribers than more common 20-year terms with exit penalties. 

Other findings from this research, which is co-funded by the U.S. Department of Energy, have been surprising. 

Levine said there is no consistent correlation between customer income and community solar-contract acceptance. The greatest percentage of contract acceptance was reported by moderate-income survey respondents and not their higher-income counterparts. 

Specifically, 62% of moderate-income customers surveyed said that they would sign up for community solar, based on basic information and contract terms that they were shown. Even among the lowest-income group (with less than 30% of the local median income), more than 40% of respondents said they were interested in signing up. 

Then why aren’t low-income customers participating in greater numbers? 

“One man from a low-income community who participated in our focus group explained how the people in his neighborhood just don’t understand enough about community solar’s value to ask for it,” Levine said. “He said people just assume that if they don’t own a home, solar is not available to them.” 

The survey data confirmed the simple fact that the more familiar people are with community solar, the more likely they are to sign up for it. 

“We tested two dozen contract variables and this was the most stark finding we saw,” Levine said. The finding is actionable, she said, because if policymakers will support more widespread public education about community solar and if developers work together to prepare customers at every income level to be ready to review a serious offer, it is likely that community solar markets everywhere will grow. 

As a next step, the initiative has made a lot of its research and documentation available free of  charge to increase its impact on the solar industry and policymakers, as well as to encourage new energy leaders to step forward from within low- and moderate-income communities.

One sobering finding from the eight-state survey, which totaled about 2,000 respondents, is that a lot of potential community solar subscribers will make their decisions before they read the entire contracts that are presented to them. 

Neither do all subscribers care about contract details, once they decide – for whatever reasons – that this is an offer they can trust. 

Levine said the Solstice team, both on the business side and the nonprofit side, is working with stakeholder groups to promote better solar offers and best-practice solar marketing throughout the industry. 

She has also supported a plan that strikes close to home. At the time of this interview, she had already announced Solstice Initiative was launching a search for a new executive director to bring in leadership from a frontline community. 

Subsequently, Yesenia Rivera stepped into the executive director role, bringing years of experience as a community and tenant organizer. With roots in Puerto Rico, where she has experienced worsening natural disasters, she is an attorney who recently was the director of energy equity and inclusion for Solar United Neighbors.

As Levine anticipated this change, she reflected on the importance of balancing quick action to build the community solar industry against the slower process of building community inclusion and trust.

“Our data shows that consumer trust is so important. We have to make sure predatory solar companies will not erode that trust,” Levine said. “We need an energy transition that is not only addressing climate change, but that is just.”

Note: This article was updated on 7/27/2022 to reflect the fact that Yesenia Rivera has been hired.

About the Author
As President of Cliburn and Associates, Jill Cliburn leads the Solar Value Project and is a technical advisor for the National Community Solar Project. She is an American Solar Energy Society Fellow.

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