Why the solar industry has a trust problem (and how to fix it)


Trust is a strange thing. Too little trust in systems can lead to unnecessary redundancies: too much time spent re-checking work already completed, too much money spent employing people to resolve disputes. In a crumbling marriage or relationship, a lack of trust becomes evident as people grow bitter, anachronistic and eventually in some cases, divorce. However, there are some marriages where people limp along, entrenched in long simmering debates, with new systems of survival that just barely hold onto the institution they’ve committed to. Trust is gone, but the marriage remains because it has to. Sound familiar?

In a system, like solar energy, failures of trust erode normal operating practices but the desire or capacity for profit means that new systems are built in their place; systems that often drag down a business. Like a crumbling marriage bound together out of need, we have limped along. But we don’t have to.

The failures of trust in the solar industry revolve around one thing: data. Solar installers collect their own data. Lenders and other regulatory bodies then collect their own data as a means of re-checking. And, homeowners are caught between mixed promises. Often the homeowner does not receive what they were promised or what they are promised changes as their project plan/contract is refined. Contractors sign a contract with the homeowner based on incorrect data/design. After the sale, the contractor, or in some cases the lender, checks the data/design and will, hopefully, correct it. If this is done, the homeowner has to sign a new contract, which is typically not as attractive as the original. So now they question the decision to sign in the first place. Or even worse, if the proper checks and balances were not put into place to check/correct the original bad data/design then the homeowner never sees the electricity savings they were expecting.

This isn’t healthy.

Creating an unbiased centralized standard or measurement will eliminate the implicit distrust within the solar industry. It’s why I have my job at EagleView Solar; I believe that creating trust within the industry is paramount, and that we can solve it with better data. That data must be accurate, reliable and independent of any of the parties involved and when it is, it can become a gold-standard for how we measure and build industry solutions. This empowers solar companies to deliver higher quality systems in an efficient manner, benefitting the homeowner who receives an optimal system and the savings they were promised.

One example I often use is the Good Housekeeping Seal of Approval. This seal of approval helped to build consumer trust in products around the turn of the century. It did so by verifying and vetting the claims of product manufacturers, and then giving those products a rating. Doing so made consumers feel better about buying the products offered to them and helped industries to grow.

As we know, solar energy has been around for a long time, but it wasn’t until recently that it started to become more popular. When it was less popular, the trust problem was easy to overlook, ignore or claim that it’s “business as usual.” But, as solar technology has improved, making it easier and cheaper to install solar panels, and as people are starting to become more aware of the benefits of solar energy, i.e. how it can save them money in the long run, the opportunity cost for the trust disruption is too high. Unlike a struggling marriage, we have a big opportunity to capitalize on growth.

So, let’s fix it.

We can align on centralized industry measurement practices. In doing so, we can create more trust among everyone involved in the solar installation journey. This is about creating proposals that are accurate from the moment of issue. If contractors use accurate data to inform a proposal or contract, then they do not lose the trust of the homeowner when they go back for a contract change order.

To do this, we need to create improved forecasting and electrical production modeling and then standardize on how we report on those models. The accuracy of those predictions will create a cycle of trust-building that will help to repair our outdated or broken systems.

Beyond that, we need to create more sources of consistent or normalized information for homeowners and improved measures of consumer protection. Our trust problem is fixable, we just need to do it together.

Pete Cleveland is general manager for EagleView, a provider of high-resolution aerial imagery. He began his solar career in 2010 where he initially focused on developing and implementing system design standards and processes, leveraging his previous experience in land surveying and heavy site construction.  Before joining EagleView in 2018, Pete drove innovation and efficiencies with one of America’s largest EPCs by combining LEAN business practices with technology. Today, Pete is continuing to pursue his passion of evolving the solar industry by applying technology to solve real world problems in an effort to deploy more solar for the benefit of society and our planet as a whole.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are the author’s own, and do not necessarily reflect those held by pv magazine.

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