Duane Peterson is no ordinary solar outfit.
The former Ben and Jerry's "Chief of Stuff" has an eclectic professional past that has culminated (for now) in clean energy. We sat down to talk about inspiration, what he wishes utilities and state energy agencies knew, branding, Thomas Edison, and yes, ice cream.
For those that don't know, SunCommon, a certified B Corp, is a solar company located in Waterbury Vermont, and recently expanded into the New York State market. You can read more about SunCommon's culture, accolades, and approach here.
@ashKSV: Duane, thank you so much for taking the time to talk with us. Let's start with inspiration. Where did the inspiration for SunCommon come from?
@DuanePeterson: Well, my friend and co-founder, James Moore, and I had a conversation and we said, "Why is it that the adoption of clean energy is pathetically slow?" And then we imagined a better way. SunCommon exists to help people join the clean energy revolution; it's a market solution to climate change.
When he first began, Peterson admits, he knew nothing about solar. But he was an expert communicator, a great storyteller (he still is), and he saw a problem.
Solar was stupid expensive. Available only to rich people.
And what could he bring to it? In his own words: "fresh eyes and analogies."
@DuanePeterson: You know, the industry talks about solar in this totally non consumer friendly way. The industry talks about big upfront payments, return on investment and contract terms. What other consumer product includes an ROI calculator in its selling package? Is that how an iPhone gets sold? No. So why do we do this to solar?
We started to think about other big investments, like a car. A big, $30k investment. But that's not how car dealers sell to you. They sell you a "low, low monthly payment." And suddenly, we had something that would make sense to people. If we could make the payments make sense, then we could make it easy. If we began with the customer's point of view, we could build something that would work.
And they did just that. When you walk into the SunCommon space, you get a sense of a few things.
1. Everyone here is happy. Literally ten people walked up with smiles on their faces to ask if I needed help. One had an adorable dog with her. There were offers of coffee and water and friendliness abounds. Peterson and his company have created a space where the employees are happy to be there, and it shows.
2. They are living their mission, surrounded by purpose.
3. Here's the kicker: They are creating not just happy customers, but SunCommon devotees. It's hard to see, but the wall behind these quotes is line upon line of customer emails praising their experience with SunCommon. One read "To us, you are the BEST company." And in more than one email, you find the phrase "it was so easy" and "I didn't have to do anything". SunCommon has unlocked a key to customer experience, and it has to do with empathy.
@ashKSV: So, you've made it easy, you've made it affordable. Local is also a big part of your brand.
@DuanePeterson: Yes. And it always will be, no matter where we go or how we grow. Our success has come because we energetically and honorably understand the local market. And to do that, you have to be real. You have to be from a place.
And you mentioned easy and affordable. But that isn't the totality of it. We need people to be stoked. Solar isn't an impulse buy and in order to keep everything going we need people to be completely delighted the day their solar turns on, the next year, and 5 years after that. We need them to talk to their neighbors, their colleagues, their synagogue members and everyone in their circles about what they are doing - whether that is rooftop solar or community solar.
@ashKSV Right. Solar requires some hand-holding, some personal selling. Do you believe that the business, the industry, can scale that way?
@DuanePeterson: I had a good friend who built a solar company out on the west coast based on an online platform where you didn't ever have to talk to an employee. Completely self-service. And you know what? They just filed for bankruptcy. This selling process, right now, requires empathetic conversations, tailored to what is most important to that person. Is it environment? Great, solar is a great fit. Savings? Ok, we can make this easy and affordable. Is it independence? A legacy for your grandchildren? Being able to tailor the conversation to the needs of the customer is crucial.
Full disclosure, I did ask Duane the hard question about marketing, as most of what SunCommon does is more community organizing than marketing, and yet the above statement shows that the industry is just ripe for a personalized and targeted approach.
It's not his style, he insists.
He said that when he worked with Ben and Jerry (of iconic ice cream fame) he felt that they were marketing to themselves. It just so happened that they lucked out, and a lot of people liked what they also liked.
But honestly, we stayed off marketing for the most part, as the real insights I wanted to know were less about my world, more about his.
@ashKSV: For some people, this feels like an uncertain time to be in clean energy, or any regulated environment. How are you feeling about SunCommon's growth trajectory with an administration that is prioritizing "clean coal"?
@DuanePeterson: Well, the cats out of the bag here. We're on the right side of history. The rescinding of the Clean Power Plan will be very, very bad for our climate. But it's not negative for our business. The Paris Climate Agreement, same. What would affect us is the ITC. But it was extended for 5 years in a bi-partisan vote, and because of the step-down mechanism of that tax credit, the longer it stays in place, the less impact its departure would have. Clean energy is happening and there’s no stopping it.
@ashKSV: So many of the readers of EnergyWire are utilities, state and federal government employees, and sustainability and energy companies. What would you want to say to these folks? What do you wish they knew about solar, about your business? What advice could you give them?
@DuanePeterson: You know, when I worked in ice cream, the major external market force was the price of milk.. In solar, you've got the Federal Legislative branch, the regulatory branch, the Federal taxes, you've got the State legislative branch, the regulatory, the taxes, and then here in Vermont you've got 14 different utilities. And if any one of those entities burps about solar, you've got an external market force.
So we call it the solar coaster. And we are equipped for the ride.
What do we need from those folks? Runway and certainty.
Connect, with us, with each other. Collaborate. Deal us our hand and we will figure it out. And this isn't about incentives either. In the past, I think some states offered incentives that were maybe too rich, that created sort of a boom and bust. We need fewer cash incentives and more rational policy.
And for utilities? Utilities are on a spectrum of accepting solar and renewables; of understanding that the energy world is changing and so must they. You know, it's an interesting thing to consider: what other business model has existed for 160 years with relatively few changes to its infrastructure? Utilities are so ripe for innovation and some of them are doing amazing things. And some of them are looking in the review mirror at Thomas Edison and his original vision of a grid and wishing for the good old days.
And from a private sector perspective, for other companies in this space, there is a natural fit for solutions to come together. So solar makes sense to you? Well great. How about storage? Solar plus storage, even better. Solar plus storage, plus heating and cooling? Better yet.
If increasing the adoption of clean energy is desirable: take the viewpoint of the end-consumer to imagine your role in making it easier, and even joyful for them.
@ashKSV: So we began with inspiration, and we end with joy.
Thanks to Duane Peterson and SunCommon for their time and their insights.
Want to hear real customers talk about solar, renewables, and energy efficiency? Check out this KSV POV.