Community Solar with Steph Speirs and Sandhya Murali, Solstice

May 21, 2020

Clean, renewable sources of energy like solar power is more important than ever before, yet most people are not able to put solar on their own home for a variety of reasons from an ill-placed tree to being unable to secure financing. Steph Speirs and Sandhya Murali, co-founders and co-CEOs of Solstice, are working to make solar power more accessible through community solar gardens.

“We are in the middle of a fourth industrial revolution where energy is changing so rapidly and people are starting to express consumer choice.”

In this episode:

  • The problem that Solstice is addressing
  • How Solstice makes it easy for households and businesses to connect to community solar gardens 
  • What is community solar and who can it benefit? 
  • The end-to-end process that Solstice uses to make solar accessible and easy, for both individuals and utility companies 
  • Why education is a critical part of Solstice’s work
  • The number one way people are converted to using community solar

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Show Notes

Transcript

Steph Speirs:

The biggest surprise to me about this business is that people are really, really skeptical of anything energy. There’s a severe deficit of trust in the energy industry. And I think that’s because people don’t really think about or know how we get our energy because it’s over a hundred years we’ve had our energy just provided to us by the utilities. And so people don’t think consumer choice is something they can exercise in energy. Yet we are in the middle of a fourth industrial revolution where energy is changing so rapidly and people are starting to express consumer choice. It just has to be a muscle that works and is practiced. That’s all to say I think one of the biggest challenges has been to educate people that they have a choice in this matter, that they can save money and it doesn’t have to be hard. So the deficit of trust that exists can be exceeded by hard work and community organizing, but we can only move at the speed of trust.

Vicki Saunders:

Welcome to SheEO.world, A podcast about redesigning the world. I’m your host, Vicki Saunders. In each episode you’ll hear from SheEO venture founders, women who are working on the world’s to do list. These innovative business leaders are solving some of the major challenges of our times. Sit back and prepare to be inspired.

Steph Speirs:

My name is Steph Speirs and I’m the co-founder and CEO of Solstice.

Vicki Saunders:

Welcome Steph. And we also have Sandhya with us.

Sandhya Murali:

Hi everyone. My name is Sandhya Murali and I’m the co founder and CEO of Solstice.

Vicki Saunders:

Tell us what solstice does and what’s different about it in the world.

Steph Speirs:

The problem that Solstice is addressing is that four out of five Americans cannot put solar on their own home. And there are a variety reasons why, their roof is covered by a tree or it’s facing the wrong way or it can’t have a solar installation because it’s made out of the wrong materials. Or people are renting or own a condo or maybe they can’t afford the cost of putting solar on their roof and they don’t have the right FICO credit score to get financing. So there’re just a ton of reasons why you have to be a unicorn to get solar in this country. Solstice makes it easy for households and businesses to connect to shared centralized community solar gardens in their region that allows them to save money and join the clean energy revolution for the first time.

Vicki Saunders:

That is amazing. And how did you come up with this idea?

Steph Speirs:

We didn’t invent the idea of community solar, it was an idea that sprung up in co-ops across the country and it has really only sprung up commercially in the last three years. We are obsessed with making it easy for people to sign up for it. We came up with a way of getting community solar out to customers in a way that was more community driven and inclusive, particularly of low to moderate income Americans.

Vicki Saunders:

So I can imagine going to market with communities coming together, it’s not just an individual ask, is as complicated as any other behavior change.

Steph Speirs:

Yeah.

Vicki Saunders:

So what are some of the challenges of… Because this is a reorganizing of assets, of resources, of how people act, what are some of the challenges you’ve faced getting this off the ground?

Sandhya Murali:

One of the biggest challenges in the beginning was just the fact that people weren’t aware that this was a new model for residential households to go solar. And so there’s a lot of education that we were doing. I’d say 75% of the sales process was really more educational in nature, letting people know that this exists, this is a benefit that they can take advantage of and that it really is quite simple for them to get plugged into local clean energy for the first time. So that was a big, big barrier and it continues to be as it’s still a very early market still in its infancy.

Sandhya Murali:

Much of our outreach process is centered around the value proposition to customers, the fact that it’s really is something that people can sign up for that’s local and really talking about the benefits to these end user households. I think that lack of awareness was a big hurdle that we had to get over because you didn’t have people seeking out community solar, different ways to go solar. People don’t really think about their energy usage on a day to day basis. Bringing this more to the top of mind is something that we really centered in on our messaging early on.

