A sign that says "This House is Solarizing"

Solarize: the Grassroots Initiative that Cut Solar Costs up to 35%

Jerold Brito

Back in 2009, solar panels were not nearly as widely used as they are today. At the time, solar power generation in the United States was a mere 1.8 percent of what it became in 2019. At the time, a forward-thinking campaign in Portland, Oregon sought to speed up the transition towards clean energy by making the installation process more streamlined and cost-efficient. By building a grassroots movement, aggregating demand across multiple households, and holding a competitive contractor selection process, the Solarize campaign was able to foster a community invested in solar energy that could achieve cost savings through bulk purchasing. Over the course of two years and multiple campaigns, over 600 solar systems were installed throughout the city. Following this successful pilot program, other Solarize campaigns have been executed across the United States, driving forward the transition towards a clean energy future. With support from the Department of Energy’s Sunshot program, Northwest SEED documented the efforts of Solarize Portland and following campaigns in The Solarize Guidebook (PDF).

Key features of a Solarize campaign include the following:

  • A bulk purchasing program that connects a group of residents in a geographic region with one or more solar installation contractors. This creates savings for contractors by reducing marketing and lead generation costs who then pass those savings on to Solarize participants, thereby reducing installation costs.
  • A competitive contractor selection process where multiple contractors submit cost-competitive bids that meet community specifications and needs.
  • Partnership with local community groups for community outreach, including educational workshops and local campaigning.
  • A community-centered decision-making process for program implementation, marketing, and contractor selection.
  • Leverage federal and state incentives such as tax credits and rebates to decrease the cost of solar.

Through bulk purchasing, Solarize Portland was able to reduce the cost of a typical 3-kilowatt (kW) installation from $27,000 to approximately $18,000, representing a 33% reduction in price. Bulk orders for solar installations were awarded to three local contractors selected by the community. As Solarize Portland provided a steady stream of guaranteed customers, this allowed contractors to save on marketing and lead generation costs, ultimately allowing them to provide lower prices to Solarize participants. Further savings were achieved through federal and state tax credits. The typical Solarize Portland campaign used a federal tax credit, an Oregon residential tax credit, and an Energy Trust of Oregon cash incentive to reduce the cost of a solar installation from $18,000 to approximately $2,000.

A community-driven process

Tapping into community groups for on-the-ground outreach and support is a crucial component of Solarize campaigns. For the Solarize Portland campaign, institutional support was provided by the Neighborhood Coalition, an established and trusted community-based organization. Solarize Athens in Athens, Georgia was led by a coalition of community groups, including Environment Georgia, the Georgia Climate Change CoalitionGeorgia Interfaith Power and Light, and Solar CrowdSource. The Solarize Guidebook notes that the scope and scale of outreach is amplified through community groups, and that neighbors are more receptive to grassroots campaigns. The process of creating a project together fosters a sense of community spirit, encouraging increased participation in the community. Partnering with a community group is also one of the most effective ways for increasing solar power uptake in low-income communities and communities of color, which often have lower rates of solar adoption due to financial constraints or lack of access.

The contractor selection process is another avenue through which participants can gain a sense of project ownership. The Request for Proposal (RFP) process asks contractors to submit bids detailing their services and cost estimates. The community is then tasked with selecting a contractor based on their qualifications and their suitability to the community’s values and needs. Community members engaged in the RFP process have full agency over the selection criteria, allowing them to create a project aligned with their goals, and in which they are fully invested and confident.

What is solar lead generation and why is it valuable?

The Solarize model takes advantage of the high value of reliable lead generation in residential solar power. Solarize essentially acts as an intermediary between homeowners looking to install solar power and the contractors who provide it. In a relatively young market, it’s even more important to facilitate the connection between buyers and sellers. After all, you can’t just buy solar panels at your local Target! Contractors are happy to save on marketing costs, while customers are happy to receive better prices. 

Community-sourced leads have an advantage over commercially generated leads. Instead of relying on public databases and impersonal marketing campaigns, Solarize operates through outreach and promotion by community volunteers. As the program is operated by the community and for the community, leads are never sold or exchanged with a third party. Leads also go beyond those who choose to install solar during the campaign. Due to increased community awareness and acceptance of household solar power, many installers have reported sustained benefits as new customers continue to contact them even after the end of Solarize campaigns, and the findings from this effort are documented in this evidence-based guidebook (PDF).

Sustaining Solarize campaigns

Leaders of Solarize campaigns have learned that it is difficult to sustain the programs with grant funding alone. Although community outreach is conducted through a network of volunteers, overhead costs can include program administration, web hosting and promotional material, and in some cases, pre-participation assessments. According to The Solarize Guidebook (PDF), some subsequent campaigns took in a lead generation fee of $0.25 per watt, or approximately 5 percent of the total installation cost, to cover these costs while still maintaining the price advantage for homeowners. 

The key difference between revenue generation in for-profit lead generation companies and Solarize campaigns is that Solarize is community-driven and community-owned. Commission fees are taken in for the sole purpose of cost recovery. Each campaign is created for and tailored to a specific community, and Solarize that is not meant to be commercialized at a large scale.

Where is Solarize today?

Solarize campaigns have continued to transform communities and pave the way for a clean energy future in the United States. To date, Solar Oregon reports that over 25 Solarize projects have resulted in over 4 MW of installed solar energy. Solarize’s bulk purchase model still serves as a useful kickstarter for solar in “early marker” locations with low adoption. More recent campaigns have expanded the original model with options for additional energy integrations and specialized outreach methods. For instance, Solarize Milwaukie in Milwaukie, Oregon included optional educational resources for complementary features such as battery storage, smart thermostats, and electric vehicle charging. Solarize Northwest, based in Washington state, conducted a Spanish language Solarize workshopin 2018 aimed at Spanish-speaking business owners.

Join the cause

Are you interested in installing solar power on your own rooftop? Do you want to collaborate with members of your community to create a clean and sustainable future? Search for Solarize campaigns or other bulk purchasing programs in your area to join the movement. If no local programs exist, The Solarize Guidebook (PDF) is a great place to get information on how to start your own Solarize campaign.

Cover image credit: Clean Energy Group

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