Requested by and then not published by the American Solar Energy Society (ASES) in Nov 2010
Is Residential Solar Sustainable by Nate Otto
As a construction professional for more than two decades I’ve witnessed my share of poor construction and business practices. Maybe I was being naive, but one of my hopes when moving my business focus to renewable energy was that the industry itself was a step above General Contracting “business as usual”. Having spent the years prior adopting sustainable building practices and materials in my construction projects, I had started to see a like mindedness among the “green” contractors and architects that encouraged sharing of knowledge and working collectively. Working together we could improve the projects for all involved as well as the generations to come.
Building with a sustainable purpose was looking as if it inspired sustainable practices.
My early impressions of the solar industry however didn’t have that same feeling. It was over 5 years ago when I was looking into solar PV for some of my projects. I didn’t have many options for installers and had to deal with a fair amount of elitist attitude and run around to get a contract signed. I ended up choosing a large publicly traded solar provider for the first job. In addition to the condescending attitude, I found the professionalism from sales to scheduling to be non-existent. The installers were inexperienced, untrained and defensive. I got a PV system but shutter to think what would have been installed had I not personally been on the roof and demanded the roofer’s involvement and to adjust the layout.
I tried to write my early experiences off as my poor choice of installers given limited options and my lack of knowledge. As the years followed and my focus on sustainable buildings increased, so did the options for consultants and sub-trades. The HVAC, plumbing, insulation, and roofing trades continued to add more sustainable products and methods to the mix, as well as a continued willingness to do better for the long run. Solar, coming from the outside, seems to have remained just that, an outsider to the building trades, and sadly, is adopting the worst habits as their own.
I believe fully in the power of renewables. Pun intended. I truly believe they are the right thing to do for my clients as well as society and the environment. Putting solar at the point of use makes the most sense and I am proud to have made it my primary focus and mission. Having devoted my time and money to this noble cause, I am not going to participate in the games the solar insiders are playing when it comes to their installs or clients. I haven’t spent 20+ years perfecting my construction knowledge to turn around now and ignore quality control and proper installation teqniques because my product is somehow so good for the client that it doesn’t matter. Im certainly not going to start approaching sales as if the client is uneducated and therefore ripe to be over charged and mislead.
These are my choices and maybe they are not the most profitable or successful. Maybe I could do better to be more cutthrought. The truth is I have seen where that road leads. I have seen the roofer who tried those same “used car” sales tactics solar installers are using today. I have had to fix the aftermath of many of those unprofessional greedy now out of business contractors. I know that Solar installers of that ilk will suffer the same fate. What worries me is that as an industry we are in jeopardy of the the consumer fighting back. They will perceive, correctly, the Solar installers are out to rip you off. They will kill any advance that you think you are getting by taking advantage of their niavity.
Over the past couple of years solar sales have increased impressively, but the quality of experience has not. I have seen “my manager just approved a $30,000 price reduction on your system, boy its your lucky day,” and similar parlor tricks. We have a solar lease company proudly promoting a program guiesed as educational, that is pimping school children to sell to their parents, for a kickback in form a “donation”. I have had competitors let themselves into my client’s yards to inspect my systems so they can try to trash talk the panels I used. And, we have all heard the leaky roof complaints and $30 a watt selling prices. In other words, we are growing into the worst kind of dog eat dog, wild-west industry that will maneuver its way right out of business or slow its adoption not increase it.
Back when electricity or the phone line or plumbing or even cable TV were added to houses, people were perhaps more willing to accept an ugly or unprofessional installation. After all they were getting something they didn’t have and badly needed/wanted. But Solar is not the same. While good for the environment, people have power already. For all the ego the solar provider wants to have, we have not invented the wheel and should not expect our clients to gobble up our product at all costs, anything goes. Yet, that seems to be what the majority are banking on.
Solar for all the good it does is just a home improvement. We are in our infancy as an industry and have this one chance to establish a set of standards not through regulations but out of honor and the integrity that comes in taking pride in what you do. Installations need to be done right and last at least 30 years. If you don’t know how to do this, learn. Ask others. Don’t pretend or cheat your way onto a roof. Waterproofing should be done by a professional. This is basic knowledge, but easily ignored to save a few bucks, in the short term. I’ll give you a tip, a good reputation is essential for success in home improvement. So if you want to be in the Solar industry for the long run, or you want the residential solar industry around for the long run, we better do things the right way, now.
This tip is good for the inexperienced guy working to make ends meet, but sadly needs to be applied to the entire industry. The gross overcharge mentioned above is a standard tactic used by the industry leaders. Waterproofing by the “experienced” solar installers is lackluster to say the least. The pimping of kids in the name of education is being promoted as a win win while I write this. How are we going to collectively convert our American homes to clean energy when we are behaving like our customers need us more than we need them, that our product, because its sustainable is somehow above ethics, good taste, and reproach?
By dropping the price 30% to beat the other guy we are basically saying I was trying to take advantage of you but now that the cat is out of the bag I will sell it to you at fair market value. Having kids sell to their parents in the guise of helping schools is an unethical sales tactic with dire consequences. What’s next, having them sell hybrids, grey water systems, and organic milk? If you set a price, be fair and stick to it because it’s based on the value of your service. If you want to help schools then give them a share of all your proceeds and have unbiased educational programs. Kids are in school to learn, not peddle products for their education.
Bad mouthing a consumer’s solar panel is adding confusion and lessoning the validity of the technology as a whole. Again, it’s a cliché tactic to tear down your competitor’s product. But collectively as an industry, aren’t we better off supporting the efforts of each other? If you are my competitor and you don’t like what I’m doing then do a better job selling your product. If you are really concerned, call me and give me a going over. To brazenly offend my client with your personal preference is not helping anyone. Panels are rated, priced accordingly, and most will generally do good for the client.
Isn’t our goal a good one? Aren’t we all trying to convert homes to a clean renewable energy sources. Arent there enough homes out there to convert without having to tear down the very industy we are trying to create?
I write this so that as an industry we can look at ourselves, our actions and our words and see how they line up with our intentions. If we really do want to promote clean energy and change the energy of America’s future, then we should ask ourselves how can we properly, ethically, sustainably help promote our cause. By doing this we will have the public support and respect that we all need to help our business bottom line and the obtain that other tier of success that we will be most proud of, our children’s future.
Hot Purple Energy | www.hotpurpleenergy.com
Serving The Coachella Valley