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Solar design tips, sales advice, and industry insights from the premier solar design software platform

Marion Wellington

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Commercial Solar Financing: Three Bottom-Line Benefits to Going Solar

Posted by Marion Wellington on Jul 12, 2017 12:00:00 AM

Why are more and more businesses going solar? For one, being eco-friendly isn’t just good for the earth, it’s becoming increasingly good for the brand; more than two-thirds of consumers prefer to do business with environmentally responsible companies. Moreover, as PV prices drop, businesses are increasingly attracted to the strong financial benefits of going solar as well.

Financial Benefits of Solar to Business

Save on Electricity Bills: According to the Environment America Research & Policy Center, if all of the big-box stores in the US installed solar, they could collectively save $8.2 billion annually on their electricity bills. Additionally, in certain states such as Massachussetts, performance-based incentives such as Solar Renewable Energy Certificates (SRECs) directly translate energy production into increased utility bill savings.

example of bill savings for a commercial solar customer An example of a commercial customer's savings after installing solar, estimated in Aurora.

Save on Taxes: The Investment Tax Credit (ITC) allows owners of newly installed PV systems to receive a federal tax credit for 30% of the system cost. The full 30% credit will last until 2019, after which it will incrementally decrease through 2021 but will remain at 10% thereafter for commercial projects. Solar equipment is also eligible for accelerated depreciation thanks to the Modified Accelerated Cost Recovery System (MACRS), which allows an 85% deduction of the system value from property taxes for five years of purchase. For solar installations that are financed with a loan, the interest paid on the loan also lowers a client’s tax liability.

Protection against Inflation: Aurora’s study of EIA data shows that commercial utility rates increased an average of 2.4% per year between 2000 and 2015. Fortunately, the cost of producing solar energy stays largely constant over time. By investing in a PV system, a company can protect itself from hikes in electricity costs by offsetting its consumption in part, if not entirely.

Financing Options

Of course, not all businesses want to—or are able to—pay upfront. For those who cannot purchase the system upon installation with cash, other financing options can enable businesses to reap the environmental, social, and financial benefits of solar—sometimes without putting a penny down. However, there are long-term tradeoffs to consider.

Cash: In purchasing the system upfront, the business reaps the full benefits of savings on electricity bills, tax reduction, and hedging against inflation. However, owning the solar installation does mean that the business is responsible for all maintenance on the system.

Loan: Paying with a loan also ensures that the benefits of utility bill savings, lower taxes, and inflation hedging accrue to the business. A loan will result in less cash being paid up front for the solar installation, at the expense of interest accruing over the loan’s duration. However the interest payments on the loan are typically lower than the savings on the electricity bill, making this an attractive financing mechanism. Furthermore, interest paid in a solar loan is a tax deductible event.

Lease/PPA: Leases and PPAs are unique in that the business does not own the PV system. Instead, the system is owned by a third party which sells the electricity produced by the system to the business. With a lease, the business pays a fixed monthly amount for the right to use the PV system. With a PPA, the business purchases the power generated by the system at a pre-determined price per unit of energy the system produces ($/kWh). This lease payment, or the PPA rate, are often lower than the businesses bill savings or the prevailing utility rate respectively. This allows companies to save money on their electricity bills, and they do not have to worry about maintaining the system. However, since the system is owned by a third party, businesses do not get the tax savings, and they may not get the full inflation protection.

With so many nuanced financing options, it is critical to be able to analyze the best choice for your customer. Given the correct financial analysis tool, commercial installers have the power to bring any business to a greener and brighter bottom-line.

Topics: Financial Analysis, Solar Finance

A Supernatural Solar Roof for the Winchester Mystery House

Posted by Marion Wellington on May 24, 2017 12:00:00 AM

Here at Aurora, we spend a lot of time thinking about roofs in our quest to enable any solar professional to design and sell an optimal solar project in minutes. We featured Michelle Meier, who helps roofers go solar, and we paid close attention to Elon Musk’s vision of roofs made out of solar cells.

