Partnerships & Collaborations Essential in Growing Solar Industry

by | Nov 3, 2022

From homeowners to policymakers, the list of people advocating for and making decisions in the solar industry is long. For it all to come together smoothly, someone has to be at the helm, guiding and connecting all of these key players. Kacie Peters at Pivot Energy has spent more than twelve years learning all the nuances of the solar industry and is now one of the significant influencers helping to make voices heard, from product development to policy.

Solar is a rapidly evolving industry. Consumers are still learning about the plethora of options available while also getting mixed messages about the value of solar from the media. Businesses and communities are wondering how to leverage shared solar opportunities to reduce costs and environmental impact. Solar manufacturers and installers are racing to meet market demand and help stabilize the grid. 

 

Kacie Peters’ Career in Solar

Kacie Peters made her way into the blossoming solar industry in 2010, starting in a marketing position for a residential solar installation company. “I’m sticking with solar because I feel like I can leave the place cleaner than when I got here,” Kacie said. “It feels like I’m leaving a physical asset on the earth that reduces the need for carbon-intense resources.”

In 2012, Kacie was working with the Illinois Solar Energy Association to help pass the Future Jobs Act, which would ensure more stability in the solar market in Illinois. Around this time,  Kacie met Pivot Energy (at the time called Microgrid Energy) at a solar energy conference. “The thing I liked about Pivot was that they weren’t looking at other companies as competitors; they were looking at them as partners.”

 

The Importance of Listening to the Market

In the early days, the solar industry faced similar issues as any burgeoning sector: the balance between developing flexible products to meet clients’ requests and convincing financiers that the new ideas were stable enough to finance. “We were really pushing on all fronts: financing options, policy, and using support from early adopters,” said Kacie. “It was a real challenge to meet client, regulatory, and financier needs all while racing against expiring incentives.”

From her perspective, success lies in patience, communication, and collaboration, with a variety of companies innovating in the space simultaneously. 

“We are building the plane as we’re flying it,” Kacie said, “as an entire industry.”

 

Finding Product-Market Fit

A great example of a product-market fit is “community solar.”

There is a huge market for apartment building dwellers who want to participate in solar but can’t because they don’t own their roof and obviously can’t just install a bunch of panels and plug in.

Enter Community solar, a program that allows a developer to install solar in a field outside of town or on a larger commercial rooftop in a city and then sell the energy production to people who can’t build solar themselves.

Community solar is an exciting opportunity for multi-family properties, neighborhoods, business complexes, and other cooperative settings where individual rooftop installations are not practical because of physical or financial constraints.

“I worked in solar for so long but could not have solar on my roof, and there was nothing to answer that,” Kacie said. “More than fifty percent of the country’s population lives in homes unsuitable for solar. The concept of community solar arose as a solution for this enormous void in the market.”

 

Innovating Through Imperfect Solutions

Community solar solutions began to creep into the marketplace over the last decade, offering customers the chance to buy in or subscribe to the solar energy produced. Initially, companies offered systems using a partial ownership model that presented arduous tax complications for owners and subscribers. Eventually, the subscription model evolved, but financiers still relied on credit scores and contracts with exit fees to create a secure investment. While an incredible idea for enhancing community value and reducing the burden on grid infrastructure, many Community solar programs rolled out as imperfect solutions.

“The energy industry is always trying to be innovative, but there are a lot of forces that complicate new product development,” said Kacie. “We’re up against a legacy monopoly model and finance institutions who aren’t comfortable with fast adoption. We can solve for this tension by building products out alongside our customers and listening to their needs.”

“Consumers understand their frustrations. They didn’t want exit fees to cancel a community solar contract,” Kacie said. “It’s our responsibility to come up with solutions, and reduce barriers to adoption.”

Eventually, financiers became more comfortable with flexible contracts, using fixed discounts to illustrate savings propositions easily. “If you build it – and it’s a good value, then they will come,” said Kacie. “The industry has proven that there is demand for community solar subscriptions, and if you make it easy to participate, any natural churn is easy to replace. It’s a pretty safe bet.” 

Policy and program design can also help and hinder product growth through rate design, incentives, and fees. Product research, therefore, can help to craft program development. “As programs roll out throughout the country, it’s important that lawmakers and regulators understand the gains we’ve made in similar programs and what has resonated with consumers. Everyone wants these programs to be successful, so let’s include the market research as to what works.”  

