In the wake of a slower year for many solar sectors, developers are working hard to lower soft costs and make solar and storage more easily accessible to prospects. They’re also constantly looking for ways to adapt to the changes brought by the Inflation Reduction Act.
Ipsun Solar, a Washington, D.C.-based solar developer, often finds creative solutions to endemic problems, from diversifying its offerings and creating an aggressive solar loan program to designing an in-house app that lowers the cost of acquisition and allows it to effectively manage the customer relationship.
In this edition of our Contractor’s Corner series, we talk to Joe Marhamati, co-founder and CFO of Ipsun Solar, about innovative ways of weathering certain barriers to scaling a solar company in today’s industry.
How does your company stand out from competitors?
Ipsun Solar prides itself on being in a class of its own. It is one of the only solar installers in the country that is a member of the Amicus Solar Cooperative, an Enphase Platinum Installer, a Certified B-Corp and has a CEO who is a Master Electrician. We are also one of the only solar installers left in the country with 0.99% 20-year financing, as we helped develop an aggressive solar loan program with a group of like-minded solar installers.
Currently, Ipsun Solar is putting the finishing touches on its NABCEP Company Accreditation, which will make it the only solar installer in the country with all of these certifications and accreditations.
How has the IRA changed the way you do business?
The IRA has been a double-edged sword for our company. On the one hand, many more homeowners are aware of the power of home electrification and how clean energy and energy efficiency can give them equal or greater ROI than their stock market portfolio.
However, with the passage of the IRA came increasing interest rates, as well as a permanent end to the urgency around the near-annual ITC stepdown. This caused homeowners to take a pause as the “bill swap” that drove so many folks to go solar during the decade of cheap money was no longer on the table. Long term, the IRA will undoubtedly cause millions of homeowners to go solar, add a battery, EV, smart home service panel and electrify their heating, hot water and cooking systems. In the short-term, we are diversifying our offerings with a string inverter, bargain module and lease/PPA offerings to weather the storm as interest rates come back down.
What’s one way you’ve cut soft costs at your company?
Cutting soft costs can be done in a few ways, but ultimately it’s the cost of acquisition that hits the bottom line more than anything else. At Ipsun Solar, we created Sunvoy as a white-labeled customer portal and fleet management system so that we could own the customer relationship from the second someone signs up for solar through the 30-year life of their solar system. Now, our homeowners see our logo, colors and brand through a customer portal hosted on our website. There’s no more leaving the customer in the dark about what stage their project is in because they can track it through our “pizza tracker” which shows every stage in the process, synced directly to our HubSpot CRM. Once a job hits PTO, the homeowner no longer has to login to up to five different apps to see their energy data.
Our Sunvoy app integrates with every piece of hardware on the market, including Tesla, which means that our homeowners now have a single point of truth for their projects and solar systems to track their project, see their energy data, submit referrals, see their project docs, submit service tickets and more. This has significantly cut our cost of acquisition and allowed us to maintain our overhead during this down year.
What solar technology improvement has made installations easier or better, and how?
Both Lumin and Span are doing yeoman’s work in making battery installations more sustainable for both installers and homeowners. Before these load control devices were standard, it was common for homeowners with battery storage to have no means for distinguishing between essential and non-essential loads. This meant that they could see their batteries drain to zero overnight, or while they were still at work, if the grid went out at an inopportune time. We now recommend load control for every single battery installation, and the result is a much-improved customer experience.
The U.S. solar and storage industry will continue to grow steadily, but what it needs more than anything is a clear path to $2/W installed. This means that SolarAPP+ or similar modes of same-day permitting have to be instituted everywhere, especially in the more difficult AHJs that can be arbitrary and capricious in their permit reviews and approvals.
Just as important but more challenging is reducing the cost of acquisition. There is a joke in the residential solar industry that nobody buys solar, they are only sold solar. We need to find a way for solar and storage to be as common, accessible and necessary as HVAC. Of course, there is a chicken and egg problem whereby the solar cost of acquisition remains high because the overall price of selling and installing solar is still high.
So how do we make solar accessible to everyone? First, we need to find innovative ways to make third-party ownership (TPO) sustainable. There are now TPO providers that are allowing solar installers to own equity in the projects they build, allowing them to defray their corporate taxes and earn recurring revenue. This solves the problem of installers having no skin in the game on TPO, which could help dramatically expand solar energy for middle- and low-income communities.
Second, manufacturers need to help their solar installer partners improve both the customer experience as well as how referrals are earned post-sale. As of today, Ipsun Solar is not aware of a single manufacturer monitoring app — from solar inverters to EV chargers to batteries and load control devices — that allows a homeowner to submit a referral in the app and have it land immediately with the company that sold and installed the project.
Think about that for a minute. We have homeowners who have to download multiple apps, none of which have any brand relationship to the solar installers. If the homeowner wants to submit a referral in any of those apps the function either doesn’t exist or that referral does not ultimately land with the solar installer. It might even be sold to their competitor. That’s part of the reason Ipsun Solar built its own in-house app with Sunvoy. We could improve the customer experience and own that relationship from the minute the homeowner signs up for solar through the 30-year life of the system. We also ongoingly build our brand equity, sell active monitoring, and have a single point of truth for submitting referrals.
If the solar industry can recognize and aggressively work toward improving in these areas, we’ll be at $2/W in the next few years, and solar will be accessible to nearly everyone.