Utilities and Solar Marketing Programs

Our utility is not in the sunny Southwest. Does it still make sense to create solar programs for our customers? — Larry T., Walla Walla, WA

The short answer is “yes!” Solar is viable anywhere in the U.S. For comparison, Germany is currently the world leader in utilizing solar electricity, yet its solar resource is comparable to the state of Alaska! Our other 49 states have a better solar footprint than the world leader. So even though most of the solar news seems to focus on California, there is no technical reason why any state or utility can’t start or expand solar programs. And many new states are expanding their solar programs significantly. New Jersey in the Northeast has the second largest solar market in U.S., along with rapidly growing markets in New York, Massachusetts, and Connecticut. You might think it is surprising that the states of Washington and Oregon and many of their utilities have strong solar programs, too. See a trend here? With regard to solar resource, there isn’t one.

But what is a “solar program”? And how much might it cost? And if you’re not a utility staff person, what are some suggestions for your local utility? Here are some ideas, some of which are low-cost or no-cost. Note that these suggestions are directed at utilities themselves.

  1. Develop or review your utility’s interconnection and/or net metering policy — keep the paperwork short and simple, and the processes clear for the customer. Don’t let lawyers and engineers have the only input — they need to be understood by the average person and your marketing and customer service department should be involved.

  2. Provide information — Create a solar webpage, put an article in a newsletter or bill insert, or add materials to your energy efficiency outreach efforts. Also have a plan for how to manage inquiries — some will be serious, but many will only be curious, and aren’t a good use of your time until the customer has done more due diligence. A good first referral is www.FindSolar.com — it includes a solar calculator and a solar dealer yellow pages (and you can put HTML on your website with a direct link to your utility). The Department of Energy  and local state energy offices can be good links as well.

  3. Develop or Diversify a Green Pricing Program — Many utilities have green pricing programs, but most use only wind energy. Blending some solar into the mix can diversify the portfolio, and the installations can be located within the community at publicly viewable locations.

  4. Start an Incentive Program — A lot of utilities offer incentives to customers installing solar systems. Before you reinvent the wheel, review other programs and “borrow” the best ideas. Again, keep the process simple and straightforward for the customer.

There are many other possible ideas. SEPA has developed the “Solar Programs Options Tool” to help utilities (or people looking for suggestions for their utility) get a handle on the different types of programs that are best for them. There is also a “Peer Match” tool for finding fellow utility staff who have expertise in the recommended programs (utility only access), and coming soon, Case Studies on a variety of these programs. All are available on SEPA’s website for free at www.SolarElectricPower.org.

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Tom Nicholas recently served as SEPA's regional director for the Central US. He has more than 20 years of executive level experience in the electric utility industry, including 7 years on both the regulated and unregulated sides of NISOURCE in Indiana. More recently, Tom served as Central US Regional Operations Manager with the Electric Power Research Institute (EPRI), and has also served and chaired numerous EPRI and EEI utility committees.

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