Vicki Saunders:

So I just like people to get a sense of how do you approach this, get inside people’s heads around what is it that really works with them around the value prop?

Steph Speirs:

This is actually only a recent innovation in solar and it’s really exciting because we’re offering the chance to plug into a local community solar garden. And you don’t have to put solar on your own roof. A lot of the reason why people don’t put it on the roof is its a hassle to install solar on your roof and a lot of houses are disqualified from even having the installation. You live in Toronto, right Vicki?

Vicki Saunders:

I do, yeah.

Steph Speirs:

So there’s actually this solar garden and it’s close to your home and it’s on a centralized shared piece of land and participants can benefit from a portion of the shared solar farm. You don’t have to put anything on your home. It’s actually a subscription model. You’re not paying anything upfront. You’re just paying for the power that’s produced by your solar share and you immediately get savings on your electricity bill compared to the utility. Typically you’re going to be saving 10% off your electricity bill without putting anything on your home and without paying anything up front. This is the only way to really make it easy for people to benefit from clean energy and to get savings at the same time.

Vicki Saunders:

So it’s 10%, you have to dump and say goodbye to whoever you’re dealing with right now. If people are even aware of who they’re paying for their energy from.

Steph Speirs:

It’s actually pretty much easier than that. You don’t even have to disconnect from the utility. Your relationship with the utility remains the same. When you participate in the solar farm, we look to see how big a share to give you by looking at how much electricity use. So we say, “Okay, Vicki, used this much electricity. We’re going to allocate you 10 panels in the shared solar farm.” And then you start to see a credit that shows up on your monthly utility bill for the solar that’s produced by your 10 panels. And that credit is the electricity generated by your portion and it’s easily just showing up on your utility bill, which means you don’t have to disconnect from your utility. You’re just paying less for power.

Vicki Saunders:

Got it. This is really dreamy to me in so many ways. First of all, we’re using clean power, which is really important, but also, it really has a chance to get me into relationship with my neighbors. Who else is doing this and where is this? And have you started to see people connecting more with each other because of this?

Steph Speirs:

Yeah, absolutely. So the number one reason, according to a Yale study, that people sign up for solar is because their friend or their neighbor went solar. So solar is actually contagious in personal networks. That’s the insight that we leverage in our go to market strategy. I used to be a community organizer on the Obama campaign and I learned that people are motivated to do things if they feel as part of a community in doing it. Our early adopters become ambassadors and those ambassadors go to their friends and neighbors and community networks like houses of worship and corporations and they get their community to sign up too. And we share the wealth building of the solar farm with them when they help assign their friends and neighbors up.

Vicki Saunders:

That’s great. That’s really cool. So what markets are you operating in right now?

Steph Speirs:

We’re working on our 20th and 21st projects right now. And we’ve worked on mostly projects in New York and Massachusetts though we’re currently expanding to California as we speak and assessing projects that have come to us through Illinois and looking at other states as well for expansion.

Vicki Saunders:

When you say 20 or 21 projects, what does that mean? When you say people come to you, how does that happen?

Sandhya Murali:

Each project on average can serve about three to 400 customers. They’re roughly two to three megawatts in size. Like Steph said working on our 20 and 21st project right now in upstate New York, and so that equates to in total around seven or 800 customers that we’re into [inaudible 00:08:11]

Vicki Saunders:

How do you pick your regions then I guess? When you say projects come to us from Illinois, how does that work?

Sandhya Murali:

We work directly with the solar companies that are building these projects. We’ve been fortunate because we’re providing a service around the delivering the entire customer experience for these projects and handling all those customer interactions. Solar companies come to us and say, “Hey, we’re building out a two megawatt project in this area of the country. A really attractive community solar program. We need your help in acquiring customers and managing them over the life of their participation.” So we receive a lot of inbound inquiries from the solar companies letting us know, “Hey, this is our portfolio. Is there something that we can do to work together?” And we know strategically where the markets where more developers are going to have solar projects coming up. That’s why we started off in Massachusetts where the community solar market was pretty strong.

Sandhya Murali:

And then in the last two years or so we started to ramp up in New York where, again, the community solar program was just rolled out. And so now we’re seeing the market start to develop. So the other states that Steph mentioned or other states where the community solar program is just starting to take off. So we know that we’re starting to get those initial inquiries from developers who are looking at those programs to start developing projects.

