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Solar Empowerment

Author: Dave Llorens
December, 2009 Issue

In 1954, Bell Labs developed silicon photovoltaic (PV) cells capable of generating enough power from the sun to run everyday electrical equipment. Since that radical advancement, studies from the International Energy Agency have shown that solar energy still only accounts for less than 0.1 percent of electricity generated in the United States. In 2008, I started One Block Off the Grid (1BOG) to address this incredible shortage.

Before that, I was working at a solar company in Concord, California, managing every aspect of residential solar installations. I realized the system for homeowners who wanted to put solar on their roofs was complicated, expensive and far from user-friendly. At the same time, my friends Sylvia Ventura and Dan Barahona had recently experienced the “end user perspective” when they installed solar panels on their home. The process involved researching solar technologies, installers and local rebates to get their system installed, which turned them into veritable solar experts. Their friends and neighbors were lining up for advice on their own solar decisions.

Dan, Sylvia and I concluded that, by creating “safety in numbers” through communities of interested homeowners, we could address the two main “pain points” associated with buying solar: The process is expensive and arduous. Homeowners don’t need to become electricians when they update their home’s wiring, so why do they need to become solar experts when they want to power their home?

We designed a business plan with the goal of developing a replicable model for city campaigns that can be implemented on a national scale. 1BOG gives homeowners an affordable, simple way to go solar and a means to rapidly boost national solar adoption. Through the “Costco” concept of bulk discounts, the program negotiates lower rates from solar installers and provides unbiased, vendor-neutral support to streamline the process.

1BOG identifies cities ripe with solar potential and launches a four-month “city program,” in which a team of experts does the following:

• Creates communities of homeowners through grassroots outreach and social networking to harness massive purchasing power (this typically yields a 10 to 20 percent discount from market rates);

• Identifies a local 1BOG installer partner through a rigorous selection process based on historical success, quality products, a viable business model and low price; and

• Provides unbiased, vendor-neutral advocacy and support for each 1BOG member.

Cities for the community programs are selected according to whether it would be financially advantageous for its residents to adopt solar panels. In many places, residential solar power yields such high savings from electricity bills and local government incentives that it pays for itself within five years. However, some cities aren’t financially and fiscally appropriate for solar adoption.

Typically, cities are examined by the following criteria: sun exposure, state/local incentives and the local cost of electricity (to determine if solar panels are going to save the residents money). However, 1BOG also considers the interests of the local community. If there’s an environmentally conscious group of people who want solar on their homes to conserve resources (but not necessarily save money), we’ll launch a program in that city or region so those residents can enjoy a group discount through a viable installer.

1BOG members are thrilled to be given impartial advice from solar experts without getting the “hard sell.” They know they can pick up the phone and get the answers and information they need, which boosts their confidence in the technology. To date, we’ve completed two Bay Area programs, as well as programs in Sonoma County, San Diego, Los Angeles, New Orleans, Denver, Coachella Valley and Phoenix. Down the road, we’re planning programs in Austin, Bergen County (New Jersey), Miami and Honolulu.

1BOG’s model—from the launch of four-month city programs, creation of homeowner communities and selection of a local partner installer—has proven to be beneficial for everyone. It lets homeowners buy affordable, hassle-free solar and lets installers sell solar systems without having to invest in marketing and outreach. By streamlining the solar buying process, 1BOG has the potential to drive exponential growth of residential solar adoption and tip the scales toward independence from nonrenewable resources.

Also of interest is Assembly Bill 811 (AB811), which authorizes cities and counties to establish voluntary contractual assessment programs to fund residential energy efficiency, water efficiency and renewable energy improvements. Sonoma County offers SCEIP (Sonoma County Energy Independence Program) financing to make these funds available to local homeowners [See “Financing a Greener World,” Aug. 2009]. 1BOG members can apply for SCEIP through the 1BOG website (, which saves the trouble of scheduling a home assessment.

1BOG’s ultimate goal is to increase the adoption rate for solar and energy efficiency improvements to boost consumer confidence in purchasing green, big-ticket items for their homes. This program is setting the record straight about solar power being an extravagant, unattainable home improvement—not only can getting solar be simple, but it can also save homeowners thousands of dollars in electricity bills. Once solar adoption reaches a critical mass of acceptance and the use of renewable energy sources becomes the norm, U.S. residents will gain more control of our country’s long-standing reliance on coal, oil and gas. This will increase demand for renewable power sources, drive down costs of alternative energy and massively reduce the carbon footprint of residential homes.

We’ve found that if one household on a block purchases a visible solar system, their neighbors are more than 10 times as likely to follow suit. Although our efforts are changing the game, we’re constantly working for a growth explosion that will move solar power from novelty to normalcy.

Dave Llorens is cofounder and general manager of One Block Off the Grid. Prior to 1BOG, he founded, a reputable source for solar industry information. You can reach him at or (415) 963-4339.


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