Contractors Corner: California contractor inspired by ‘Habitat for Humanity’ model

 

Habitat for Humanity has been “bring[ing] people together to build homes, communities and hope” for over 40 years. Volunteer laborers build affordable housing while also building a sense of community.  SunWork Renewable Energy Projects in Milpitas, California, introduced a similar concept to solar. Although, instead of focusing on low income home owners, it targets homes with low electric bills and installs solar for small nonprofits. The company’s model has worked successfully for nearly a decade.

SunWork founder Reuben Veek was graduating from Stanford University when he first considered using the Habitat for Humanity model in solar. If a community of volunteers could come together to build homes, surely the same could be done with solar systems. Veek filed paperwork in 2005 to start a nonprofit, then got to work learning solar, which included an installation job with SolarCity

SunWork founder Reuben Veek (far right) works with students from De Anza College on a solar project at the Sunnyvale Heritage Park Museum in California

SunWork’s first installation came in 2009, and the company now averages about 150 installations each year—all by a volunteer workforce. There are four SunWork project leads and a few part-time employees who help with business development, but the rest of the team consists of trained volunteers.

Mike Balma, development director of SunWork, described the volunteers as falling into three categories: those who are already involved with or are interested in solar careers, environmentalists or do-it-yourselfers. Many students want to get into a green-collared job and will turn to SunWork for hands-on experience, almost like an unpaid internship. Solar salespeople want to understand the installation process better, and solar software engineers want to understand what they’re designing. Environmentalists are passionate about helping the environment, and DIYers want to learn new skills and eventually install their own systems.

“The key is that everyone is there for a purpose,” Balma said. “They really want to learn or take action against climate change. They’re very motivated to help out and create something they’re really proud of.”

SunWork restricts its installations to those customers that commercial installers might not take on.

“From the very beginning, we’ve limited ourselves to clients where the homeowners had a low electric bill—where the economics of solar is not quite as good,” Balma said. “These are typically smaller systems. With California’s tiered electric rate structure, the more you use, the higher your rates. It’s easier to justify the larger systems where most contractors focus. We focus on clients that have a bill that is $100 or less.”

SunWork has a transparent pricing model. The company only charges for the material and permit plus a fixed amount per watt for the organization. If panel prices drop, those savings are passed right on to the customer.

“We don’t even ask for a down payment,” Balma said. “Oftentimes, the final invoice is actually less than our quote. It builds trust with the customers and with the community that supports us. This high level of trust helps us move from inquiry to installation very quickly.”

It’s also helpful that with low labor costs, SunWork can install systems for about one-third less than traditional options.

“Volunteers are certainly the key in terms of reducing our labor costs,” Balma said. “But what’s also key is customer acquisition. That’s lower because we have a higher success rate. This is because of the compelling cost proposition, and we have high quality in terms of execution. And we build a sense of community.”

A SunWork installation in Santa Clara, California

Each project lead is in charge of the whole installation, from site survey through design and installation. They also help with educating the volunteers and ensuring each project goes smoothly.

“We’re not on a clock in the traditional sense,” Balma said. “Since we schedule just one installation per week per project lead, there’s no pressure to finish and go on to the next job. We make sure there is plenty of time to both teach and enjoy the process. Customers understand that they’re getting a great deal, but they also feel the sense of community, so they often provide lunch to the volunteers as a show of appreciation.”

Many system owners help with the installation themselves. Balma said those who work on their own installation often understand the system better and are more satisfied with the whole collaborative effort.

SunWork is looking into working with other nonprofits around the country to facilitate the expansion of the company’s installation model.

“Our mission is really to expand the use of solar and provide a valuable experience to our volunteers,” Balma said. “We just passed 2 MW installed capacity since we started and over 1,000 volunteers trained. We certainly see additional growth.”

SunWork Renewable Energy Projects: Bringing people together to build solar and green communities.

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