Long-term engagement strategies and tools enabled through the right technology can be immensely beneficial for improving the customer experience, increasing renewable program participation and maximizing retention.
As many renewable energy program managers know, the success of a utility-led community solar initiative can hinge on several factors, but one of the most notable is customer engagement. More specifically, utilities need to secure initial buy-in from their customer base while ensuring program participants remain satisfied with their decision to get involved.
Community solar program challenges
When in the early stages of community solar program development, utilities can have a starting advantage. Early adopting customers tend to be interested in the idea of renewable energy and the prospect of participating in community solar. However, challenges can arise when utilities are faced with the task of customer acquisition and enrollment, and marketing a program to a diverse community in a way that can maximize participation.
Undoubtedly, presenting a new renewable energy concept to customers requires a heavy educational focus. Since many of the underlying components of a community solar project – such as the financial structuring or the rate implications – can be complex, utilities need to be able to convey intricate topics in a way so that they can be understandable to a wide-ranging demographic.
On the backend, once a program is operational, utilities need to be prepared to handle the various administration and billing complexities that can arise, and importantly, be able to communicate these issues to program participants as part of managing expectations and maintaining a positive customer experience over the long-run.
The importance of simplified community solar program communications
Rick Luna, products and services manager with CPS Energy (CPS) in San Antonio, Texas, said customers are likely to be excited about the opportunity of community solar. However, converting that excitement into program participation can be a challenge. First, utilities often need to overcome the hesitation customers may have of committing to something new and unfamiliar – especially when most community solar programs involve a long-term investment. This is where transparent, direct and authentic education can be essential for building credibility – and where a comprehensive, technology software solution is needed to deliver program messaging.
“Solar is a complex industry with terminology that can be difficult to grasp. So, even though in many cases there is a willingness to participate, utilities can still run into difficulties if customers are not able to fully understand a program on their own terms,” Luna said.
In 2015, CPS Energy selected Clean Energy Collective (CEC) to make its first-ever community solar program a reality. CEC built the 1.2 MW community solar facility and acted as the third-party implementer for the program, spearheading the marketing and the customer acquisition efforts using its proprietary Community Solar Platform (CSP) software.
Pictured: The CPS Energy – CEC community solar array near San Antonio, Texas.
How the right technology helps simplify community solar program communications
CSP is an end-to-end technology platform that removes the complexity of community solar sales and operations, providing customer acquisition and engagement, seamless online registration, program administration, billing, and reallocation. Through an eCommerce customer acquisition system, back office program support capabilities and a customer portal, CSP helps simplify the process of going solar.
Pictured: A summary of how the CSP technologies work together to enable better customer experience.
“CEC took the lead on engaging customers and explaining the program to them,” Luna said. “We were able to sell out the program before it went live and a big part of the reason for that success was that CEC was able to simplify the community solar model to a point that customers could relate to it. This made the program more approachable and helped to foster trust.”
Positioning community solar as an investment
As another engagement strategy to increase participation and help customers better justify their purchase decision into CPS Energy’s program, CEC tailored its messaging to enable customers to view community solar in terms of an investment with a payback. “Each panel costs $200 upfront and the average customer bought 45 panels, which works out to a $9,000 investment,” Luna said. “The expectation is that they will earn a return on that investment for 25 years and break even after nine years, but the challenge is to make customers feel comfortable with that big of a decision.”
According to Luna, CSP and its MyOwnCleanEnergy (MOCE) customer engagement portal were instrumental in demonstrating community solar’s benefits to customers. The MOCE engagement platform allows customers to participate in their solar production through real-time tracking of both their financial savings and the lifetime environmental benefit of their panels, such as the amount of carbon they’re offsetting through their program participation.
“We were able to sell out the program before it went live, and a big part of the reason for that success was that CEC was able to simplify the community solar model to a point that customers could relate to it. This made the program more approachable and helped to foster trust.”
~Rick Luna, products and services manager with CPS Energy
CPS Energy customers can also use MOCE to monitor their energy production, review their on-bill crediting, receive important program messages from CEC, view the weather forecast at the array location and generate productivity reports.
Pictured: An image of the MyOwnCleanEnergy customer portal.
Luna says that CPS Energy’s community solar customers are proud of their investment and passionate about solar, therefore this customer group was particularly eager for program details and information. “Customers love the fact that they can monitor their return and see the credits posted to their bill. But some customers want more detail in terms of performance and how much renewable energy their panels are producing daily. That’s where CEC’s platform is valuable—it provides that greater degree of visibility and allows people to drill down into the data.”
CPS Energy customer survey yields positive results
After successful activation of CPS Energy’s community solar program, Luna’s team issued a customer survey to elicit participants’ feedback on their program experience. “We found that 91 percent of customers were satisfied with the performance and the economics of their purchase, which was very encouraging to learn,” Luna said. “We asked people why they bought into the program, and the top two responses were the payback and that they felt that it was a good deal. This shows how important it is to engage customers and get them comfortable with the way the program works. Together with CEC, we were able to accomplish that.”