When Kermit the Frog said it’s not easy being green, he may have had a point: It’s sometimes difficult for businesses to initially make the switch to solar. But once they have a plan and a trustworthy installer, prioritizing clean energy can make their future much brighter.
In 2016, many companies publicly set goals of energy independence to reduce their carbon footprint—and attract forward-thinking consumers.
According to Advanced Energy Economy, 43% of Fortune 500 companies have renewable energy or sustainability targets, and 22 companies have committed to powering all operations with renewable energy.
But how do companies actually make that big switch?
Commercial solar installer REC Solar is involved in the entire process of helping companies go green—from planning to installation.
The company sees two reasons for businesses to shift to solar: 1) out of social responsibility to the earth and to their consumers and clients, and 2) for economic gain and grid independence.
REC Solar has helped major retailers like IKEA and Safeway go solar. REC’s director of enterprise sales, Craig Noxon, offered advice to installers on how to talk to businesses about committing to clean energy.
Noxon said the first step is understanding why the business wants to incorporate renewable energy. What is the problem it wants the installer to solve?
“You need to speak their language,” Noxon said. “So if they’re talking in IRR [Internal Rate of Return], if they’re talking in payback period, you need to be able to speak that language and sell to them because they need to sell to their internal stakeholders.”
One of the biggest challenges during the initial conversation is encouraging a company to take a different route for its energy supply.
“Companies have been using the electric grid their entire lives—that’s all they know, they’ve never had a choice,” Noxon said. “So solar and distributed generation offers choice. It offers the ability to do more with less—to turn what is traditionally a cost center into a profit center.”
Showing companies that solar offers choice may help them see going green is a good business fit.
Garrett Colburn, director of marketing and demand generation for REC Solar, said the next step is drawing up a comprehensive energy strategy for the business.
“For most of these large corporate buyers, there are portfolios of projects across lots of different locations,” Colburn said. “In each state, each utility, there are different nuances that will impact whatever their goal is.”
Colburn said sometimes you must be creative to come up with the right solution.
Other specifics to discuss with the client include the sales engineering process and site-specific design. REC Solar has an advantage as being part of an alliance with utility Duke Energy, because it’s able to discuss renewable options beyond solar—including wind energy and storage solutions.
Above all, Noxon said the role of the installer is to guide the client through the process and set appropriate goals.
“At the end of the day, the customer typically doesn’t come to us and say, ‘We want 2.6 MW of rooftop solar,’” Noxon said. “The problem they’re trying to solve is either green or economic. So the solution is delivering energy as a service.”
Green travel agent
Alta Energy, a company that acts as a “travel agent” for entities that want to switch to clean energy, also concentrates its work on crafting the right solution for each unique client.
Although most of Alta’s clients aspire to “energy independence,” Alta encourages them to set attainable (and sustainable) goals.
“[Becoming energy independent] is something they wish they could do,” Alta Energy CCO Marc Roper said. “And where we end up sort of helping to serve them is, ‘OK, what makes the most sense right now?’”
Roper said he hears more demand for sustainability than energy independence, which he defines as getting as much electricity as possible from sustainable, renewable energy resources like solar and wind. For example, one client, Westfield Mall, would love to be energy independent. But due to the nature of its business–some tenants do not have long-term contracts–Alta instead focused on common area loads where Westfield is both the consumer and owner of electricity. It helped Westfield install a 504-kW solar system at the company’s flagship Century City, Los Angeles, location.
Many companies are feeling a push from their consumers to pursue sustainability. Alta Energy often works with the agriculture sector, which Roper said is inherently interested in sustainability because the group considers itself to be the steward of the land.
“They are feeling pressure from their customers, which are basically suppliers in the food chain, to grow sustainably, to have sustainable business practices—and that can mean not using chemicals, paying a living wage, all of those things,” Roper said. Adding solar to barn rooftops or creating solar farms on the property can help to minimize agricultural carbon footprints and show suppliers the farm is committed to the environment.
A green business’s perspective
First GREEN Bank is one such business that has committed to clean energy. The founders opened the bank in Florida in 2009 with the intention of making it as environmentally friendly as possible. Its Mt. Dora location has a rooftop solar system that provides 17% of the total operating energy for the building, free electric charging stations, floors made of recycled material and many more green aspects contributing to its LEED Platinum certification. The bank offers personal and business banking, as well as solar loans.
Founder Ken LaRoe said he built a green company because he is an environmentalist, above all. He said even if businesses don’t share his sustainable values, they should commit to sustainability for marketing and economic business sense.
“It’s tremendous for recruiting talent. We get tremendous press. We’re absolutely adored, for instance, by the city of Orlando,” LaRoe said. When employees and customers see the solar panels on the roof, they know the company is forward-thinking and they want to be involved.
LaRoe’s decision-making process in going green was pretty simple. After he sold his first bank in 2006, he set off on a road trip with the founder of Patagonia’s autobiography in tow. After reading Yvon Chouinard’s book, Let My People Go Surfing: The Education of a Reluctant Businessman, LaRoe made a decision.
“I want to give back as well as make money. The two can be synonymous, and Yvon Chouinard has proven that over and over again,” LaRoe said. So he set off to start Orlando’s First GREEN Bank.
Because he knew from the start that the bank would be built with sustainability in mind, LaRoe thinks it was probably easier for him than for companies that decide to add solar and other renewable aspects after the building is already up.
Convincing businesses to go solar can be challenging—they must step away from the electricity source they’ve known and welcome a new technology. But as the price of solar continues to fall, and customers increasingly want to do business with environmentally conscious companies, installers may see an increased demand for commercial installations.
Companies with clean energy commitments
IKEA: Energy-independent by 2020
How: By producing as much renewable energy as the stores consume using renewable sources like wind and sun.
GM: 100% renewable energy by 2050.
How: By sourcing or generating all electrical power for its operations with renewable energy like wind, solar and landfill gas.
Google: 100% renewable energy by 2017.
How: By purchasing enough renewable energy to match 100% of its operations.