The Achilles’ heel of the solar industry is the phone.
Although customers are increasingly interested in installing panelson their roofs, most never act on the impulse, according to JackHidary, a serial entrepreneur behind fast-growing Global Solar Center(GSC), a software company that wants to automate solar installation andin the process take the mystery out of solar for consumers anywhere inthe U.S.
Consumers and commercial building owners don’t fully understand thecosts and credits, he said, and often have trouble getting answers outof the installers. As a test, GSC employees called 150 installers in 30states posing as homeowners looking for quotes.
"We often never got called back… Their ability to take newprojects is limited" said Hidary, who founded Vista Research andEarthweb/Dice before getting into alternative energy. "There are tensof thousands of jobs that are lost in the pipeline."
To top it off, consumers don’t really know how to rate solar installers and then can get stuck with under-performing, inefficient systems.
GSC, which has been in beta for around 90 days, is trying to getaround these problems through a database and set of software tools ithas developed for estimating solar jobs online. The database includesdetails on every solar incentive-federal, state, and local-in thecountry. It is also linked up to satellite data. (Note: GSC is notrelated to Global Solar, the CIGS solar module maker.)
Potential customers go to the site, punch in information on theirbuilding and power consumption, and GSC delivers a quote to them thatcan then be executed by a dealer in its network. Performing the quoteonline cuts costs and obnoxious amounts of paperwork,but more importantly eliminates much of the friction that can preventconsumers or businesses from taking the solar plunge. GSC’s system canhandle both residential and commercial bids and provide estimates andpayback periods for photovoltaic panels and/or solar thermal waterheaters.
While the job quote is largely compiled by computer, the final bid is massaged and finessed by a solar expert.
"A human always looks at the data," Hidary said. "We have former solar installers on staff."
Sungevityand RoofRay have similar solar estimating tools already on the market.The difference between these earlier companies in some ways revolvesaround timing. Sungevity started in 2008 as a solar installer withsoftware for cutting down the cost and time involved in puttingtogether a bid for a solar system. Earlier this year, it started licensing its software and services to other solar installers. It started as an installer mostly because it had to prove that the concept worked, according to Sungevity execs.
GSC, effectively, has been able to skip that initial "prove it"stage. Instead, it has concentrated on software and has lined up 60installers in different areas of the country to do the roof work. Ifthese installers use the software on a project, GSC gets a portion ofthe revenue.
GSC’s software platform is also more comprehensive than whatcompetitors offer, argues Hidary. (We are running a taste test rightnow and will get back to you with results.) Sungevity to date hasmostly concentrated in California. GSC’s platform can provideinformation and quotes in most U.S. markets.
Hidary prompted a friend living in New Jersey, who also works inalternative energy, to try the tool. The combination of local andnational rebates in that state, it turns out, can cover close to 90percent of the cost of a system.
"On the spot he agreed to buy solar," he said. "Solar is quite cost-effective in many parts of the country."
Although the company has only been accepting solar bids for threemonths and is still in beta, business is booming, said Hidary. Millionsof solar deals have already been signed that in some way relied onGSC’s software.
"There is an eight-figure pipeline of deals," he said.
The dealer network, potentially, can also wring out some of thequality and reliability issues that chronically hamper the solarindustry. Simply, some installers are good, some stink, and the onesthat stink can give the whole industry a bad reputation.
"There is no J.D. Power for Solar," he said.
GSC is vetting its dealers/installers and trying to line up some ofthe better ones in a given region. Ultimately, being part of a networkcould be seen as a form of validation to consumers. Computerintegrators used national branding and networks like this in the 1980sand ’90s.
Solar City, the large California-based installer, has become amember of the GSC network. Another member of the network is based inLong Island, New York and is an expert on how local zoning ordinancescan impact solar installations.
Interestingly, many believe that Walmart, Best Buyand other national chains will soon begin to ramp up solar installationbusinesses to bring greater reliability to the installation industry.
Image courtesy Global Solar Center