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[UPDATED FEB 10] From Retail Customer to Movement Builder: 5 Houses Up, 5 Houses Down

A new pilot program will be tested in select suburban cities with current solar customers that allows them to come together as catalysts of change in the movement towards clean renewable energy. Current solar owners will be invited to an appreciation event in which they will be given greater insight into the vision of what a world with clean energy will look like. This event, co-hosted by non-profits and solar companies, will help each solar owner engage their close social networks to share this vision, opening with the simple question "How can we better improve our neighborhood" and invite their neighbors, friends, family and colleagues to a block party exploring their collection of ideas, with solar as one of the suggestions to explore.

Photo of Karen Marie Bacolod
31 19

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The questions that began this idea was between a group of current solar sales employees and regular everyday people, their friends and family. 
1) What types of everyday social interactions and pressures push us towards an idea we are not so familiar with or understand? 
2) What helps create an environment of trust among neighborhoods that allows us to see one another as collaborators instead of people trying to benefit from one another?
- Part 2 of this question: How do we transform the perception of solar Sales people in retail store as part of a movement rather than someone who is " just trying to benefit from selling me something" (View of sales sharks in car sales, insurance sales etc.). How do we distinguish the sales of solar from traditional sales of other products as the necessary energy resource needed in the 21st century that benefit the common good?

In order to create a movement around solar energy, solar companies can help engage their current customer base to be at the forefront of this transition. Often, solar customers convert because they see the financial benefit to making the switch, but often are not fully aware of the greater picture, greater movement they are now a part of. Solar companies and non-profits promoting environmental stewardship have the opportunity to move these key players into awareness of the vision of a clean energy world and initate unexpected change in their community. 5 houses up, 5 houses down is a "social innovation" that recognizes that no digital technology can ever replace the quality and influence of a genuine face-to-face interaction. This program will build a sense of group inclusivity among current solar customers that can give them the confidence together to engage their neighbors. In turn, this social innovation will give the presence of solar in a community greater visibility among potential solar owners. As long as the solar company and partnering non-profits can provide their current base of solar supporters with the resources to engage their neighbors, friends, and family, the transition to clean energy can accelerate led by the early adoptors of the community.

There are three main concepts that help us believe this program can potentially succeed:

1) Face-to-face interaction creates opportunities to discover common values and create a shared sense of purpose: 
Once current solar customers see and meet others in their community who share the same decision, they can feel even more confident about their decision. Combining this positive reinforcement with a presentation about their new role in the potential behind the renewable energy/solar movement is a formula to creating a new and inspiring ethos as being part of the in-group who is bettering our world. Creating this feeling of the in-group will help them gain the courage to speak to others in the 5 doors up, 5 doors down pilot program being tested in partnership with non-profits and solar companies. As long as resources are available and we do not feel alone, this new energy will be key to propelling the program, increasing awareness of the benefits and helping more people chose renewable energy.

2) Trust is what we need to build to accelerate the transition:
In solar sales, we often realize that we are not selling solar systems or a product, but more learning how to develop trust. When there is a new idea or product, you need to trust the person telling you about it in order to move you in one direction, change your mind or support an unfamiliar idea. The higher the trust, the lighter the "push" needs to be to help the person make a decision and the more natural it feels. Usually high trust is given to friends and family over some solar expert that I just met in a retail store. Experiences and people we know help make our decisions. Most of the time, current customers chose to switch to solar because a friend, family or neighbor gave them the "push". From a solar sales experience perspective the most successful interactions that result in a home converting to solar is that the person gave you a greater level of trust that did not require a strong "push". The lower the level of trust, the harder your "push" ends up becoming, the more pressured it feels and the less likely we trust the person we are speaking with, no matter the data presented to us. Considering the various types of interactions that "push" or persuade people into going solar, we have to diversify the ways in which people are introduced to going solar. Current customers, engaging their neighbors is the greatest opportunity communities can sieze to start the dialogue and to spead the knowledge and understanding of the incredible finance, benefits and options to homeowners. 

3) Working with people who are not tied to financial benefit are necessary allies: Non-profits working to promote environmental responsiblity, stewardship, or any social cause for the matter, are key to building a movement that creates tust. Many people involved in non-profits would volunteer their hours knowing they are contributing to a greater cause such as helping the rapid transition to renewable energy. Using their passion and honest stories/motivations to enage current customers, we can help community perceptions shift away from viewing solar companies as another monoply replacing the utility to an open innovation that is transforming our world, one community, one solar customer at a time. 

