Solar marketing costs remain a major headache for solar installers and the industry as a whole. One of the facts that makes this problem so clear revolves around how Germans pay about $8,000 for a 4 kilowatt system while Americans pay around $20,000.
The solar systems have similar costs in both countries. What’s different are the soft costs—primarily permitting and marketing. The marketing problem, in particular, drove leading solar installer SolarCity to buy solar sales and marketing firm Paramount Solar for about $120 million earlier this year. The deal reinforced SolarCity’s strategy of trying to use online marketing as a new channel for attracting customers.
There have been innovative attempts to try and improve access to potential solar customers. Genability built a database of electricity rates so that solar installers like SunPower and SolarCity could easily benchmark the value of installing solar panels against a potential customer’s utility rates. Other tools like an app dubbed Solar Panel Sustainability Checker help determine whether a given rooftop is a good location for solar panels.
But I haven’t really seen a great integrated website or app that puts it all together—suitability of location, cost of panels, power output, cost comparison versus local utility rates. That may be changing, though.
Last week three and a half year old startup Geostellar finally launched its free website and mobile app where you can enter your address and see the solar potential of a home’s roof, get an overview of the cost savings of switching to solar, and even cost out the different financing options.
In terms of cost differences it breaks out paying cash for the system, financing with a loan, or solar leasing. It also identifies which incentives or rebates a homeowner would be eligible for, given their location. And it appears to have some basic heat mapping capability that will tell customers the solar potential for their given location.
I ran my parent’s home in Los Angeles through the Geostellar system just to spot check the accuracy of the system. They’ve had their home assessed for solar panel installation before and it has good solar potential, which Geostellar correctly identified. The utility rate Geostellar pegged was 21 cents per kilowatt hour, which is a bit high. They pay closer to 19 cent per kilowatt hour, but the estimate was still in the right ballpark.
The cost comparison tools were fairly convincing, showing that even with a leasing plan there’s still about a 30 percent savings. Savings increase if you choose a loan or to pay cash for the system.
The site effectively functions as a lead generator for solar installers and financiers, and has raised capital from NRG Energy and the state of Maryland. Reducing marketing costs is the name of the game and the user interface was well designed and easy to use. Importantly, customers can enter their home address and assess their solar suitability before having to register or give any information to Geostellar.
The lingering question in my mind was how to maximize traffic to Geostellar so that people interested in solar have an easy initial cost comparison tool. But that is an intangible that just has to grow with time as Geostellar attempts to improve its visibility. It’s highly dependant on Geostellar becoming the gateway to learning more about solar panels and for finding the right solar installer, in much the way any of the online platforms that allow cost comparison of specific products require time to become a trusted choice.
But for now every incremental step that makes it easy for those interested in solar to discover and cost compare the installation of a new system is of value to the entire solar industry. Because customers have often just gotten used to paying their power bill, not believing they have any real choice. And this is one consumer behavior that effective and simple marketing platforms can help change.