Almost 10 years ago, Matthew Welch lost his job when the solar company he worked for went out of business. Rather than search for new work, he and his wife Sheryl Lane started Earth Electric in San Jose, California. The residential installer keeps its six employees busy, installing about 300 kW of mostly residential solar each year.
“We have gotten a couple of opportunities in the commercial market, but the sale cycle is much longer, it requires a lot more resources and it’s a different set of skills to sell into that market on a regular basis,” Lane said. “We realized we’re really good at residential, so we should just focus on that and try not to spread ourselves too thin.”
That’s the common thread within Earth Electric: a dedication to being the best at residential installations and working with integrity. Lane said she’d like to form a “coopetition” with some of the other smaller installers in the area to promote honest solar companies.
“As much as it’s been a rough road from time to time in this industry, I have always tried to maintain that level of integrity, doing it in that old-fashioned way where we really care about our customers and [they] become part of our family,” she said. “I would love to create a coopetition and work together as opposed to [being] out there competing and making the price lower so we can get the next job.”
Lane said there have been several situations where Earth Electric finds customers who have been taken advantage of, usually through undersized and overpriced systems. Earth Electric tries to work with them on expansion systems to sort out the issues. Lane said online marketplaces indirectly promoting the lowest cost quote also hurt the industry.
“These new online quoting systems take that personal aspect out of the equation with solar, which is really a shame,” she said. “Our competitive advantage is that I know so much about the industry, I’ve seen products come and go and I recommend products that have been around for a long time. When you have these platforms that take that personal level of customer service out of the equation, customers suffer.”
“I have researched financing options for customers for years,” Lane said. “When someone asks for financing options I will tell them about PACE, but I also recommend they get a HELOC loan (home equity line of credit). It’s going to be a better interest rate. I want to keep the integrity in my company as well.”
Working in Silicon Valley, Earth Electric has a front row seat to the latest solar products and services entering the market. Even though Tesla has a strong local presence, Lane said there hasn’t been increased interest in solar shingles or other BIPV products.
“People still get the value of the panels more than the shingles,” she said. “We maintain a conservative outlook when it comes to new technologies. It’s safer for customers and for us to offer tried-and-true products, something that has been out there and survived the solarcoaster.”
Putting the customer first is a business plan Earth Electric intends to keep.
“It’s taken awhile for us to create a name and get good solid reviews out there that show we are actually doing business the right way. We’re maintaining that slow and steady growth,” Lane said. “It’s easy to jump on board with the latest and greatest [products and services], but what has served us best is doing our job and doing our job right. When we do that, word of mouth is what gets us the next job.”