Please review the attached file titled "Research for 5 Houses Up, 5 Houses Down" for a summary of our survey findings which support the above mentioned assumptions. To support the revised iteration of this program this link takes you to a recent summary of a study conducted in determining the main factor for people to convert to solar energy.

Final Pilot Program Version of 5 Houses Up, 5 Houses Down
The main pilot program phases/components:  

1) Appreciation/Program Initiation Event

Event Outreach
Current solar customers are contacted and invited by their personal solar consultants to attend a customer appreciation event with food/drinks in their local city/neighborhood to meet others who also went solar. The event will be marketed differently to each solar owner, as determined by the solar representative who helped the owner initial convert to solar and developed a prior relationship. The table below frames the marketed event based on the client’s motivations since the event will address all of the given incentives, but the option most appealing would be highlighted.

Primary Initial Motivation: Save Money

Marketing Invitation: Have food, drinks on us and learn about a new support program to help solar owner increase referrals and gain monetary compensation from solar company

Primary Initial Motivation: Better the environment

Marketing Invitation: Have food, drinks on us and learn about a community block party we want to throw for your family, friends and neighbors about steps they can take to do their part

Primary Initial Motivation: New technology adopter

Marketing Invitation: Have food, drinks on us and learn about a and attend a networking event to meet forward thinking adopters and the chance to win a raffle for high tech item

Event Logistics

Event will be held at a local community venue such as a community center, school auditorium, park facility etc. The program initiation event’s location will only be announced once a critical mass of 20-30 current solar owners are confirmed to attend the event. The event location will also be mapped according to the RSVP of attendees.  Depending on the partnership that is established in the community or the results of survey answers among event attendees about their ideal meeting location in the community, the event will be determined with the attendees preferences in mind. The event will most likely occur in the evening and will be recorded live for any solar owner who was not able to attend the event.

Event Activities
The main concern is that it is fun, local and engaging. During this co-hosted event by a solar company and partnering, local nonprofit, solar owners would learn about the new movement/vision they are a part of in helping communities rapidly adopt renewable energy. The presentations and activities are meant to help them gain a greater sense of recognition for their decisions, catching them off guard in gaining more from the event than they originally expected from the initial invitation. The first phase of the event will begin with refreshments and drinks to allot for different arrival times. The guests will then be greeted by the host solar company and nonprofit with introductions about the mission of each company and reason for creating a partnership (being that, both have distinct challenges in engaging people about renewable energy/environmental responsibility that they other has strengths that can be leveraged to overcome the challenge.*please refer to comment response below to Natalie Lake for explanation of challenges and strengths). Short presentation will be followed by an engagement event facilitated by non-profit to share personal stories about switching to renewable energy. (Language will be directed to renewable energy in general, to make connection for homeowners to solar) After sharing stories, non-profit leads short session of what a community with 100% renewable energy may look like based on the collective knowledge of the group. SolarCity then outlines plan to organize event in the community, a block party where families can have fun learning not just about solar, but all the components of what a community with renewable energy will look like, solar owners just have to invite people and request permission to canvass their neighborhood highlighting you as a neighbor who endorses it. Solar owners will also be asked to invite their local neighbors, friends, family and colleagues to event and informed of the support nonprofit will provide. [Update 2/10] Possible non-profits that may be great in facilitating a conversation such as this would be Transition Network, Pachamama Alliance, Climate Reality Project or any other non-profit that focused on education and awareness regarding solutions to environmental sustainability. 

2) 5 houses up, 5 houses down campaign  

Event Outreach
Volunteers from various non-profits, the homeowner's personal solar sales consultant and if willing, the solar owner, will engage the solar owner’s closest 10 neighbors around the question, "how might we be able to better our neighborhood". This question will allocate the ideas of the block which will be featured on a meet your neighbors wall during a block party event. This program is much like the canvassing that every solar company does anyway. The question of "how might we be able to better our neighborhood" is an approach that has a shifted meaning, intention and purpose. It can be an effective catalyst to taking part in the rebuilding of our neighborhoods, allowing us to get to know our neighbors again. The flyer will feature a diversity of organizations (from solar company to local retail shops, nonprofits) at the event that will be marketed to “engage the entire family about how to have fun while saving money, protecting our resources, air and water, and eating BBQ, *vegetarian options provided. Neighbors will also learn about the games that they can participate in to win a large array of raffles, from kids bikes to home energy improvement items. Solar owners will make the same invitations to their local friends, family and colleagues over the phone or in person on their own time and let them know to come to a workshop at the event the solar owner is going to participate in. Nonprofit and solar representatives will greet with “Hi I am part of one of the many organizations sponsoring a block party for the community…” Canvassers will also conduct short survey of the invitees’ most interested environmental questions and concerns to help support planning for final program phase. Finally, if there was no contact made, informational pamphlets and flyers about the upcoming block party (opportunity event) will be left. 