 

Mixed Messaging in the Media Hinders Growth

Mixed messaging is another challenge. Certain political influencers have polarized solar energy and other renewable energy solutions as a matter of politics. Sustainability and energy grid stability are matters pertinent to everyone regardless of political affiliations.

We’ve seen places where solar get’s bipartisan support: rural communities like the tax renews, libertarians like energy choice. In 2021, new renewable energy had become cheaper than fossil fuel production. The competition has caused more established energy industry segments to actively market against the solar industry. 

False information is disseminated about the viability of solar energy, impeding the adoption rate among consumers and businesses nationwide. Kacie cautions stakeholders to remember that the solar industry must also listen to these voices.

“Let’s listen to local concerns and think about how we can make this better for them,” Kacie said. “Community reinvestment can be a key component here. We need to ensure that we support the communities rather than give them the impression we are taking from them.” 

 

Nostalgia for the Status Quo

Nostalgia exists for the status quo way of doing things. “‘Why should I care about my energy? Why not support what we have?’ People don’t like change, and if something is working, people are nostalgic for it,” Kacie said. 

“My grandfather was a coal miner, and I’m not sure I’m nostalgic for the times that he was in a coal mine doing a dangerous and toxic job every day, but I honor the work and sacrifices that he made to keep the lights on.”

“I think as we’re transitioning into clean energy, we on the solar side just have to realize there is a pull for this nostalgia,” Kacie said. “Communicating through key partnerships that solar is an American-made industry is going to be an important factor in universalizing acceptance of this exceptional energy solution.”

In short: there’s a lot to be proud of in the solar industry. And we need to communicate that.

 

Democratize Energy with Community Solar

Cooperative solar setups allow communities to take ownership of where and how their energy is produced without reliance upon major utility companies. This independence also reduces the burden on the grid by having power generated and stored in the area where it will be consumed.

“It’s not just that it’s cleaner energy,” Kacie said. “Distributed generation allows us to buy and sell energy and promote grid resilience.”

But there’s a challenge. “Current policy wasn’t created for us to do that,” Kacie said. For community solar to be truly successful nationwide, political policies that affect clean energy rebates and tax credits need to be advocated for and adopted.

 

Bringing Solar to Low-Income Areas

Clean energy is no longer a luxury item. King Energy, Pivot Energy, and other industry players are looking at bringing the solar industry to low-income areas where solutions like community solar could substantially improve quality of life.

Community solar was meant to increase access and we have the responsibility to make sure that access is for everyone,” Kacie said. “This means involving households previously excluded from the clean energy transition.”

For the solar industry to become fully actualized on a national scale, everyone involved will need to realize the importance of collaboration and communication with industry stakeholders and coalitions. 

Manufacturers need to listen to the concerns of their customers while also advocating for their needs to political organizations with the power to effect policy change. 

Innovators need to convey their successes and failures to ensure they deliver the best products to the market. Yes, competition is important; but if you develop a safer technique for installing solar on a slippery roof, share it with the world! The market is so big we shouldn’t think of it as zero-sum. Best practices can benefit everyone worldwide.

“Let’s talk about the challenges we have because if we only talk about our successes, how will people learn?” Kacie said. “We’re all building the airplane together.”

Kacie recommends building partnerships with state policy groups, environmental justice organizations, and finance partners to get a wide lens on market needs and opportunities.

“Pivot partners with groups like (CCSA) Coalition for Community Solar Access, and we’re active on state policy groups like (COSSA) Colorado Solar and Storage Association,” Kacie said. “I’m a firm believer that there’s a solution for everything. If we know what that problem is, we can be empathetic.”

 

What Does the Future Have in Store?

The sky’s the limit for the solar industry. Policy matters, finance issues, and the dominance of the utility construct all remain challenges for innovators to pursue. Community solar will continue to grow and scale into new markets, including low-income communities, commercial business spaces, and residential neighborhoods. The Inflation Reduction Act will help address issues of how the value of watts at the meter is assessed for clean energy rebates and buy-back programs. Most importantly, all of this will come to fruition as more solar industry members maximize the value of their collaborations and partnerships.