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  • 10.31.13

Meet The Company That Wants To Be The Jehovah’s Witnesses For Solar Panels

Solarlist is employing students to spread the clean energy gospel, one doorstep at a time.

Meet The Company That Wants To Be The Jehovah’s Witnesses For Solar Panels
[Image via Shutterstock]

The Solar Decathlon shows how passionate students can be about clean energy. The Department of Energy’s solar house-building contest attracts can-do college teams from all over the world. These are young people who don’t just talk about sustainability, but want to do something about it.

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Solarlist is trying to channel some of that same energy. The New York-based startup has an app that lets homeowners calculate the costs and savings from solar installations. What’s innovative is how it’s getting the software to market: Solarlist employs students to visit homes and persuade owners about the benefits of switching. Co-founder Tyler Tringas calls Solarlist the “Cutco for solar,” referring to the Tupperware-like company that had teenagers giving sales pitches on the merits of kitchen cutlery–though the grander aim is to do something about climate change, not just give housewives better utensils.

“What we do is to get a passionate activist students who go door to door for election campaigns or work on university divestment campaigns and get them to go and talk to homeowners,” Tringas says. “They can say more than ‘solar energy is good’ in the abstract sense. They can explain it in a passionate way, and show right there what it means for the owner.”

The advocates are called “solarists.” And, since launching in March, Solarlist has recruited about 150 of them in six states (New York, New Jersey, Connecticut, Massachusetts, California, and Arizona). They use the app to calculate an immediate estimate for owners, based on a house’s dimensions (roof size and slope), what incentives are available locally (states vary a lot), and the homeowners’ current bill. If owners like what they hear, Solarlist puts them in touch with installers and financing options, generating referral fees.

Solarlist donates $20 per home to a charity chosen by the students. And it is now exploring the potential of other options, such as investing the money in energy crowdfunding (like Solar Mosaic) or overseas solar projects (like Sunfunder). “There’s a multiplying effect we’re enabling where the student is helping two people go solar–the person in the community and the person far away,” says co-founder Mike Conti.

For some students, that’s sufficient motivation. But, for others, Solarlist has started the SolarBowl–a competition for 10 university teams, including Yale, USC, and Arizona State. The team educating the most homeowners wins. “The competitive aspect is a natural fit. There were students at Princeton and Yale who knew each other and were already competing. We’re just putting a structure around that.”

Solarlist, which won the Big Apps NYC prize this year, sees the relationship with the students as mutually beneficial. On the one hand, they are helping get its product in front of the right type of people. At the same time, they are building a “social network of solarists around the country,” as Conti puts it. “We’re giving them an opportunity to break into the solar industry, so they can say, ‘I went out and educated 100 homeowners about solar potential.’ They are learning useful, transferable skills.”

About the author

Ben Schiller is a New York staff writer for Fast Company. Previously, he edited a European management magazine and was a reporter in San Francisco, Prague, and Brussels.

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