Vicki Saunders:

This is very interesting. It’s outsourced customer acquisition specific to solar.

Steph Speirs:

Yeah, it might be useful… When I told you about what Solstice did at the top of the call, I was really brief and then we got into an explanation of what community solar is. But now that we all understand what community solar is, it probably worth getting deeper into what Solstice does.

Steph Speirs:

So Solstice takes care of every step of the customer experience for these community solar projects. We do everything end to end in a customer experience, which includes customer education, customer acquisition and enrollment, customer qualification. We created our own qualification standards because the FICO scores that are used in the energy industry are pretty archaic. We have our own software that handles the billing and the crediting and the integration with utility accounts for customers. And the whole idea is how do we make this so simple and so affordable that everyone does it. Essentially what we’re doing is trying to make it easy for both sides of the solar market place to do community solar. We’re making it easy for developers to interact with their customers because they lack software to do that. They lack the interest and desire to talk to customers thousands at a time and sign them up efficiently. And then the households and businesses that want to sign up and want to save money, but have never heard of community solar, don’t know it exists, we’re connecting them to solar gardens in their area.

Vicki Saunders:

This is really cool. How long have you been doing this?

Steph Speirs:

We actually started a nonprofit in 2015 to work on low income access to community solar. And then we realized there was a real market need for software and services to make these projects happen. So we spun out a software company in 2016 and really have been focused on both in those years.

Vicki Saunders:

It’s interesting how for a lot of these sort of behavior change and new market opportunities people have blended models.

Steph Speirs:

Yeah.

Vicki Saunders:

With it’s sort of a mix of the nonprofit and for-profit. So how did you two meet to collaborate? I love co-founder stories and I just think it’s really hard to be an entrepreneur on your own. So tell us a little bit about what it’s like entrepreneuring together and what the journey’s been like so far.

Sandhya Murali:

So we actually met through a mutual friend from business school while I was getting my MBA at MIT, got connected to Steph right as the Solstice journey was starting and was really intrigued and motivated by this dual mission of trying to expand access to solar, increased solar deployment in the US but also figure out how to make clean energy savings work for a broader swath of the population and bring those clean energy savings to people that have traditionally been locked out of the market. I started to get involved and help craft the early stages of the business model as I was wrapping up my graduate degree and then joined full time once I finished up right as Solstice was starting. So initially it was just a couple of us for the first several months and then we started bringing on team members in 2016 and things started to take off from there. So it’s definitely been a wild ride and I’ll let Steph jump in with reflections on those early days too.

Steph Speirs:

Yeah, yeah. To your point, Vicki, I thank my lucky stars every day that I get to work with Sandhya and I’m not just saying that because she’s on this interview, but we have really complimentary skills and I think that’s pretty key towards having any healthy co-founder relationship. But also there’s a lot of trust there. I have never ever doubted Sandhya’s decision making or work ethic and she shows up every day to work really, really having been fully invested in this. And it really feels great to work alongside with someone who feels the same way you do about an organization. So like Sandhya said, we met through the business school network that we both went to but for different school years.

Vicki Saunders:

That’s great. Yeah. I think one of the things that having this balance of different skill sets to create the whole brain as it were.

Steph Speirs:

Yeah.

Vicki Saunders:

I think it has a lot of… I have a ton of sort of innovative, relational and some sort of procedural in analytical, but when you match those things together with someone who has different thinking skills than you, it is just pure magic because it really helps you to get things done. So I wonder as you’re thinking about growing your business, presuming that that’s what you want to do, what are the biggest hurdles you’re sort of facing right now?

Steph Speirs:

There is this notion in social entrepreneurship where the product that you’re offering the world is good for the world. And specifically with community solar, community solar helps the planet because it conserves natural resources and decarbonizes the economy, meaning it gets us off fossil fuels. The other side of it is that it saves people money and it helps them use money on other very needed, valuable household expenses. But sometimes the biggest surprise to me about this business is that people are really, really skeptical of anything energy. There’s a severe deficit of trust in the energy industry, and I think that’s because people don’t really think about or know how we get our energy because over a hundred years we’ve had our energy just provided to us by the utilities. And so people don’t think consumer choice is something they can exercise in energy.

