Rooftop solar hasn’t flourished in the rental market because neither landlord nor tenant has sufficient incentive: the owner doesn’t (usually) pay the utility bill, and the renter sticks with what’s on offer because they aren’t putting down permanent stakes. But now, a student at Yale University is working to solve this long-standing split incentive.
“We want to convince property owners to install solar panels and charge tenants enough money to recover the cost of the rooftop systems, along with a reasonable rate of return, while saving renters more money on their utility bills than they spend to help pay for the panels,” Russell Heller recently told GreenBiz. He’s launching his “seed-stage business,” Solar for Renters, with the help of Cary Krosinsky, a lecturer at the Yale School of Management and the Yale College on Energy Studies, Climate and Investing.
As a business model, a focus on persuading individual landlords to invest in solar has the added benefit of avoiding a major overhead cost for large rooftop solar installers: whereas a large company will spend 40 or 50¢ per watt on customer outreach and marketing for a $3-per-watt installation, the Solar for Renters model works one-on-one, helping landlords decide for themselves that rooftop solar makes sense for their buildings.
Looking ahead, Heller foresees possible problems with changes to net metering laws that “would make rooftop solar less financially feasible.” But for now, especially in a state like Connecticut “where there aren’t a lot of wind resources and building natural gas pipelines is really difficult, solar is likely to be an important piece of the energy future,” he said.
Solar for Renters will launch its first pilot in New Haven this summer. Heller said he’s current soliciting bids from installers, and hopes to have panels in place in June.
“From there,” he told GreenBiz, “it’s just seeing how well things play out with the government, with the utilities, with the tenants.” The goal is to continue to learn, “and then, ideally, we’re going to write a case study where we explain the idea, the business model, the challenges we faced, and how we overcame barriers throughout the process.”