While there are still gaps in what we know about Tesla’s Solar Roof, one of its benefits could be that it allows solar to fit on some complex roofs that are not well suited to conventional panels. Each solar tile is less than a square foot, which should allow for more flexible design.

With that in mind, for this edition of our Solar Landmark series, we set ourselves the task of finding an intricately complex home to model in Aurora. We were fortunate enough to come across one in our own backyard: the Winchester Mystery House.

Winchester Mystery House. Source: Google Maps Street View , image capture August 2016. ©2017 Google.

Winchester Mystery House: A Haunted Building with a Haunting Roof

Anyone who grew up in the South Bay of California remembers their first time at the Winchester Mystery House. I went on a Friday—Friday the 13th, to be precise—and while my very rational 8-year-old mind reminded me that the doorknob rattling was probably an employee, my skin couldn’t help but crawl.

Now, decades later, I continue to be spooked by the house; not so much by the ghosts that haunt the halls, but moreso by the complex roof planes that I tried to tackle with Aurora. Still, in the name of our Solar Landmarks series, I persevered (and by that I mean I enlisted Aurora’s customer success star, Victor), and now we can exorcise the ghouls with the power of sunshine.

For those who don’t know about the Winchester Mystery House, it really is an enigmatic building. Its curious creation and elongated evolution all started with a rifle: the Winchester rifle.

Though the rifle business boomed, the Winchester family was struck with tragedy. Devastated by the untimely deaths of her newborn daughter and her husband, heiress Sarah Winchester turned to a spiritual medium who counseled her that the family was cursed by the spirits of those killed by the Winchester rifle. Believing that the unceasing construction of her house would appease the ghosts, Sarah enlisted craftsmen to build, alter, and demolish 24 hours a day, 365 days a year for 36 years.

Now, the Winchester Mystery House serves as a public oddity that haunts to this day. Staircases lead to nowhere. Cabinets the size of apartments share a wall with an inch-deep cupboard. Trap doors open treacherously onto the garden below and doors open to reveal walls.

But what if it wasn’t just a spooky attraction, but a showcase of solar innovation?

Assessing the Roof’s Solar Potential

Fortunately modeling the Winchester Mystery House in Aurora, while complicated, did not take 36 years like the original building. We started out by drawing over the satellite image in our software. We were thankful to have Aurora’s Automatic Edge Detection algorithm, which automatically calculated what direction each of the roof planes faced (the azimuths). There were well over 200 unique azimuths — we couldn’t imagine doing all that by hand!

An aerial view of the site model of the Winchester Mystery House, as designed in Aurora. The arrows indicate the azimuth of each roof plane, automatically calculated by Aurora’s Automatic Edge Detection feature.

Once we were done with the 2D model, we tailored our model in 3D space. Fortunately, this building has LIDAR data, which allowed us to ensure our model perfectly matched the actual Winchester Mystery House’s roof height and roof slopes.

Aurora’s site modeling capabilities allow you to view satellite map imagery alongside your 3D model, making it easier to ensure accuracy.

The final step in the process was to assess the energy potential of the roof. It is important to note that at the time of publication, there is a dramatic difference in the cost of Tesla’s energy-producing Solar Roof tiles ($42 per square foot), versus its non-energy producing tiles ($11 per square foot). Therefore, we wanted to make sure we are only placing the energy producing tiles in the most important locations. The final result was a gorgeous and informative heat map (below) that outlined the building’s solar potential.

Irradiance map showing the solar potential of each part of the Winchester Mystery House’s roof.

Aurora’s system design portal also provided us with useful information on the available roof surface area. We found that the roof has a surface area of 33,234 square feet. However, we know not all of this area is a good fit for the energy producing roof tiles. For example, the Solar Roof tiles can only be installed on a surface that has at least a 3:12 or steeper slope. This ruled out the entire roof on the north side of the site (shown below) which, despite being relatively shade-free, was completely flat.

