Customer acquisition accounts for roughly 10 percent of a residential solar system’s total cost. And unlike PV module or inverter costs, it's a much more stubborn cost to reduce.

Startup Geostellar just won $7 million in financing led by Dallas-based venture firm Matador Capital Partners to lower acquisition costs via an online platform that lets residents simulate the value of a rooftop solar system at a specific location. The startup has a database that lets homeowners judge how many solar panels their roof would best support in order to cut their electricity costs the most.

Geostellar uses LiDAR (timed laser pulses from fixed-wing aircraft) and other data to compare installation options from installers and financiers and help cut down on system costs. (You can give the system a try at the company's website. We've heard that the proposed systems are sometimes oversized and incentives are not always correct. Let us know if site estimates match your reality.)

When we last reported on Geostellar, CEO David Levine said he wanted the company to be the Kayak of rooftop solar. He said in a recent release, "When we’re done, we hope to be the single solar search site, the Google of solar marketplaces.” An investor in the company described the firm as the “Uber of solar panels.”

At least they're not trying to be the Theranos of solar. Better if the firm could work on being the Geostellar of solar and just lower acquisition costs for consumers and vendors.

As we've reported, Geostellar wants to provide every U.S. homeowner access to "a real-time, free, and independent cost-benefit analysis of solar purchase options." The firm can conduct rooftop scans with "1-meter resolution" powered by “big-data geomatics,” according to the CEO, in a previous interview. As we've reported, the platform "can estimate a typical monthly utility bill and forecast the homeowner’s savings from going solar through a cash investment, bank loan, or lease or power-purchase agreement. Calculations factor in interest rates, utility rebates and local and state incentives."

Geostellar was founded in 2010 as a provider of solar simulations to installers like Sunrun, Sungevity and SunPower. In 2012, the firm raised $14 million led by NRG Energy, along with satellite company DigitalGlobe, which provides some of its data, and Flash Forward Investors. Geostellar won $750,000 from the SunShot program in 2013. NRG recently withdrew its investment in the firm, according to John Greer at Matador. Other investors in the firm include Select Venture Partners, Panacea Capital and Valentis Capital.

Matador is not a traditional "cleantech" investment firm. Matador’s partners, John Greer and Wicky el-Effendi, intend to invest about $12 million into Geostellar this year. Greer said in an interview that solar power firms are finally becoming economical investments without help from the government. “We’re not greenies,” Greer said. “We would have never [undertaken] this investment if it needed tax funding or abatement to survive.”

Geostellar is paid by the financing company or customer, the CEO told GTM, saying, "We procure the equipment and pay the installer."

Greer told GTM today that the technology-agnostic nature of Geostellar's business and the fact that it is cash-constrained and growing fast made the investment decision pretty straightforward.

Venture capitalists

still occasionally get up the nerve to invest in solar despite the lagging pace of VC activity in the U.S. Among the top five biggest venture financings last quarter was Solar Mosaic, a lending platform for homeowners, which raised $220 million in an equity round led by Warburg Pincus, along with Core Innovation Capital and Obvious Ventures. Heliatek, an organic solar cell developer, raised a $90 million round last month. D.light Design, a solar lantern startup, raised $22.5 million in a Series D debt and equity round in September.

As we've covered in the past, there is a group of early-stage solar software companies confronting a largely American problem: disproportionate solar soft costs. Many of them are VC-funded. Soft costs include customer acquisition, installer overhead, financing, contracts, inspection, permitting, interconnection, and installation labor. That list now accounts for about 50 percent of the cost of a residential solar system, according to a 2013 NREL report (PDF). In addition to Geostellar, some of the companies fighting the soft-cost battle include:
  • Folsom Labs, a solar design and optimization startup directed at process flow in commercial solar projects. Investors include Sheldon Kimber, former COO of Recurrent Energy, and Tim Ball, founder of REC Solar.
  • Sighten landed a $3.5 million Round A of venture funding from Obvious Ventures late last year. Sighten's platform looks to drive down soft costs by addressing the "solar lifecycle, from sales to asset management."
  • EnergySage is positioning itself as the Expedia.com of solar. The startup has built an online service that lets customers compare quotes from hundreds of solar installers.
  • Open Energy is trying to make financing commercial-scale PV projects easier through an online service built to mimic applications for consumer debt.
  • UtilityAPI, as GTM has reported, is taking on "another choke point in the solar customer acquisition process -- the cumbersome process of getting utilities to cough up their customers’ energy usage and billing data.
  • Aurora Solar is developing solar sales and design software.
  • Other firms in the rooftop solar sales and design software business include SolarNexus, MODsolar and ENACT Systems.
  • SunShot grant awardees and other firms focused on soft-cost reduction and asset performance include Faraday, Amplify Energy, kWh Analytics, Also Energy, Clean Energy Experts, concept3D and Urban Glue.