Utility bill information is a prerequisite for building an accurate solar design and quote for a prospective customer. If at all possible, you want to have this information before you meet with the customer so that you can have an accurate and compelling proposal and be able to sell more effectively.As a solar contractor, you’ll likely need to walk the customer through the information they need to provide, so it’s important that you’re well versed in the data available from the customer’s electric utility company.
That includes knowing what the company’s bills look like and how to read them, how to navigate the utility’s website to access billing information, and what types of utility rates the company offers. This will help avoid getting inaccurate numbers or having to go back to the customer for additional information because you didn’t get what you needed the first time.
In today’s article, we explore some key things to make sure you know about the customer’s utility bill and the practices of their utility company to ensure you’re getting the bill data you need. In a subsequent article, we highlight different options and formats for getting customers’ utility bill data—since getting that information is a common initial barrier in the solar sales process.
Where Can You Find the Customer’s Total Monthly kWh Usage?
Once you get your prospective solar customers’ electricity bill, you need to know what you're looking at. A critical piece of data you’ll be looking for is how many kilowatt hours the customer used in a given month and where this data is located on the bill. This is key because it will enable you to appropriately size the PV system for the customer’s needs and accurately estimate how much the customer will save with your solar design.
Often finding the total kilowatt hour consumption is straightforward, but other times it may require a little more work. Aurora Solar team member Elliot Goldstein encountered this firsthand in his prior role as Sales Team Lead for a leading residential solar company that sold to 16 U.S.
He explains, “Some utilities give you a 30 day historical average. You’ll then need to multiply that to get a monthly total. Others, like LADWP, give you the total kilowatt hour usage for every two months. So you literally need to divide in two. It really depends on the utility; you need to be familiar with the billing practices of the customer’s specific utility to avoid being tripped up by these kinds of nuances.”
Does the Electricity Bill Include Historical Data? If So, Where?
Many, though not all, electricity bills include historical data showing how much electricity the customer has used in past months throughout the year. This is highly valuable data as it allows you to more accurately model the customer’s energy consumption. If your customer’s utility doesn’t include historical data, you may want to consider asking for their energy usage in more than one month.
|Software like Aurora, which accepts a variety of utility data formats and offers tools for estimating energy consumption in months you don’t have data for, can make your work easier. But like all modeling tools, the data you enter must be accurate in order to get accurate results. And the more months of data you can include, the more finely tuned your results will be.|
Is the Bill Only for Electricity or Are Other Utilities Included?
Another key thing to know is whether the utility company that serves this particular customer only provides them with electricity or whether they provide other services like gas, water, and sewer. If those services are listed on the same utility bill, that’s important to know and be able to point out to your customer to ensure you’re getting accurate information.
Many people don’t pay much attention to the specifics of their utility bill. If, for instance, they gave you their total charges for the month but that amount also included natural gas charges, your estimations of their electricity consumption and the size of PV system they need could be very off.
This is also a reason why it’s better to get a copy (or picture) of the customer’s actual bill, where possible, as it allows you to verify the accuracy of the information they’re providing.
What Types of Rates Does the Utility Commonly Offer? Is the Customer on a Tiered or Time of Use Rate?
Another thing that can trip you up if you’re new to the industry is atypical electricity rates like tiered rates, which charge different prices for energy depending on how much the customer has used, or time of use rates, which charge different rates per kWh depending on the time of day it is used.
If you were to assume that they paid the same price for every kWh and attempt to work backwards from their bill cost when they are actually on one of these variable price plans you’d wind up with inaccurate energy consumption data.
Again, getting the actual electricity bill from the customer, rather than just a total number is helpful. If that’s not forthcoming, you’ll want to at least get confirmation of what rate plan they are on to avoid any incorrect assumptions.
Be Familiar with Downloading Usage and Bill Information from the Utility Website
In addition to understanding what information can be found on the bills of the particular utility company and what types of rates are common, you’ll want to be familiar with how to navigate the website to download one’s bill and energy consumption data.
You’ll want to know how things look from the customer’s end and how they can view their account so that you can walk them through downloading the necessary information if needed.
Does the Utility Have a Solar Hotline? Can the Customer Authorize Third Parties to Access Their Energy Usage Data?
Another good thing to know is whether the utility has a solar or renewable energy hotline or whether it has an option that allows the customer to authorize them to release electricity usage data to you or another third-party entity directly.
Some utilities—like PG&E in California, or Alliant Energy in Iowa and Wisconsin—provide phone numbers that can be called to access historical energy consumption data for a customer.
“For example,” says Goldstein, “PG&E has a specific solar hotline. You can call this number with the account number of your homeowner and the line will read off their kilowatt hour usage over the last year.”
Similarly, a number of utilities allow customers to grant permission for the release of their data to you, or other parties, directly. This can be especially valuable as you may be able to get more detailed data about how much energy they use at specific intervals throughout the day (“interval data” often referred to as Green Button Data). Additionally, some companies, like Utility API, specialize in providing customer’s energy consumption data for utilities that support this kind of data release.
If you’re using a solar design software like Aurora that allows you to upload interval data, this will enable to you to get a much deeper understanding of the customer’s actual energy usage. This allows for the most accurate model of their pre- and post-solar utility bills.
Understanding these nuances of your customer’s utility company, its website, bills, and billing practices is an essential first step to ensure you get the right data from the customer and can design an accurate and compelling solar proposal.
It can be challenging to know all of these variations if your solar company covers a large area with many different utilities; in that case you may want to consider having different staff specialize in different utilities or have a designated person whose job it is to stay up to speed on this information.
Of course, knowing what data you’re looking for and where the customer can find that information is just the first step. It’s also good to have processes in place to make it as easy as possible to get that information from the customer, including providing a few different options. In a subsequent article, we’ll highlight different ways customers can provide you with the energy consumption data you need.