Aurora’s irradiance map feature provides solar access and irradiance values for each point on the roof.

To determine which areas we wanted to place energy producing tiles on, we set the following criteria:

  • The roof had to have a pitch of 25 degrees or more
  • The roof area has to have at least 500 contiguous feet
  • The average Solar Access percentage for the roof surface had to be greater than or equal to 80%

After we filtered by this criteria we found only 6,994 square feet of the Winchester Mystery House’s intricate roof were solar eligible, or approximately 21% of the surface area.

Calculating Solar Roof Returns

To calculate the financial benefits of the Solar Roof we used Tesla’s online calculator. There are three key inputs into the calculator:

  1. The building’s current average monthly utility bill
  2. The total roof area
  3. The percentage of the roof area that will be covered by energy-producing tiles

We used an estimate of 15,000 kWh per month (approximately 15 times more than the average energy consumption of a 2,000 square foot American home). We entered this value into Aurora’s Consumption Profile Tool which gave us an estimated monthly bill of $5,825 (see below).

With the input of energy consumption or bill amount for a given month (or as many as you have data for), Aurora’s Consumption Profile tool can generate estimated monthly utility bill and energy consumption data for the full year. (The tool can also utilize Green Button Data.)

As discussed above, we have a total roof area of 33,234 square feet, of which about 21% of the surface area is a good fit for solar. The Tesla Solar Roof requires a Powerwall battery which was included in our analysis.

The final result was an extra $186,600 dollars earned by the Winchester Mystery House over the next 30 years. Apparently, that’s more than enough money to hire a team of over 300 fully qualified ghost hunters to help resolve the secrets of the Winchester Mystery House!

Tesla’s Solar Roof calculator, reflecting the values of our analysis for the Winchester Mystery House.

Whether you believe in ghosts, or are more frightened by the thought of the monstrous electricity bills the Winchester Mystery House must have, we hope this landmark solar design makes this spooky landmark a bit brighter.

If it’s the idea of modeling a roof like this that sends a shiver down your back, sign up today for a demo of Aurora’s solar design and sales software to see how our remote solar design capabilities can save you time, money, and stress.

Have ideas for future solar landmarks? We’d love to hear from you. Tweet @aurorasolar with the hashtag #SolarLandmark to submit your suggestions!

Acknowledgments: This article is the result of contributions from several members of the Aurora Team. Special thanks are owed to Customer Success Analyst Victor Ionin for modeling the Winchester Mystery House in Aurora’s software, and COO Samuel Adeyemo for analysis of the solar potential of the site and financial analysis of the proposed project.

Topics: Solar Landmarks

Solar Sales Part 1: The Importance of Branding - with Katherine Glass

Posted by Marion Wellington on Jan 17, 2017 12:00:00 AM

Here at Aurora, we’ve been thinking about how we can help you better sell solar to homeowners. We retained Katherine Glass, founder of SpringMark - a marketing and brand strategy firm, to interview homeowners and solar installers on our behalf. Our research culminated in a day-long roundtable session with a collection of leading solar sales professionals at our office in Palo Alto.

We are excited to share what we learned with you in the form of a 3-part series: the first two articles will cover what we learned about branding, and the third will highlight tips for developing strong solar sales proposals, and unveil some new features to help you sell more solar.

Brand is a word that every business owner has heard, but few know exactly what it is, why it is important, and how to build it effectively. Katherine Glass is an expert in helping companies create their marketing and branding strategy. She spent seven years at Lippincott where she worked on the branding strategy for companies like Delta, Petco, and Starbucks. Four years ago, Katherine launched her own firm, SpringMark, which works with young companies on creating, developing, and launching a cohesive and powerful brand. Here, Katherine shares her insights on how solar companies can use branding to increase sales.

What is your definition of the word “brand”?

Different people have different definitions, but the one that I always like the most is what Jeff Bezos of Amazon said: “Your brand is what people say about you when you’re not in the room.”

