Subscriber Engagement for Community Solar
This spring, Minnesota passed legislation that will give the 75 percent of electric customers who are ineligible for rooftop solar (including renters and homeowners with shady yards) the opportunity to purchase power from a community solar garden. But the new arrays won’t be at neighborhood schools and parks - it’s most cost-effective to site them outside the city. So how can developers entice people who live miles from “their” panels to invest in the project?
According to behavioral economics author Dan Ariely, someone might buy a Prius rather than make home energy improvements (regardless of respective CO2 savings) because driving a hybrid projects a positive social image:
In a similar vein, people are attracted to rooftop solar because it showcases their commitment to sustainability. But a subscription to a community solar project several miles from home isn’t as obvious, which raises a question familiar to energy efficiency professionals - how to make an invisible commitment to clean energy visible? Community solar developers could adopt a few key engagement strategies from the efficiency field.
One of the trickiest selling points for energy efficiency is that no one can immediately recognize and appreciate an energy improvement like a new boiler or wall insulation. To create a visual connection between our commissioned public art installation, CEE and Minneapolis’s Holland neighborhood awarded lawn medallions to residents who complete a Home Energy Squad visit. In addition to creating a positive social image, the medallions could establish a new social norm of energy efficiency, motivating other homeowners to make improvements. And it doesn’t have to be fancy – the Small Town Energy Program of University Park in Maryland found that simple yard signs increased interest and participation in their residential efficiency program.
A number of efficiency programs have influenced energy behavior by displaying energy impact with real-time data. Minnesota’s legislation specifies that subscribers may live in a county adjacent to their solar garden. In other parts of the country, utilities are experimenting with online data visualizations for community solar subscribers.
Xcel residential and solar customers in certain Colorado counties can purchase shares in Solar Gardens managed by the Clean Energy Collective. None of the arrays are located in major metropolitan areas, but the Clean Energy Collective offers subscribers an online account with access to real-time information about how their panels contribute to power production, and the bill credits and positive environmental impact they’ve achieved.
The City of Ashland, Oregon hosts live solar monitoring data for each of its solar installations. While the interface doesn’t break down data to the individual level, it does allow interested parties to compare between project sites and get a sense of citywide impact:
Unlike apps for home energy efficiency designed to prompt certain energy behaviors (turning down the heat or off the lights), these visualizations simply provide subscribers with a better idea of their impact. Combining them with badges of social proof could encourage investment in community solar projects.