Nestled beneath the Sierra Nevadas and a stone’s throw away from some of the most fertile soil in the world, Visalia has long been known as the “Gateway to the Sequoias” and a historic agricultural center in California’s San Joaquin Valley. As the first jurisdiction in California to establish its own local EnergySage marketplace with support from the Solar Roadmap team, the City can add another distinction to its list. Last month, I met with Betsy Garcia, a Natural Resources Conservation Analyst with the City, to discuss their experience with the no-cost solar evaluation platform. Over the course of our conversation, Betsy explained how Visalia is tapping into EnergySage to support broader community goals, from promoting local economic development to designing a bulk solar purchasing program.
Rachel Liesching: Are there any significant obstacles that residents and businesses in Visalia face when it comes to adopting rooftop solar?
Betsy Garcia: Generally speaking, I think the biggest barrier to residential and smaller commercial solar deployment is that people are experiencing information overload. If you went to our annual home show, there were approximately 20 solar vendors. People were walking from booth to booth, and getting different stories about what their payback period would be and what would be the best financing structure. People are being inundated with information, and they have no way of structuring that information, or knowing which pieces are valid and which pieces are just marketing efforts.
RL: How do you think EnergySage helps customers mitigate this information overload issue?
BG: We like EnergySage because it creates an equal playing field. All of the vendors are pre-screened, and the information that comes out of the system is an equalized comparison of rates of return and payback period. If someone decides that they’re ready to move forward with solar and they don’t know what the first steps are or how it gets started, they can go to the EnergySage website, put in their information, and get a quote. The consumer can look at one set of information and compare it apples-to-apples, and determine whether or not solar is a good investment and which financing structure is most advantageous to them. They can remain anonymous until they decide that they want to make contact with solar vendors, so they’re not getting overloaded with a bunch of phone calls. It’s another tool in the toolbox in terms of making sure that our residents and businesses have the things that they need in order to proceed with solar.
RL: What were the first steps in the EnergySage adoption process? Were there were any challenges along the way?
BG: Our first step to adopting EnergySage, once we had decided that it was a good thing for our community, was taking it to our City Council for approval. The interesting thing was that they had it on as a consent calendar item, and one of our council members pulled it off [and added to the voting agenda] simply for the purpose of showcasing what we were doing. I thought it spoke volumes for our Council to take a vote on it as an agenda item—they thought EnergySage was noteworthy enough to inform folks that we were working on this.
We then worked with the EnergySage team to design a local landing page. The challenge with that was creating a site that is recognizable, so that local residents could say, “oh, this is a city partnership, and I can trust this information”, while not losing the message of what EnergySage is. One of the comments from a test reviewer was, “it’s showcasing all these things about the City of Visalia, but what exactly does the website do?” So we had to balance local customization with really feeding the intent of what the website is trying to achieve.
RL: What points of customization remained in the final website design?
BG: There’s two points of customization that we put on the page. The first is linking to information about energy efficiency, because energy efficiency upgrades should occur before people decide to implement solar. The second is related to water conservation. The City of Visalia also has a pretty aggressive water conservation ordinance—we just adopted Stage 4 regulations because of the drought emergency. We were able to put a link to our water regulations on the EnergySage website, and through that piece of co-branding, we’ll be able to capture an additional audience through the website and direct them towards our water messaging in addition to our solar and energy efficiency resources.
RL: What kind of outreach has the City engaged in to connect installers and community members to the new EnergySage marketplace?
BG: Concurrently with designing the landing page, we did contractor outreach. We wanted to make sure that all of our local contractors were aware of the EnergySage opportunity and had access to information on how to participate in the program. We did outreach to our vendor list; we pulled a list of all the residential solar permits from 2013 and did outreach to that list; and then we did outreach through our local building association to get the word out to vendors.
For community outreach, we’re using press releases, our website and our “Inside City Hall” newsletter, as well as Facebook and social media. Our mayor does a weekly radio spot where he’ll be talking about it, and we also have a monthly cable TV spot where we’ll be able to showcase EnergySage.
We plan on going online in June [editor’s note: Visalia’s EnergySage marketplace launched shortly after our interview], so we’re also collecting local case studies. Visalia residents will be able to go on EnergySage and learn about a project down the street and see how much money they’re saving per month with solar. We want to continue to customize the EnergySage website, so that our residents feel comfortable using it and trust it as a valid source of information.
RL: EnergySage has helped the City realize several of its Solar Roadmap goals, such as making evaluation tools available. Has the City also leveraged EnergySage to achieve measurable progress towards community solar initiatives, a central objective of Visalia’s recently adopted Solar Strategy?
BG: One of the things that we’ve been exploring is a bulk purchase program for the residential sector. We haven’t exactly decided what that would look like, so EnergySage has been our starting point for introducing the community to different solar options and gauging interest.
With EnergySage, we can get the data for how many hits the system has and how many PV system purchases result, and so we’ll be able to monitor our community’s interest in deploying solar. If we have a huge amount of interest but people don’t move forward with the purchase, it could tell us the reasons as to why they’re not proceeding with implementation and whether there is a strong local need for additional facilitation. Having access to this information through EnergySage will help take us to the next step, in terms of designing a program that can meet the needs of the community.
RL: As the first California city to establish an EnergySage marketplace, do you have any thoughts or lessons learned that you’d like to share with other jurisdictions interested in creating their own?
BG: There’s no one-size-fits-all solution for deploying solar, but having a variety of educational resources, as well as financing resources available to the community is the best approach in our experience. We try to be as comprehensive as possible by providing information in different formats, as well as different tools that folks can use, whether the focus is being more energy efficient, conserving water, or deploying solar. That’s a big part of our overarching resource conservation strategy.
The EnergySage team has been great to work with. They’re easy to work with, there’s not a lot of paperwork or forms,; and they’re excited about the opportunity to expand into new markets. We’re excited to welcome them to Visalia. It’s been a very positive experience.
EnergySage implementation is available at no cost to all participating Solar Roadmap cities and counties. To learn more about EnergySage, contact your regional ASTI lead or email us at ASTI@SolarRoadmap.com.