“Your brand is what people say about you when you’re not in the room.”

Your brand is everything about you that creates a reputation or sets an expectation for a customer. It doesn’t really matter what you’re saying about who you are if that’s not what people think about you.

Now that you’ve gotten a feel for the solar industry, what’s one piece of advice you’d give to a burgeoning solar installer?

Customer service is king. Because solar is becoming more of a commodity, I think good ol’ customer service is crucial for differentiation. Going in person to the house, giving fast responses to phone calls and emails, and really showing that you recognize this is a big purchase for most people will help garner loyal customers. Usually, customers are going to be living with the installation for many years, probably as long as they’re gonna be in the house, so acknowledging that fact helps sow the seeds of trust. Building that rapport will be the strongest way to win business. A lot of that is reflected in your brand by being professional, from wearing nice shirts with your logo on it to putting together a short and to-the-point presentation that tells a good story about what they’re doing. Anything they can do to create a cohesive brand is helpful, but having customer service people being genuine and helpful is most important.

Customer service is king... building rapport will be the strongest way to win business.

In your research with both solar buyers and solar installers, what are two things you saw solar installers doing right, and two things you saw them doing wrong, from a branding perspective?

A lot of the solar installers I spoke with were very cognizant of being consistent with their brand. They make sure that typography, color palette, and messaging in their proposals matches their website and their business cards. This is a great step to both look professional and to reinforce who they are as a company.

Another thing they’re doing right is experimenting. A lot of solar installers are looking at new and different ways to advertise and reach out to consumers. They’re using more traditional methods like radio ads and direct marketing, but also trying new things like customer referrals structures or throwing block parties after an installation within the community. I think constantly being open to trying new things is always great; you’ll see what works best and what reflects your values and personality as a brand.

I think that since solar is becoming much more of a commodity and it’s hard for homeowners to differentiate this product, many homeowners focus on price. Smaller companies have to differentiate the value that they bring as a company in order to get people away from price. That may be emphasizing warranty or customer service, or whatever it is that makes them unique.

Another thing for solar installers to improve upon is to be really clear about the story you’re telling when you’re selling. From a sales perspective and the way that you’re branding your sales decks, really be clear about what type of customer you’re talking to and address that customer specifically as fast as you can.

Be really clear about the story you’re telling when you’re selling.

How would you say that one’s branding strategy changes with size?

The similarity between companies of all sizes is that everyone needs a brand. It doesn’t matter if you are business to business, business to consumer, small, medium, or large, your brand has to tell a clear and engaging story.

What is different about small brands and big brands is that when you’re small, you have the opportunity to be a little more flexible; if you start out communicating that you’re one thing, chances are you will pivot and evolve over time. You need a brand that is flexible enough to accommodate that, from the name you have to the messaging on your website. A bigger brand, on the other hand, is more established; it’s a lot harder to change people’s perceptions of them. With a company like Coca-Cola or Nike, people have a very clear expectation in their minds about what that company is, and so it takes way more marketing dollars and touch-points with customers to actually change their viewpoints. Often times, a smaller company can make a splash more easily with the same amount of marketing dollars because it’s something novel and piques people’s curiosity more.

Enjoyed this article? You can read more branding insights from Katherine Glass in the next article in this series, and learn about how to make your solar sales proposals more compelling in the third installment. 

What have you done to create your brand? Leave us a comment below, or tweet us at @AuroraSolarInc!

Topics: Solar Spotlight, brand, Solar Sales

A Roofer's Guide to Going Solar - with Michelle Meier

Posted by Marion Wellington on Dec 3, 2016 12:00:00 AM

This is an installment of our Solar Spotlight series

Michelle Meier

With a Masters degree in Electrical Engineering and a decade of solar experience, Michelle Meier is one of those people you want in your corner and never on the other side of the ring. She is the founder of Solar Roof Services, a company that helps roofing contractors boost their income by adding solar installation services to their existing book of business. I had the opportunity to peek inside the mind of the woman who is helping drive the adoption of solar by monetizing the natural synergies between the solar and roofing industries.

