In today’s interview, we have Aviv Shalgi, the CEO of Solar Simplified, a platform that matches renters, homeowners and businesses with local solar projects.
| Can you tell me a little bit about yourself, how you got started with this company and the solar world in general?
I’ve been living in Chicago for the past six years, and I’m a technology entrepreneur, currently on my fourth startup. My first two startups were in advertising (first one is public and the second got acquired). The third one was in real estate, around pricing and revenue management for large properties, apartment complexes and hotels, which was acquired in late 2019.
During the early Covid days, when people were locked in their homes and being laid off from their jobs, me and my team were thinking of ways to help people save money, which was the basis of Solar Simplified. The idea was not primarily based around energy – our initial goal was to help people save money, and we determined we could achieve this goal through renewable energy.
| Can you tell us a little more about the idea of community solar?
Through research, interviews and public feedback, we came to know the world of community solar. With community solar you don’t have to install solar panels on your property. Instead, development companies install an array of solar panels in an open area, like a landfill or an infertile farm land, that can service numerous households at the same time
Community solar allows the consumer to connect to those solar panels through the grid. It doesn’t cost them any money, they get green energy and they also get to save money on their utility bills every month!
| Where can solar panels be installed? How does this idea help the local economy?
It has to be local, because you have to be fairly close to the project. Therefore, it also creates local jobs – from design, legal and permitting, construction, to engineering, maintenance, and so on.
I’m not talking about downtown Manhattan or Chicago, where you couldn’t put panels on such a large scale (we’re talking tens of thousands of panels per installment, which is fairly large in size).
Which is why more rural, secluded areas are ideal for this type of solar farms. Of course, in such areas you typically won’t find many professional installers, so you help out the local community by increasing the need for these types of jobs through training and hiring.
The user has to be fairly close, let’s say in a 5 mile radius, because the solar farm has to be connected to the same grid that they are connected to, the same power lines, basically.
| Can you tell me more about this system setup and about solar credits, which I saw you mentioning on your website?
Renters, homeowners and business owners, basically anyone who pays a utility bill, can go on our website or give us a call and sign up within 2 minutes. Using their utility account information, we would then check to see if we have room in one of our solar power plants to connect them immediately so they could start receiving solar credits.
Think of solar credits as a groupon. Every state decides on the value of every kilowatt hour that’s being generated. So if I generate 1,000 kilowatt hours for you, and you live in an area where it’s 10 cents per kilowatt hour, then I just gave you $100. That’s what I generated on your behalf.
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Now, our model is that we give consumers a discount on that value. So in a 10% guaranteed discount offer (like we’re offering in many of our markets), that would mean that you’ve just saved $10 on your next utility bill. You paid $90 to get $100, saving $10 in the process. The more kilowatt hours we can generate on your behalf, the more solar credits you receive, the larger your discount is going to be!
This is because the discount is 10% or even 20% or 50%, depending on where you live, and depending mostly on state regulations. When you get your utility bill at the end of the month, you’ll see an extra item saying “solar credits” or “Solar Simplified credits”, which is going to decrease the total owed to the utility for the month.
| Solar renewable energy is clearly beneficial for the end user, but how is it also beneficial for your business model?
Most large-scale power plants, including solar, can’t sell at retail prices. They can only sell at wholesale prices. With community solar, we help them go retail, thus increasing their revenue, but we only work with companies who agree to share this upside with the consumer in the form of a discount. This difference is then split three ways i.e. towards the:
- The discount to consumers
- The Developers / Asset Owners of the project
- To us for facilitating all of this
We’re focusing mostly on residential customers, both renters and homeowners, mom and pop shops, and small businesses because we think they’re the ones who are going to benefit the most and truly feel the impact of the savings every month. When you add up these small discounts over the project lifetime, say 20 years, it turns into a significant amount! It’s a couple hundred dollars a year in savings, think of 1-2 monthly bills that you don’t have to pay the utility for, so in a few years, it adds up to thousands of dollars saved.
| It’s great having a business model that benefits everyone involved, but how do you think it benefits the utility companies?
Our power plants are neither small like a rooftop, nor huge like projects you see on TV. They typically range from 1 to 10-15 megawatt DC. And, unlike huge power plants, if one of these mid-scale power plants happens to fail (if there’s a malfunction, an error or a glitch), all other projects are still going to be fine and producing energy.
So, it brings more reliability and stability to the grid, which is good for utility companies.
This is a win-win for everybody!
| Is there a lot of competition in what you’re doing?
There are probably five or ten major competitors in the US that try to do what we do, with different angles, different business models, and different technologies (or lack thereof). We’re a team of 10, and most of what we do is focusing heavily on the tech side of things to simplify everything for end consumers on one side and community solar developers and asset owners on the other side.
We try to automate the small things, to simplify the sign up process, the billing process, the communication with the utilities and regulators, and to make sure this is simple and easy for everybody involved – for consumers and our developer customers.
| The year is coming to an end. Do you have any short-term, longer term goals for your company?
- Throughout 2023, I am aiming to get 100-150 additional megawatts built, online, producing and billing consumers, which would equate to servicing about 10,000 more households next year.
- In our first full year of operation, 2021, we helped people across our whole consumer base save $80,000. In 2022, I’m hoping to reach $250,000 to $300,000 in savings for our customers. Next year, I want to double that again to half a million or hopefully maybe quadruple to a million dollars of actual savings in people’s pockets.
For a longer term goal, obviously, get as many power plants and as many consumers as we can, because at the end of the day, it helps people save one to two months a year on their bills.
| There’s still a lot of people who are just getting into this solar world… Do you have any advice for them, something they can avoid in the beginning, making a costly mistake, for example? Or something they should pay attention to?
- Do your homework! Don’t necessarily trust the ads you see online or on TV. You have to do a little bit of digging and figure out: what are the current incentives? Different states have different incentive structures. It could be tax advantages, better loan terms, rebates of some sort. You have to figure out what the market is today, not what the market was two years ago, because the incentive structure and the regulatory structure could have been different.
- The second aspect is to know who are the trustworthy players? You want installers, developers and solar administrators who are reputable and trustworthy so you know that, when they build a system for you or connect you to an existing one, it’s going to work.
- The third thing specifically for folks looking to install a system on their property would be to try and understand the technology itself, which types of inverters are you allowed to use, which types of panels can you use, what are the various price points, etc. Sometimes, it might not be the best idea to buy the most expensive panel or the highest end technology because it might not justify the increased price due to regulatory or utility initiated curtailments or restrictions.