Steph Speirs:

Yet we are in the middle of a fourth industrial revolution where energy’s changing so rapidly and people are starting to express consumer choice. It just has to be a muscle that works and is practiced. That’s all to say, I think one of the biggest challenges has been to, like Sandhya said, educate people that they have a choice in this matter, that they can save money and it doesn’t have to be hard. So the deficit of trust that exists can be exceeded by hard work and community organizing, but we can only move at the speed of trust.

Vicki Saunders:

That’s one of my favorite lines ever. You can only move at the speed of trust. I feel exactly the same way about growing our CEO community.

Steph Speirs:

Yeah.

Vicki Saunders:

People have to have experience, they talk to friends. And then once you really get rolling you can see the network effect and it starts to become more effortless, or so I’m told, I was still waiting for that to happen.

Steph Speirs:

Us too.

Vicki Saunders:

Yeah, exactly. But it is, it’s such interesting heavy lifting at the beginning. When you just said all those things, I’m just fascinated because when people aren’t involved in a lot of behavior change or social impact work, part of the… We’ve looked at things really rationally in the past, well here are the seven reasons why this is obvious, so everyone’s going to do it. Actually it’s never that simple. They’re literally, the value prop is insane on this in terms of all the possibilities, but it’s that inertia of shifting things, paying attention, waking up. Do you have any secrets for the rest of us on how to do this?

Sandhya Murali:

I don’t know that I have a silver bullet answer here. But I think what we’re hoping for on an organizational level, we already see in individual campaigns, acquisition campaigns. So we have this idea of flipping a town. So as we start to build some of those early community relationships with the organization, with different organizations, with the town itself, the local town council, we start to build that trust and eventually we gain enough momentum in a targeted geographic area where we then start to see a lot of customers show interest and come to us and want to enroll. And so it’s building on that network effect, the positive word of mouth that we’re seeing and that all builds on itself and create that momentum that allows us to complete a campaign with that exponential growth and customers replicating that on the organizational level is what we’re hoping for to build up that brand awareness and really let, I guess, combat power of inertia that is so strong, especially in the energy industry.

Sandhya Murali:

We definitely have tools that we employ in different tactics for reaching people, but it is a lot of hard work and a lot of being present, staying top of mind with individuals and that the community organizations that we work with in order to get over that hump

Vicki Saunders:

Question around that. So being in a sort of local dense community helps in finding influencers or…

Steph Speirs:

You don’t have to be next door to your community solar farm to take advantage of it. It has to be in the same utility zone as your residence. So that utility zone can be massive. There are three in the state of Massachusetts, you can be three hours away from your farm and still enjoy community solar. But we found that people get really excited when it’s in their town because they can see it. There’s a solar garden we worked on that was on a former landfill in a town outside of Boston and it could serve the whole city of Boston, but that town ate up the capacity because they were so excited that there was a landfill that had been turned into a solar farm and it was something they can see and drive past.

Steph Speirs:

I will say to answer your previous question Vicki, that my biggest surprise, I thought that people were going to sign up for community solar because they wanted to save money and they wanted to help the environment and that was a value proposition, and that is the value proposition. But the bigger realization is that people sign up because it’s easy, because their friends are doing it or it seems like a trend that they should be a part of. And that goes back to the community and trust and connectivity that Sandhya was talking about.

Steph Speirs:

To put a finer point on it, our conversion rates are really telling as to what the magic secret is. And when someone comes in… If you go door to door, we don’t go door to door because it’s stranger to stranger, not community organizing. But if you go door to door, one to 2% of people will sign up for this. Our conversion rates from digital marketing and digital advertising are 7% and that’s pretty good digital marketing conversion rate. When someone hears about this from a friend or a neighbor, the conversion rate is 50%. That just shows that people will sign up for this if they trust the messenger and that’s why we go through communities and networks.

Vicki Saunders:

I love it. We are learning really similar painful lessons like this too.

Steph Speirs:

Yeah.

Vicki Saunders:

All that other stuff, it’s just noise to blast out energy. It’s find those hubs, those people that are the influencers and portals to other people and getting relationship with them and I guess going to new communities, it’s sometimes hard to find who those people are, but when you do…

Steph Speirs:

Yeah.

Vicki Saunders:

And I imagine it’s really sticky then. If you come in… Do people drop off or do you, once you’re in, you’re in, for signing up, how does that work?

Sandhya Murali:

We don’t really see people leave these solar gardens unless they move out of the service area and can technically no longer participate. So the turn rate is pretty low because the value proposition is pretty simple and straightforward and compelling. Once you’re signed up, we’re making things super simple and you’re saving roughly 10% on your energy bill. Why wouldn’t you stay in it as long as you don’t move out of the service area?

