CITYWIDE — Door-to-door sales used to be confined to sub par magazine subscriptions and significantly more valued cookies. Now, add solar panels to the list.
A team from Spearhead Solar, a company headquartered in Davis, Calif., is planning to launch what it calls a “recruitment” effort in Santa Monica by going door-to-door talking to people about the benefits of solar panels.
Rather than convincing individuals to buy into what can be very expensive systems, depending on the size and setting of the house, Spearhead Solar reaches out to hundreds of individuals in a community to create groups that purchase solar panels together, reducing the price.
Daniel Parella, the founder of Spearhead Solar, likens the process to the popular website Groupon.com which advertises a product at a low rate that’s guaranteed if enough people sign up to buy it.
Economists call it “economies of scale.” You can also think of it like buying groceries from Costco for a family — the food is much cheaper on a per-unit basis, you just have to buy a lot of it.
Although prices of solar energy have been falling since 2007, largely because of the increasing number of solar panels built in the United States and China, it’s still not cheap, nor is it as inexpensive as fossil fuel energy sources.
Two benefits of solar are that the panels eventually pay for themselves and government agencies have begun offering tax incentives to encourage people to “go green.”
Although environmental friendliness is a plus, that’s not what gets most people to install solar panels on their homes, Parrella said.
“It’s all about the economics,” he said. “You won’t sell the environment. It’s about getting prices that they won’t be able to get by themselves.”
According to Go Solar California, a joint effort of the California Energy Commission and the California Public Utilities Commission, solar energy cost between $7.78 and $8.49 per watt in the first quarter of 2012.
Spearhead Solar’s initiatives don’t move forward until they can get the cost per watt under $5, Parrella said.
Harnessing the cost savings of government incentives and buying in bulk can get the cost of a 3 kilowatt system (that’s 3,000 watts) under $10,000, Parrella said.
Depending on how big or energy-efficient the home, solar buyers can see that money returned in energy savings within five to seven years, said Drew Lowell-Britt, an energy specialist for Solar Santa Monica, part of City Hall’s Office of Sustainability and the Environment that advises Santa Monicans on all things solar.
Group buys can be a great way to bring down the cost of solar, but residents are encouraged to talk to the professionals at Solar Santa Monica to make sure that the system and price that are proposed really fit their needs, Lowell-Britt said.
After people get bids, they can go to Solar Santa Monica for an explanation of exactly what the contractor is offering or what the group buy deal is.
“It can be kind of intimidating, so we’ll help them compare apples to apples,” Lowell-Britt said.
The concept of buying solar in bulk was popularized in Portland, Ore.
According to a website for “Solarize Portland,” a volume-purchasing project for solar panels, the first group-buy in the area was done by the Mt. Tabor Neighborhood Association.
“Solarize Portland,” which is run through the Bureau of Planning and Sustainability, continues on that model. It helps group people together to buy solar panels in volume to bring down the cost through their local neighborhood associations.
Parrella hopes that the same can be done in Santa Monica. Teams of solar evangelists will start walking Santa Monica’s neighborhoods through July looking for people to sign up.
It takes approximately 20 to 40 people to go in whole hog to effectively lower the prices, Parrella said.
If Santa Monicans install 100 kilowatts worth of solar panels through Spearhead’s Santa Monica Solar Challenge, the company will donate $5,000 to GRID Alternatives, a nonprofit that provides green job training to volunteers by installing solar panels for low-income households.