Bringing the cost of installed solar down to $1 per watt entails many challenges, many of which aren’t technical.

Earlier this month, the U.S. Department of Energy's SunShot Initiative turned its attention to the soft costs of rooftop solar, including customer acquisition, financing and permitting, which can account for nearly half the costs of residential solar systems.

The DOE handed out $8 million to nine companies, many of which focus on reducing the cost of customer acquisition through online web portals. Sales and marketing alone can account for about 25 percent of a residential install, according to SunRun. One of the companies is EnergySage, a web portal that lets consumers and businesses evaluate the cost of clean energy on their property, including solar, solar thermal small wind, geothermal, biomass and combined heat and power.

“Our belief is clean energy will only become pervasive if it impacts the bottom line of the consumer and not just the environment,” said Vikram Aggarwal, CEO of EnergySage.

Currently, EnergySage is building a solar PV price quote comparison platform. The founders come out of the financial services world, and think that customers should look at solar as an asset class, similar to stocks and bonds.

The Cambridge, Mass.-based company does consulting and also offers the web portal, the EnergySage Wizard, where people can learn about the different clean tech options and then find out what technology and pricing structure could work for them. The $500,000 from the DOE will be used to automate the company's full consulting process into the web portal for a seamless experience.

Instead of charging the customer to get a quote, the money will come from solar companies. The models are still being worked out, but currently there are a variety of pay structures that companies have agreed to. Even though some pay and some do not, Aggarwal said his company is technology- and company-agnostic when it comes to making recommendations.  

To reach potential customers, EnergySage is working to building relationships with environmental and climate change advocacy organizations, such as the Sierra Club.

Once people go through the Wizard, they will be able to solicit multiple quotes from installers. Then they will be given all of the tools and resources to evaluate the different quotes. The next step is financing options, which EnergySage will also offer. “It becomes a one-stop shop,” said Aggarwal. “We’re bringing transparency to the whole process. We’re like Edmunds for clean energy.”

Transparency also comes in the form of real-world reviews, where people share the basic parameters of their property, the system they purchased and how it is performing. Members can reach out to each other to ask questions on the platform to ask questions and get detailed information about different systems.

A test platform of the updated software will launch later this year, with a full product release in early 2013.

The focus is on solar, because that’s where the money is and the most cost-effective solution for homes. Other companies are leveraging Green Button data to help homeowners evaluate solar. However, EnergySage plans to expand into energy efficiency in the future too, first with high-efficiency HVAC and water heaters.

The biggest prize in the pile went to Solar Mosaic, which received up to $2 million to lower the cost of solar financing and customer acquisition through a crowd-funding platform.

Solar Mosaic's platform currently allows people to invest in solar for community organizations. When there is enough funding, panels are put up and the community building pays Solar Mosaic a lower rate than they would pay a utility.

Clean Power Finance also received up to $1.5 million to reduce the cost of customer acquisition through its online platform and also to reduce the operations and maintenance and financing costs through its online marketplace. CFP essentially connects the capital market with the solar market, and has already financed more than $1 million dollars a day of residential power purchase agreements and leases.

Other awardees included Clean Energy Experts, concept3D, Genability, Simply Civic, Tigo Energy and Urban Glue.