Event Logistics
Neighbors will be engaged on a weekend day in the afternoons. Volunteers and solar representatives will be matched to the neighborhoods closest to their own homes. Volunteers will not need to be provided much support since canvassing is minimally required to engage homeowners 5 houses up and down from the solar owner’s home. More homes can be canvassed according to the preference of the canvassers, but the point is to create quality interactions to encourage homeowners to join. All canvassers will then gather for one day of canvassing all homes within a 2 mile walking distance of the chosen location for the block party to maximize attendance.

Event Activities
If available, volunteers and canvassers are encouraged to meet before canvassing and after to enjoy one another’s company for lunch or celebration at a local establishment. Such activities is often critical to creating a sense of shared purpose together that is important to preventing burnout, creating a group culture of positive support and continue momentum for final phase. Perhaps a competition can be encouraged between teams of volunteers and canvassers. If nonprofit is related to school program around environmental education, high school/college youth would be ideal canvassers.

3) Opportunity event  

Event Outreach
Based on the collection of survey answers by canvassers, the sponsoring nonprofit and solar company will engage local schools, businesses, community groups and governmental officials to contribute workshops and activities for attendees to participate in. Outreach will also be made to possible sponsors for raffled item donations.

Event Logistics
Location of the event will be based on an ideal safe space for at least 200 RSVPed guests, ideally, the event space will be an open public park or recreation area. These events will heavily require coordination with community parks and recreation departments of city, sparking collaboration even further. Partnerships to successfully conduct this event should be somewhat led by members of the community. The Solar company and nonprofit’s success in identifying a community volunteer organization willing to spearhead this event will be key in creating a successful block party event. As the pilot program continues, templates for organization can become streamlined to be adjusted to the community being engaged (such as new communities, low-income, etc.)

Event Activities
During the entire block party celebration (opportunity event) attendees will be participating in various workshops to earn raffle tickets towards prizes auctioned at the event. Of course, one of the main workshop highlighted activities will be for community members to come together and join discussions on renewable energy and hear the stories of current solar owners. This workshop will be one of the most featured events along with other like workshops such as water conservation and energy efficiency workshop. Environmental based nonprofit missions can help plan other activities that are fun, engaging and informative. Food and refreshments will be provided throughout the event with an emphasis on being a sustainable, environmentally responsible event. The event will have educational activities for all in the family, with a kid, teen and adult track. [UPDATE 2/10] Please review Pilot Program Adoption Case Example attachment below for updates on opportunity event activities.  

Pilot Program Funding 

The coordination of volunteers and funders for this program has been found to be extensive if wanting to maximize the effects. While larger solar companies, such as SolarCity, may have the financial resources to implement such a program, it could take a collection of smaller retail and specialized solar companies to achieve the same type of program. Smaller solar companies, may modify the community event to a smaller, neighborhood gathering solely focused on presenting the benefits of solar energy. Funding from governmental grants to organize events in our communities could also be a resource to fund an event such as this. While the block party is an ideal scenario which would create the most natural and authentic interaction among individuals, the same quality can be generated by a smaller BBQ style gathering for invitees with an experience similar to that of the appreciation event where common stories are shared and a visioning activity is created by the community. Along with funding, the investment in time is often harder to receive, this program will take an extensive amount of investment by the nonprofit in coordinating canvassers and workshop presenters. Given collaboration is the key factor we are looking to generate from this pilot program, we intend to eventually create a template for organizing that can reduce the time needed to research best practices.   

Applying the progam to a current solar company
**Please review the attached document "Adoption Case Study" for funding and strategy ideas applied to a solar company, SolarCity. 
This program can be initiated by all solar companies who have a high density of customers in a small city. As we consider what Shouvik Banerjee suggested in moving solar sales past "away from niche market retail to the greater vision of a renewable energy movement", we find that solar companies like SolarCity have the opportunity to lead in transforming solar into a movement. Many resources are usually diverted to hiring more sales people, but not seeing the true value of investing in the social infrastructure to cultivate a rich "soil of trust", if you will, within neighborhoods would be a lost opportunity. If the presentations are able to create that positive picture, kept simple and backed by resources, the community trust can build the movement. 

