Solar panels on the rooftop of a home in Southern California. Courtesy LA Solar Group
Solar panels on the rooftop of a home in Southern California. Courtesy LA Solar Group

Last week San Diego became the first metropolitan area in California to reach 5 percent home solar. That achievement is thanks to the perseverance of homeowners in a market fraught with confusing terminology, complicated rules and often high-pressure sales tactics. Solar to the People, a one-year-old company, is helping homeowners cut through the clutter with clear, comprehensive information and competitive quotes from reputable installers. Times of San Diego spoke with founder Ryan Willemsen about how his company is helping homeowners navigate the solar boom.

Why did you start Solar to the People?

We started Solar to the People for two reasons. First, to create an easy-to-understand resource for information on home solar, then to help homeowners considering solar receive and compare proposals from reputable installers.

Ryan Willemsen

We saw major pain points for homeowners who are considering solar. As solar goes mainstream, more and more homeowners are taking to the internet to research questions about solar like:

  • “Does solar make really make sense for my home? Will I actually save any money?”
  • “How do net metering and tax credits work for solar?”
  • “How do I compare warranties across companies?”

Yet the main thing that people find when they search for these answers online are the pages of solar installers, especially the larger ones, which are light on helpful information, and frequently heavy on sales pitches. We want to provide homeowners with accurate information, even if that information is that solar isn’t right for you.

Selecting installers is at best difficult for many homeowners, at worst they abandon the whole process of going solar out of frustration. It’s an extremely important decision, since if you purchase solar you’re usually looking at an all-in cost of $15,000 or up, and if you lease it can be a commitment of 20 years. Unfortunately, solar is so new that people don’t know how to evaluate the pros and cons of various panels, installers and offers. We put a lot of effort into vetting installers and reviewing their proposals to understand what to look for and what to avoid.

Solar is complicated and confusing, with homeowners often facing high-pressure sales tactics. How does your company simplify the process and inspire confidence?

In my opinion, this is THE biggest problem. Solar IS complicated and confusing. You have costs that vary by home, changing power bills over time, a variety of incentives and different financing options. We spend a LOT of time just keeping abreast of everything. And to make matters worse, the industry has developed a reputation for extremely high-pressure sales tactics. (I’m sure many of your readers have had solar salespeople call them or knock on their doors relentlessly.) It’s the confusing nature of solar and it’s rapidly developing a ‘snake-oil’ reputation that gives many homeowners who would otherwise consider solar a lot of hesitation — and I don’t blame them.

We try to simplify the process of researching solar by compiling all the need-to-know information and putting it in one place on Solar to the People’s website. We try to make the site easy to navigate, and to really walk homeowners through what they need to know and pay attention to when considering solar. We spend a lot of time updating the site as we learn from homeowners which questions we’re doing a good job of answering and which ones we’re not doing such a good job with, as well as when regional laws and incentives change.

How do you identify reputable solar installers?

Our process of identifying reputable solar installers has actually changed a lot over time. Now that we have developed experience with a wide range of installers, we have a very different process for identifying reputable installers than we did initially.

We receive recommendations from a number of different sources. We speak with homeowners, we ask other installers, we read a lot of review sites and spend a lot of time determining which reviews are just fake marketing tactics, and we secretly shop new installers. Then we invite them to participate on Solar to the People.

Customer service and reputation are paramount, quality and price are important, and we won’t list installers who use auto-dialers in a call center. The last thing I want when someone seeks quotes through us is for them to be overwhelmed with calls.

Many mid-size installers hit the sweet spot between being big enough to have the requisite installation experience and process orientation, but still small enough to have the owner heavily involved in the operation of the company. Many of these installers have owners who are engineers by training and really understand solar, versus being purely business people trying to move a product.

Will expiring solar tax credits in California and other states slow the growth of home solar?

I expect to see solar to continue rapidly expanding, even as incentives are gradually phased out. For many years, solar made no economic sense, but with the massive price drop we’ve seen over the past decade — 70 percent or more in most cases — homeowners can legitimately save a lot of money by switching to solar, even without incentives.

And the incentives haven’t gone away, though there is huge confusion over this. The biggest boost for residential solar out there right now is called the Solar Investment Tax Credit, which provides a federal income tax credit of 30 percent of the cost of a solar system for homeowners who buy their system, with cash or a loan. This incentive was supposed to end in December 2016 but was extended for five additional years.

A number of states have rebate programs for solar, though California is no longer one of them. Many utilities are required to offer net metering, and some like the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power offer rebates as well. Net metering is how homeowners are credited for extra power they produce with their panels that they don’t use and feed back to the grid. The net-metering law is changing in California, but it still pays to sell power to the grid.

When California’s rebate program expired in 2014, many people had predicted doom and gloom for the state’s home solar market, but installations set a record the next year. What people hadn’t counted on was the drop in the actual price of solar, which allowed it to remain highly competitive with utility-produced power.

How do you see the home solar industry evolving over the next few years?

There are a number of large changes already afoot in the industry. Many homeowners are opting to buy instead of lease their panels. The economics are just so much better, and there is widespread availability of loans now. This is happening as prices continue to fall. The manufacturing, installation and financing processes are really just getting so much better every year.

The amount of solar installed will expand big time, probably exponentially over the next few years. Solar is really on the cusp of mass adoption. It’s like the introduction of cars in the early 1900s. People could see that some kind of trend was afoot, but they had no idea of the growth in the automobile industry in the years to come, and how it would reshape the world.

Times of San Diego, a startup itself, regularly writes about startups in technology, biotech and other sectors of local business. If you are a startup in the San Diego area and want to tell your story, please contact news@timesofsandiego.com.

Chris Jennewein

Chris Jennewein is Editor & Publisher of Times of San Diego.