Interview with Peter Puglionesi – Solarize Delco
In today’s interview we have Peter Puglionesi, chemical and environmental engineer by education and an environmental health and safety consultant.
| Can you introduce yourself and tell us a little bit about yourself?
I am a chemical and environmental engineer by education and an environmental health and safety consultant for almost 40 years. I have been very active for probably 15 or 20 years in various local, environmental, and community civic organizations and have been helping the non-profit Solarize Delco organization for about three years.
| Can you tell me a bit more about Solarize Delco? What is the goal of the organization? What do you do exactly, and how do you help people in your community?
Solarize Delco was created to educate, do outreach on solar, and increase local and regional implementation of rooftop solar photovoltaic power generation. We hope to make this an easier endeavor, because it’s necessary and has a great payback!
Setting up a solar system is a large project for most homeowners and difficult for small businesses because of the amount of time and attention it takes away from their main business. Until now, it was even more complex for non-profit entities and houses of worship to set up these systems, but now they have the same federal incentives as homeowners.
Solarize Delco simplifies solar with education and advice on the front end and then working with the property owner – to help them assess feasibility, overcome obstacles, decide and get the project off the ground.
We do this in a very supportive setting, as opposed to a selling approach.
| You are not the only Solarize organization out there, can you tell us more about Solarize as a concept?
Solarize is a concept launched in a Department of Energy project which has been replicated in various parts of the country. Different Solarizes take different approaches but all of them are about education and outreach. Some of them also facilitate interaction with installation contractors.
That’s the approach Solarize Philly takes, for example. ‘Solarize Philly’ is a larger entity that operates in Philadelphia by the Philadelphia Energy Authority. They have the advantage of full-time paid staff while Solarize Delco operates with all volunteers on a shoestring budget as we are a non profit organization.
| How do you help people in their decision-making process? What are some of the factors you take into consideration when developing a solar project?
We look at different things such as their electricity bills and talk about the energy offset they’d like to accomplish with their solar system. We also look at overhead conditions – are there large trees that are casting a shade; we ask questions about the age of the roof, whether they want to pay for the system or need a loan etc.
We try to resolve feasibility issues on the front end, so that they have a good understanding of what is possible and what they want to do. Once we get to that point and they want to proceed, we can refer them to one of the contractors who will, of course, do their own assessment and give them the final proposal.
Our goal at Solarize Delco is mostly to get the property owner to really understand all of the factors and help them decide if they want to proceed or not. Sometimes people might lose interest once we go through all the requirements for their solar system, some might not be ready yet, some might have old roofs and decide to wrap back around once they get those replaced.
Of course, some of them do wish to proceed. The fact that so many of the ones that we do refer, ultimately get their solar system installed, is a testament to how good our screening process is.
| We mentioned “Solar United Neighbors” when we talked earlier, can you tell our readers more about this organization?
Solar United Neighbors is a national non-profit that helps regional education and group purchase efforts, like the large, very successful operation around Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. We have a very similar program, which is neighbors helping neighbors, and working with installers to simplify the process for homeowners.
Solarize Delco is also trying to promote solar for low-income homeowners. This was the biggest challenge with solar systems, historically speaking, but the good news is there are a lot of grant and lease opportunities nowadays.
Some leasing programs even offer a monthly lease price that is below the utility power cost for the household. This is fantastic news for the homeowners and shatters the preconception that solar is only for people with money to burn.
So, one of the things we try to emphasize is that setting up a solar system is not just for those with money to burn, nor those who just want to do good for the planet; it’s also a good and a safe investment with a very good rate of return!
| What is the process for the homeowner? How do they approach you? Do you approach them or do they approach you?
We’ve been experimenting with different ways to reach people, but most of our success has been local, where we are at public events, interacting with the local community.
And that’s currently the biggest challenge for us, to push outside of our home base. Our objective is to serve all of Delaware County, Pennsylvania, which is one of the ring counties around Philadelphia.
So, it’s been a bit of a slow process to work our way out. We also try to get press coverage of some of our bigger installations. Such as the one we did on a Lutheran church – it was a 44 kilowatt system! So, we actually were able to get the press to come out and cover that.
We have tried a variety of things, from streaming ads to doing a regional home show in January which attracts 6,000 to 8,000 people over three days.
We also do some very old-fashioned and surprisingly effective things, like lawn signs. People can also contact us through the website, https://solarizedelco.org/, or they can email us at [email protected].
| So, how big is your team? Do you have a lot of people or…?
We have a small and growing team. Melisa is on our Board and is the lead on the assessment group. I really admire Melissa because she’s a working mother but also passionate about our mission. She works with three or four other assessors, but she actually does the lion’s share of the assessments herself.
We’ve fully assessed maybe 80 to 100 projects last year and probably topped 40 actual installations, our best year. So, we’re still relatively small.
We encourage Melisa to continue looking for people who want to do this work and get them the tools and the training that they need to do it, because our objective is to go bigger. If we succeed, she’s not going to be able to do most of the assessments that we’re doing.
| How do you vet the solar installers you recommend to people?
Well, we get a detailed proposal and ask for references. Many of them have been in business for many years and have a reputation, so that really helps. Interestingly, there are many of them that don’t respond, or are not interested in participating in this kind of defined cost group purchasing program. They want to go it alone, obviously.
So, the process is how you would normally do; you’re assessing it on the basis of responsiveness and experience and cost, altogether.
| Do you think there are some red flags you spot immediately with an installer, and just decide not to work with them?
I don’t know that we’ve really identified red flags. To be honest, in the course of doing business with any firm, it doesn’t always go smoothly. The important thing is to be able to communicate what the issues are.
Sometimes there are real issues. The advantage for the homeowner is with us, there’s an organization to fall back on, that we understand because we’ve been through it so often. So, we can often work with the installer and smooth over some of these problems and get them resolved.
| Tell us something about the trend of going solar. Are people more interested in installing solar systems, are they becoming cheap, more affordable?
Well, absolutely. Every year, the cost comes down and the efficiency moves up! So, it’s really cheaper than it ever was before. I think because of supply chain issues, this past year we saw a little bit of a disruption in the market, but it seems to have rippled through and it’s now, I think, going to continue on the path of lower costs.
We also often get people saying “oh, we’re at the age where maybe we’ll sell the house in four or five years. We’re not sure that it’s right for us to do this.” I point out studies suggest that if you sell, solar has one of the best percentage paybacks for home improvements that you could make based on the increased resale value of the home.
The other thing about folks of a certain age is they have a little more financial resources. So, I tell them my perspective, which is, “well, in a few years, you’re going to sell your house to a young couple with young children. Are they going to be able to afford to put in solar? Probably not. So, if you’re thinking about what’s the right thing to do for the planet as well as for yourself, look at it as an investment and go for it.” Some people actually are responsive to that way of thinking.
| What about the other alternative energy sources, maybe the wind? How does solar compare to the wind, let’s say?
Well, wind power obviously is not a homeowner thing, unless you happen to live on a farm and have a lot of land. So, it’s a different option, in terms of utility scale systems. We’re very in favor of wind power. We’re very in favor of solar power. We’re very in favor of anything that doesn’t increase the carbon burden in the atmosphere and global warming.
Unfortunately, home solar is not a total solution by any stretch of the imagination. One of the things our experience has shown is that it’s not for every homeowner, it’s not for every home. I would estimate maybe 30, 40, or as much as 50% of the homes actually have the potential to go solar; leaving a huge number of homeowners to look for a different solution.