Larger Vision of 5 Houses Up, 5 Houses Down

Essentially, most economic analysts would find solar energy to inevitably becoming the world’s main source of energy by mid-century. Residential solar is often one of the first major points of interaction for our communities to engage with the vision of what a sustainable world will look like. Investing in quality engagement around this critical piece of awareness raising is crucial to creating the capacity within our communities to increase public demand and ultimately create the political will towards the rapid transition necessary to renewable energy. Ultimately, we see residential solar as a vital pivot point in the discussion of our individual role in the greater climate challenge. While the climate challenge need not be explicitly discussed throughout the pilot program to encourage the transition, ultimately a positive interaction around solar technology is an important precedent to community stakeholders of our cities in learning to working together. The sooner we are able to increase and expand the interactions of our social networks, the sooner we are able to collaborate positively in a world with increasing climate challenges. The larger vision of 5 Houses Up, 5 Houses Down, is to create a practice of focusing on small actions to create meaningful impact. Ultimately the ability to building resilient, sustainable communities relies on a foundation of strong interconnected community members (civic, private, public and government) able to recognize its shared responsibility to one another.

Expanding Prototypes

Expanding the pilot program model around retail customers, just as homeowners who went solar can engage their social networks, schools and businesses can leverage this strategy as well to influence their networks. Schools who have converted to solar energy, can partner with nonprofits and solar companies as well to coordinate similar events. In this scenario, the students can learn how solar helps their school reduce costs and redirect funds to improving school programs. Students may be able to identify if their home has also gone solar and help one another help their peers encourage their parents to convert to solar energy. By having students invite parents to an opportunity event where they all learn about the benefits of solar energy for the home, perhaps parents will be more willing to listen to retail store solar representatives. Schools who have gone solar can also be brought together to learn of their collective potential to influence other schools at an opportunity event modified for their situation. Small and large businesses who have gone solar can come together, discuss their success stories of converting to renewable energy and coordinate an opportunity event to reach across industry divides to spread the word of how solar makes business sense. Chambers of commerce can be a great starting point for these events.

Adjusting to diverse, low-income communities

Too often, solar is misunderstood as a luxury inaccessible to low-income communities in the US. With regard to current solar efforts for low-income communities, there is already a lot going on. One notable mention, a non-profit organization called GRID Alternatives installs solar systems completely free for families living under the poverty line. While, the greatest misconception with solar for low-income families is they may not have the financial resources, the lease option provided by solar companies actually provides no cost installation and maintenance for the system and the home simply pays a monthly bill for the electricity generated by the panels priced at a lower rate than what their utility company will likely charge. Another misconception is that low-income families often have low bills. Solar representatives often find that low income families tend to have two or more generations living in one home, saving money instead of buying another home. Thus, their energy usage is higher with more people. As long as there is one person with a fairly good credit rating, usually the only requirement for applying for the solar lease, the family can go solar. Essentially, the greatest barrier to low income neighborhoods is just the same as in middle income ones, the access to knowledge. Creating free events for these neighborhoods to attend and listen to one another share positive stories is the key to spreading awareness and rapidly transitioning these communities!
For low income communities , we recognized the characteristic of diversity among these communities to the strength to consider and leverage. Often low-income is a mix, at least in the LA county area, of ethnic, racial and religious backgrounds. Thus, we had an idea to utilize the 5 houses up, 5 houses down campaign phase to ask neighbors, family, friends, and colleagues of solar owners to simply identify and share more about background, such as their second language, hobbies, faith, ethnic makeup, values, etc. as a way to inform the strategy of marketing or type of event that potential neighbors colleagues and friends will attend. After the engaged pool of invitees are grouped, we would then ask the solar owner, most like in values, interests, etc. of the particular targeted group, to share their story with a group of like potential solar owners. Whether it is second languages, particular hobbies, or faith based, we could help current solar owners create custom opportunity events targeted towards a particular focus of people. Often a message comes across much easier for people when the messenger shares a common understanding, interest or value. The vision of solar energy will thus be best carried through their real life experiences. While this adjustment to the model may take more planning.
During our research we also uncovered the great concern for safety in low-income communities where crime can often be a concern during large gathers. In reflecting on this insight, we considered the prototype of incorporating schools as a collaborative partner with the solar company and nonprofit to be vital to providing a secure space for gathering, as well as a controlled group of invitees. Rather than door knocking, the main type of engagement would be students reaching out to their parents who, in turn, access their close social networks. For communities with fewer financial resources, cutting out time to attend such an event would also become a barrier. Thus, providing webinars as an alternative to meeting in person would be a possible solution to this. Though, these are often less attended, they can provide information in the safety of the home, while still creating some form of social interaction.