Vicki Saunders:

So one of the things that my heart is very full when I talk to you and talk to other CEO ventures about how passionate you are about creating a better world, just keep it as generic as possible, but women are using their leadership to really look at the challenges we’re facing and come up with solutions to bring us into relationship together to have better practices to sustain this planet. I wonder if you could just about your why. Why does this matter so much to you?

Steph Speirs:

There’s two reasons why this matters so much to me. There’s so many people in this country that struggle every month with paying their bills and making it in our economy. And this is a solution that makes it easy for people to benefit from clean energy and to save money. Frankly, the people in our country who need solar savings the most, low to moderate income Americans are the least likely to get access to solar power and clean energy and community solar can change that. My mom was this low income renter my whole life and I watched her struggle to pay the bills. And the fact that there’s a solution that can help people like her and just requires more distribution, more innovative ways to get people to participate means that this work is meaningful on a day to day basis for me.

Vicki Saunders:

So deeply in the experience yourself. I think this is one of the things we find is that the more you’re shoulder to shoulder with the people who are going through the experience, the more empathy you have towards it and the more likely you are to come up with a solution to that. So thank you for that. How about you Sandhya?

Sandhya Murali:

Yeah. I think pretty similarly. There are so many people in my network and just that we have interactions with that are trying to figure out how to, not necessarily make ends meet, but just to get a little bit more on a month to month basis. And the fact that this is community solar is something that’s so simple and so easy and it’s really just free money in your pocket, is a really compelling reason to want to figure out how to get this to scale and to impact tens of thousands, even millions of people across the country. And that’s really motivating. The size of the problem is huge. The potential solution and answers that we have are huge and that’s really motivating to want to work on. And I think about the environmental piece, especially recently in getting more exposure to some of the issues around climate change and the fact that it is very much starting to impact people close to me and thinking about my 10 month old son and the future that we’re leaving behind.

Sandhya Murali:

That’s also really motivating factor and trying to figure out how to bring some of these environmental issues to the forefront of people’s consciousness. I think the only way that we’re really going to have an impact is really… It’s going to be a combination of things, but I think we need to create this public movement, this consumer movement, that drives more adoption of renewables that forces policymakers to create programs that actually spur and accelerate the deployment of renewable. And community solar creates that tangible link between the consumer and their clean energy sources. Anything that we can do to accelerate that, bring that to top of mind, I think will help this transition to a clean energy economy that we’re all trying to achieve.

Vicki Saunders:

Amazing. Well, I want to thank both of you for all of the work that you’re doing every day. The heavy lifting to get us all into relationships so that we can create a cleaner world, better economy. I wonder if you have an ask for people that are listening, where can they learn more about what you’re doing and do you have something that you need that we can help you with?

Steph Speirs:

I appreciate your asking, Vicki. Thanks. So if people want to sign up for community solar, they can learn more about it at our website, www.solstice.us. Again, that’s solstice.us and you can click the go solar form and say where you’re living and as soon as there is a community solar garden in your area, we’ll let you know. Community solar is three years old and so there’s some places that have community solar and not others, but we’re trying to quickly scale and get access to everyone across the country. And the ask is that we have active projects right now across New York State. Or if you know someone in the New York State area that cares about the environment or wants to benefit from clean energy and save money on their bills every month, please let us know. Or forward the information to them as well.

Vicki Saunders:

We will do that. How about you Sandhya anything else you want to add to that?

Sandhya Murali:

I will double down on that ask. We are expanding aggressively, especially in the New York State upstate area, and so we’d love to spread the word to members of the SheEO network in that region and welcome all the support we can get from the network.

Vicki Saunders:

Great. Well, and I haven’t asked for everyone listening to is please share this podcast with your friends, tag your friends on any social channel that you’re on and let’s help grow the community solar movement. So thank you very much you two, you’re amazing and we’ll see you soon.

Sandhya Murali:

Thank you so much.

Steph Speirs:

Thanks for having us Vicki.

Vicki Saunders:

Thank you for listening to the SheEO.world podcast. If this conversation resonated with you, please share it with a friend and subscribe on your favorite podcast player. If you’d like more information about SheEO, please visit us at SheEO.world. That’s S-H-E-E-O.world.

 

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