Tell me a bit about yourself and your relationship to solar over the years.

I started in solar in 2007. I have a Masters degree in Electrical Engineering and I was in the semiconductor field for 20 years before solar. When I decided to reinvent myself I got hired by a roofer in San Jose and started their solar division. I learned solar from a roofing perspective from day one, which is really unique in the industry.

I later went to work for GAF and became their national solar sales director, essentially incorporating their residential roofers into solar. When we decided to part ways, I thought "I've done this for two other companies, let me do this for myself."

What exactly does that entail?

I teach roofers how to take their roofing business and extend it to solar. It’s logical. We do that by partnering them with their current favorite electrician! I created an office that lets that contractor have no overhead. Our office does what you guys call a proposal, I call it a financial analysis. We do all of the utility paperwork, the permit package, and I even connect them to distribution. I help roofers turn every single roof lead into a solar lead.

3D site assessment on AuroraMichelle trains her clients to use Aurora for their remote site assessment or creates projects on their behalf.

You’re a seasoned marketer in the solar industry. Can you describe the solar landscape from your perspective?

My best way to describe it is—when I started doing this 10 years ago, people would look at you and say “Oh my gosh, you have solar?” Another five years from now and it’s gonna be exactly the opposite: “Wow, you don’t have solar?”

In terms of the feasibility for homeowners getting solar, it varies. In California with the rates the way are, it’s almost stupid not to get solar when you can do the "no money down" options. No matter which financing option you go with, if you’re paying less for your solar payment plus whatever’s left on your utility bill than your current bill, it’s just stupid not to do it. I work with other states where it’s a little bit harder.

However, the industry is ours to win or lose. Mar our reputation or build a great reputation, it’s ours.

10 years ago, people would look at you and say “Oh my gosh, you have solar?” Another five years from now and it’s gonna be exactly the opposite: “Wow, you don’t have solar?”

How do you help the industry win?

I come at it from the roofers. One of the things that we’ve found over the years is an average home has 14 penetrations. A bathroom vent, a kitchen hood vent, other normal penetrations on the roof of a typical home. An average solar system has 25-50 penetrations. So you took that 14 to 64! How much more of a chance did you make of having a leaky roof? Why is Joe Blow allowed to poke all those holes in a roof and not have it inspected?

The direction that I come from is what makes the difference. The more and more we can give homeowners a trustworthy installation, the better our image will become.

An average home has 14 penetrations. An average solar system has 25-50 penetrations. So you took that 14 to 64!

What are the three most important pieces of advice that you give to your clients?

First, always lead with your value-add as a roofer. The fact that you’re licensed to do penetrations, and you’re giving them a 10-year warranty on the roof, plain. On a tile roof that’s significant, for the following reason: if you walk across even a lightweight tile roof, you’re gonna break tile.

Second, pull the local card because your locality is one of the bigger advantages against the big guys. Do you really want to depend on a company that doesn’t even have an office here?

Third, go with the facts, don’t cheat. Underpromise, overdeliver.

Always lead with your value-add, pull the local card, and underpromise, overdeliver.

What is the biggest challenge facing solar installers today?

For the roofer, the biggest challenge is that they’re new to the market and you’ve got all these established guys out there. So they have to sell their roofing reputation and hope that clients will trust them as they get into solar.

Solar installers doing what they do best

If you couldn’t work with roofers who would you work with to help transition into solar?

Electricians. Teach them how to do the roofing properly. Those penetrations; how to find that rafter, make sure it’s in the rafter, waterproof it, etc.

Any secret talents?

I was a competitive baton twirler. I put myself through college doing it; I was Featured Twirler for Mississippi State University for 5 years on a full tuition scholarship. That’s my secret hidden talent!

Topics: Solar Spotlight, solar design, solar energy, pv, roofing, contractors, interview, pv installation, solar installation, roofer

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