One Block Off the Grid, a company that has pioneered a process for reducing the cost and hassle of installing home solar panels, has launched a new national solar power calculator. It should give many homeowners a far more accurate estimate for the return on investment in home solar panels, 1BOG founder and CEO Dave Llorens told The Daily Green.
One Block Off the Grid, which won the 2011 Heart of Green Award for best new innovation, is a group purchasing company that, since 2008, has offered homeowners a streamlined process and lower prices for solar panel installations. It aims to take the confusion going solar, which typically includes a bewildering amount of research that most homeowners find overwhelming, from the best type of solar technology available to the quality of local contractors.
"Nothing is fixed and transparent in solar," Llorens said of the typical process. "It's all negotiated in the living room."
One Block Off the Grid customers trust Llorens' team to do the negotiating. The San Francisco-based company employs solar technology vetted by the California Energy Commission, vets solar installers in select markets and negotiates deals with contractors so that it can offers reduced prices for home solar panel installation. It has also recently started providing quick estimates of a roof's solar capacity, based on online mapping, which further streamlines the process for homeowners interesting in going solar. Roughly 1,500 homeowners have taken advantage of the program to buy or lease (through SunEdison) solar panels so far, and the company claims the average savings is about 15% compared to the going rate. Currently, 1BOG in offering deals, which each last three months, in Philadelphia, Los Angeles and on Long Island, N.Y.; and throughout the states of Massachusetts, Maryland and New Jersey.
The new calculator serves its members in those markets, and throughout the U.S. as part of the company's new One Nation Off the Grid initiative. The calculator is different from other solar calculators for three main reasons. First, it incorporates local data so that when you plug in your zip code, your cost estimate includes local utility rate information as well as local incentives. Second, it incorporates real cost estimates for installation, based on a pre-negotiated deal with wholesale distributor Solar Depot/DC Power Systems. Third, if you like the estimate, you can sign up to buy it.
If enough people in any one community use the calculator and sign up, then the One Nation Off the Grid deal will be offered to that county. One Block Off the Grid will also offer a $500 rebate for each participating household at that point. The initiative is set to last for just three months.
I tried it, and found that generous federal and state rebates and tax credits would cover about three-quarters of the cost of installing solar panels on my steep southeast-facing roof, with final cost about equal to one month's mortgage and tax payment. The electricity produced by the panels would cut my bill in half, but since my current monthly bill averages only about $45, it would take six years or so to pay off the investment completely.
Typically, 1BOG makes its profits via a referral fee on local solar contractors, but with the One Nation Off the Grid initiative, it doesn't plan to make a dime, Llorens said. Income will be directed to the Strong America Today Fund, a micro-lending program for small U.S. businesses operated by Kiva City.
A for-profit company launches a high-profile national initiative with plans to make no profit. What gives? Llorens said the calculator, which is tied to a solar markets map is as much a political action tool as it is a business-generating tool. Yes, he expects the effort will inspire people in places like New Jersey, where local incentives for solar are strong, to take advantage of the deals. But in most places, homeowners will see that the return on investment is not all that favorable. But they will also be given information about solar incentives available in other jurisdictions and be encouraged to contact their representatives to ask for a better deal.
"If the market stinks, no one knows," Llorens said of the many places that lack strong local incentives. "Contractors would know, but there are no contractors because the market stinks."
Between the political action piece, and the small business investment piece, Llorens views One Nation Off the Grid as a jobs creation tool that ultimately will expand the renewable energy market, to his benefit and to the benefit of the nation at large. The company has estimated that communities across the U.S. could generate 107,000 jobs by enacting favorable incentives for the solar industry. The states with the most to gain, according to that analysis, include Texas, Florida, Virginia, Missouri, Georgia, Washington, Tennessee, South Carolina, Louisiana, and Michigan.
"There is a staggering opportunity to create jobs," Llorens said, noting that Germany gets less sun than Seattle, but has one solar industry job for every 1,000 people far more than in the U.S.
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