Who’s got the best deal in solar power?
One Block Off the Grid, a startup that aggregates neighbors to land cheaper rooftop solar deals, has been working on that question since its 2008 founding. Since then, it has gotten thousands of customers across the United States to sign up.
On Monday, it announced it would be doing something similar for its new owner, Canadian solar project developer Pure Energies Group, which has acquired 1BOG for an undisclosed amount. Pure Energies intends to put 1BOG’s expertise to work on a “comparison-shopping service designed to empower homeowners to get the best deal on solar power,” according to Monday’s announcement.
Toronto-based Pure Energies specializes in selling solar systems in Ontario province, where a lucrative feed-in tariff has boosted the need for solar installers, as well as ways to figure out which deals offer the best return on investment. The company has installed several megawatts of projects so far, Chris Stern, vice president of development and board member, said in a Monday interview.
While Pure Energies started out as a more traditional solar installation business, it has since shifted to a software and sales model, Stern said. The idea, he said, is to become the Expedia or Hotwire of the solar market, giving homeowners tools to find the best price for their needs, and then aggregating that demand in blocks that can be sold as financial instruments.
That lines up nicely with 1BOG’s main line of business, which is getting lots of homeowners to bid for collective megawatts of solar, improving their ability to demand lower prices. The startup has done about 9 megawatts via this method in 40 states, with a run rate of about half a megawatt per month, and hopes to double that under Pure Energies' new ownership, Dave Llorens, 1BOG CEO and founder, said in an email.
San Francisco-based 1BOG raised $5 million from New Enterprise Associates in 2010. Pure Energies will put 1BOG’s website -- one “way cooler than ours,” Stern said -- to work in Ontario, and in turn will supply installer and technical support to 1BOG in the United States.
Ontario is one of the most completely smart-metered jurisdictions in North America, and Pure Energies is running several projects that connect solar system power data to the utilities that serve the customers that own it, Stern said. He declined to comment on the company’s finances, beyond saying that the firm is backed by several undisclosed investors.
The Pure Energies/1BOG partnership isn’t alone in trying to tap the mass market in residential solar, of course. SolarCity, Clean Power Finance, OneRoof Energy and other startups do it, and solar panel makers are also getting more involved in sales and services. The end goal is to make solar cheap enough to make it a no-brainer for every homeowner -- perhaps $1 per watt, as the DOE’s SunShot program is targeting, or the $2.24 per watt that is the prevailing price in Germany, instead of the U.S. average of $4.44 per watt.
But Stern believes the industry has hardly tapped the potential of owning the customer side of the solar equation, particularly Pure Energies' plans to start selling LED lights to homeowners in the near future, and other efficiency offerings, such as smart thermostats, are also in its game plan, Stern said. Solar sales could drive orders for more efficient homes, or smart thermostats could start selling solar, for example.
In the residential solar space, there's little support for the homeowner who's trying to comparison-shop, noted Andrew Krulewitz, GTM Research solar analyst. "In a cash sale, this could yield huge price savings for the end-customer," he said. "Most homeowners simply do not know what a solar system costs."
Krulewitz also pointed out the potential to compare solar financing offerings from the likes of SunRun, SolarCity, Sungevity and many others. "Typically these firms push for a commitment on the first sales meeting, and why not? With no upfront cost to the homeowner, the end-customer is simply happy to be saving money," he said. "If Pure can foster competition in this regard, third-party residential installers will be forced to reduce overall costs dramatically to continue to provide competitive electricity rates and keep positive margins."