Adjusting to new communities

Newer communities with weak social ties can be a huge hinderance to implementing an effective pilot program in a community. However, the pilot program has the opportunity to be introduced as one of the first community building events sponsored by the various local public, private and governmental stakeholders of the community. The event would be marketed simply as a meet your neighbors event with outside solar owners coming to the event, explaining their experience with the program and its success. Thus, this program will not be piloted in a new community until successful results generates the solar owners needed to speak for the program itself since there will be no solar owners in the new community. Nonetheless, newer communities tend to attract young families looking that are often more open to the offerings and idea behind solar technology. Truly, the adoption of the new community in the pilot program will depend on the available resources surrounding the developing of the community. Again, this may also be where virtual communities may play a significant role in that, as we collect data about homeowners and track the location of their friends and family are, we could create an opportunity event where potential solar homeowners in a community who at least know someone (friend, family, colleague) that has gone solar can meet to discuss concepts. In turn, they can become the early adopters in the community and those who encourage. others to convert as well.

What community does this idea benefit and who are the main players?

The main players are suburban neighborhoods, solar companies and non-profits working to discover the needs of a community. Through this program, community stakeholders, like local businesses, city councils and schools, can be included overtime as ideas for neighborhood improvements arise from the opportunity events. For example, in my own community, a high concern is crime and a great solution that does not require added financial investment is engaging neighbors in starting a neighborhood watch. This has already happened in certain parts of our city, but is not universally practiced. Ironically, it is a simple invitation to an event and a willing host that sparks solution in communities and engages citizens into the development of a community. Going solar can become associated with a neighborhood that is well-connect and united in their values. Truly, while going solar initially has been a great benefit to individuals families, as the movement builds, it can be seen as an unexpected catalyst for change.

How does your idea specifically help your community rapidly transition to renewables?

Their choice to going solar turns into them becoming invited into a greater movement, getting to know their neighbors, and gaining a new sense of purpose and hope for their community. This choice creates a greater "push" force in our communities to accelerate the adoption of solar energy. We no longer see it as a choice for us to make individually, but an opportunity for us to rediscover our shared challenges, opportunities and values.

What early, lightweight experiment can you try out in your own community to find out if the idea will meet your expectations?

As current solar employees and knowing several solar customers, we can enroll these customers into the idea and engage non-profits about the idea for the program. Finding a small suburban neighborhood with a high density of customers, at least 20 people who have gone solar, to pilot this program is possible. At first, the events will have to be provided by the employees and non-profit, but as long as we provide and track data about the rate of conversion to solar around the homes in the neighborhood, it could possibly start a pilot program that successfully creates the transition of solar systems to a retail product to an entry point towards a movement. This idea was sparked by a conversation among solar sales employees who want to try new ways in engaging the customer base and overcoming our greatest obstacles. This pilot program is meant to diversify the strategies and types of interactions that motivate people to going solar. California is at the forefront of solar with the recent announcement from Jerry Brown with the states commitment to 50% renewable energy generation by 2030. We envision this program to begin in the suburban areas of Los Angeles County, where cities are small in population and the population is highly diverse.

What skills, input or guidance are you keen to connect with from the OpenIDEO community to help you build out or refine your idea further?

Collaboration from non-profits with presentations they already use to engage people about the positive vision of what renewable energy and solar can mean for our communities. Insight from current solar companies of the financial resources they can convert towards a pilot program or third-party non-profit that can test this idea. Contribution from the OpenIDEO community about how to collect and allocate the data collected by non-profits in the area interested in starting a program such as this and partnering with one, two or several solar companies.

Please indicate which type of energy is most relevant to this post:

  • Solar

This idea emerged from:

  • A Group Brainstorm


Join the conversation:

Photo of Oriol Segarra

Hi Karen and group!

What a neat idea, I don't know if you will still be following the comments of this idea, but I would love to know more about it. I'm working in a solar company and we want to encourage not only 1 customer to go solar but him and all his neighbors. I also think the community power is one of the biggest factors to overcome fossil fuels. Would love to get more insights on how this initiative worked for your group. Regards!

Photo of Karen Marie Bacolod

Hi Oriol! Thanks for following up with the idea and checking in. We have our test event coming up in September. Since the inception of this idea, we've had a lot of learnings in terms of coordinating the right people to organize everyone. We are currently doing small get togethers of at least 3 or 4 neighbors. Our event in September brings together a larger group of people and will be a bigger test run. Community power is the biggest factor to enable the rapid transition towards renewable energy adoption. As soon as our group's idea has been implemented, we will update the OpenIdeo platform for sure and you will be the first I contact! Warm Regards! Karen

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