Solarize Mass: The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly

Solarize Mass, a state-funded program to support small-scale solar installations, is a good concept that is bad for consumers.  There’s no doubt that the program has been successful increasing the rate of adoption for solar in chosen towns.  900 homeowners and business owners have signed up in 21 communities, totaling 5.6 MW of installed solar capacity.  Many towns and local community groups have even organized copycat Solarize programs, with the “Solar Challenge” moniker.  Although I wouldn’t call Solarize Massachusetts or Solar Challenge programs a scam, it does seem like a marketing gimmick.  It’s also a great way for a solar installation company to get a large amount of signed contracts within a small geographic region while eliminating the competition.  While this looks great on paper for the state and installers, I hardly see the value for residential owners.

FACT:  Solarize Massachusetts communities have a tiered pricing structure, where the base price decreases as more contracts are signed

REALITY:  Brightstar Solar has competed with the Solarize Mass installer in many towns and we win every time because we provided better prices for better equipment with better service.  Ask us and we would be happy to give you customer names.  The Solarize campaign tries to hook potential customers by talking about the base price, but historical data tells us that project adders add, on average, 11% to the cost.

FACT:  Solarize Mass designated installers give their customers the same incentives as non-Solarize installers do.  Solarize funds are only allotted for marketing and education.

REALITY:  Consumers are led to believe that Solarize designated installers are the only option. That’s just not true.  Non-Solarize installers can offer similar and even better pricing.  There are no limitations or drawbacks to going with the non-Solarize installer.   Solar is a large investment.  ALWAYS get a second quote.   Let our company be the Solarize Mass alternative.

FACT: The Solarize program was implemented to advocate solar installations and improve our state’s economy, but almost all of the designated installers are out-of-state companies.

REALITY: While Solarize Massachusetts does educate consumers and increase adoption of solar, out-of-state installers are the main beneficiaries.  In 2012, out-of-state installers like Astrum, SolarCity, and Roof Diagnostics were the recipients of 407 of 803 contracts signed.  This year (2014), 13 of 15 Solarize Massachusetts communities went to installers from another state.  Maryland-based Astrum Solar is the Solarize Needham, Solarize Lexington-Bedford, and Solarize Andover installer.  Next Step Living, who is affiliated with NJ-based Roof Diagnostics, is the Solarize Watertown installer.  Finally, California-based RGS Energy is the Solarize Adams, Solarize Great Barrington-Egremont, Solarize Salem-Swampscott, and Solarize Williamsburg-Whately-Chesterfield installer.   If we are using Massachusetts tax dollars to fund this program, I would imagine we would want those dollars to stay with Massachusetts solar companies.

FACT: Large, out-of-state installers chosen by the Solarize program are motivated to sell solar leases or PPAs.  These companies prefer a lease or PPA because they make money on the installation and through the financing.

REALITY:  Massachusetts residents will do much better purchasing a solar PV system with $0 down financing compared to a lease or PPA.  If a consumer has the credit score to be approved for a lease or PPA, they will certainly qualify for a loan.  Last month, CleanTechnica published a report matching an outright purchase vs.  lease vs. $0 down loan in 10 states, including Massachusetts.  While you will see the most savings with an outright purchase, a $0 down loan shines above a lease.  Since our company has financing relationships to offer a lease and a loan, I have tested the scenario and the analysis is spot on.  The Massachusetts Department of Energy Resources (DOER) also confirms these findings in  “The Comparative Regional Economic Impacts of Solar Ownership/Financing Alternatives” with this statement: “While there is a substantial upfront investment required, the net benefit over the PV installation lifetime is much higher for the homeowner under the direct ownership scenario than under a third party  [lease/PPA] scenario.”

FACT:  Solarize Mass designated installers have to hire additional sales and installation staff or subcontract to keep up with the volume the program yields.  This results in a negative experience with potential customers. (See comment below.)

REALITY:  New employees are not well versed in solar.  Past customers who live in a Solarize community chose Brightstar Solar because their salesperson was ill-informed, unresponsive, or wouldn’t look at alternative equipment or panel configurations.  In addition, three out-of-state Solarize installers have asked Brightstar Solar to perform “installation work” on projects they have sold.  If they are forced to subcontract work to keep up, I wouldn’t be surprised if customers are getting less than high-quality systems.  Most of our installation crew have worked with us for years.  We refuse to compromise on these “extras” because quality is our core principle and we never subcontract installation work.

FACT:  Solarize desginated installers are thought to be experts in solar.  Since they are chosen by the state, they were carefully vetted and should provide useful and accurate information to customers.

REALITY:  We attended a Solarize Massachusetts “Meet the Installer” night and were puzzled by many of the false or misleading statements made by a representative of the designated installer.  We have a whole blog post dedicated to some of the misleading things said.

Solarize Massaschusetts is a successful program that has educated residents and increased adoption of small-scale solar in the state.  In all honesty, Brightstar Solar has applied to be the designated solar installer for the  program.  We do think these programs have its shortcomings, however, especially for residents.  We urge residents in Solarize and Solar Challenge communities to get a second solar quote to ensure they get the best system, service, and price.  Brightstar Solar is a licensed Massachusetts solar installer who can be that second quote.  If you have a home or business in a Solarize Massachusetts or Solar Challenge community, please contact us for a free evaluation.