Randy Bondi had never given solar energy much thought until he noticed a serendipitous advertisement.
One day in the fall of 2015, he saw an item in Etna’s borough newsletter about a campaign launching to promote solar by connecting residents with installers. The roof over Mr. Bondi’s modest home was about 15 years old, and he was already planning to replace it.
Within a week, he had two local installers — Robinson-based Energy Independent Solutions and Thornburg-based Scalo Solar Solutions — give him price estimates. Because Scalo performs both roof replacement and solar installations, Mr. Bondi said, he went with that bid.
“I probably wouldn’t have done it on my own, because I didn’t think I could afford it,” Mr. Bondi said. But he ultimately decided it was worth taking out a home equity loan and installing 12 panels that provide nearly all of the electricity he consumes during the year.
Mr. Bondi is precisely the type of person that Solarize Allegheny wanted to reach over the course of its two-year campaign.
Solarize, managed by the Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit marketing firm SmartPower and using funding from the Heinz Endowments, was designed to demystify the process for the owner of a home or small business. The Heinz Endowments gave grants of $120,000 for the first year and $100,000 for the second.
The strategy was simple: For four 20-week periods, the campaign flooded a group of communities with public events in casual settings to explain how solar systems work. It held friendly competitions among those communities to complete the most sales.
For example, the first round featured campaigns in Moon, South Fayette, Point Breeze and a team that combined Millvale and Etna. (Point Breeze won with seven installations.)
By rough estimates, solar panels cost $1,000 each, said Michael Carnahan, general manager for Scalo Solar Solutions. The average price of a residential system comes to about $16,000, he said, but homeowners have been able to apply the 30 percent federal tax credit for solar electric installations to knock down the price.
In Point Breeze, Scalo put up a larger Solarize-influenced installation of 25 individual rooftop panels with a combined capacity of nearly 8 kilowatts. The entire system cost $24,000, but the homeowner will pay $16,000 after the tax credit.
From the viewpoint of Sharon Pillar, program manager for Solarize and a Pittsburgh-based renewable energy consultant, the strategy worked. At least, she said, it was able to move the needle in Western Pennsylvania, a place where solar has struggled to take hold amid a long legacy of burning coal and, more recently, natural gas for electricity in giant power plants.
“We feel that we significantly helped to raise awareness of the feasibility of solar and to demonstrate that the solar market is viable in the Pittsburgh region,” Ms. Pillar said.
Numbers published by PJM Interconnection, the Valley Forge-based regional electric grid operator, seem to agree.
Before Solarize launched in the beginning of 2015, Allegheny County was home to 223 solar installations — about 3 percent of the more than 7,600 total solar-powered generators that were registered with PJM.
At the end of May, the database showed 816 solar-powered generators had been installed in the county, or about 6.3 percent of the state total.
By Ms. Pillar’s tally, Solarize Allegheny held a total of 64 events in 28 communities that drew more than 1,600 people. About half of those people signed up for a price quote from EIS or Scalo Solar Solutions, the two installers that participated in the campaign. That group was further whittled down as some roofs were too shady and other homeowners changed their minds.
At final count, Solarize was directly tied to 50 solar installations over those two years.
A boost for the installers
Perhaps the biggest acheivement was not directly connected to Solarize’s campaign. In April 2016, California-based SolarCity, the largest residential solar installer in the country, announced it would begin sales in the Pittsburgh region. Later last year, it opened an operations center in Emsworth.
“I like to think Solarize played a role in showing the market” could support a large company like SolarCity, Ms. Pillar said. The company has declined to say how many installations it has completed in the region.
SolarCity offers a popular solar leasing option, which allows customers to pay back the installation costs of their panels with monthly payments based on how much energy the system produces. In other words, money that would normally pay for electricity delivered to Duquesne Light or West Penn Power would instead go to SolarCity.
Even if SolarCity gets to residents first, potential customers often reach out to local installers to get a second price estimate.
“We were concerned because Darth Vader was moving into town,” said Joe Morinville, president of Energy Independent Solutions, referring to SolarCity’s dominating market share. “But honestly, we’ve increased business in that area of time. I think the fact that they did so much marketing — they certainly did a lot of business as well — but they didn’t hurt us. We’ve actually gotten bigger during the time they’ve been marketing here.
“I think it’s always good to have competition,” he added.
And for the two installation companies, Solarize expanded their business by getting in front of groups of people who were genuinely curious about solar.
“We’re not in a business of educating the masses. We’re in the business of installing solar panels,” Mr. Carnahan said. “Solarize did a good job of bringing communities together to provide a format and a place to be able to explain this in a group setting from people they can trust. There was no sale pitching going, it was just a nice presentation to a group of people.”
Ms. Pillar expects the snowball effect to continue well beyond the Solarize campaign.
Before coming to Western Pennsylvania, the Solarize program had been tested in other, more solar-friendly areas of the country. Most prominently, a campaign in Connecticut resulted in installations on more than 1,200 residences across 43 towns.
A study on that campaign, published in 2014 by researchers from Yale and the University of Connecticut, found a single additional rooftop solar project increased installations within a half-mile radius by 44 percent.
Solarize is scheduled to run in the Pittsburgh region through the middle of June, and Ms. Pillar said anyone who signs up for a quote before then would be counted under the program.
“I think solar has taken off here now in a big way, maybe it doesn’t need another Solarize campaign right now,” she said. “But I think people still need that independent help and voice. It helps to have that entity you could call up and say, ‘What am I supposed to believe here? What does this mean?’”
Daniel Moore: email@example.com, 412-263-2743 and Twitter @PGdanielmoore.