When Solar Landscape, one of the leading solar developers in New Jersey, branched into community solar, they ran into a key market challenge. Acquiring and managing community solar subscribers turned out to require considerable time and resources, especially for subscribers from low- and moderate-income (LMI) households. Rather than back down, they took the time to understand and invest in the communities that made up their potential subscribers—and the results paid dividends.
Shaun Keegan and Corey Gross, Solar Landscape’s co-founders, both hail from Monmouth County, New Jersey. The pair launched Solar Landscape in 2012 as rooftop solar was growing rapidly in the state. Solar Landscape started as a solar installer and eventually became a vertically integrated owner-operator in commercial, industrial, school, and municipal rooftop solar. Solar Landscape also developed expertise in job training, educating most of their workforce in-house.
New Jersey launched its Community Solar Energy Pilot Program in 2019 to boost community solar adoption. The program incentivized projects that included subscribers from LMI households, engaged with local community organizations, or consisted of subscribers from a single municipality. This was an ambitious task—New Jersey is the most densely populated U.S. state, with 565 municipalities sometimes separated by as little as 20 blocks. However, Solar Landscape’s history of operating in New Jersey and experience in solar development put the company in a strong position to take advantage of the pilot program.
Solar Landscape realized that community solar could be a much more streamlined strategy than installing small rooftop solar systems on hundreds of unique roofs. While their experience in siting and managing solar installations translated well to community solar projects, meeting the requirement that at least 51% of the energy produced must go to LMI households demanded new strategies and more resources. It typically cost them $400-$500 to subscribe each household to community solar, much more than recruiting households for rooftop solar, and traditional subscriber acquisition methods such as sending mailers or hiring private companies to go door-to-door weren’t successful.
New Jersey residents were skeptical of community solar because of extensive marketing by other third-party energy suppliers, some of which were more expensive. This skepticism created barriers for Solar Landscape in building trust with community members, increasing the time and money needed to convince them to subscribe to community solar.
Solar Landscape hired a team of in-house community engagement professionals to help them build relationships with local nonprofits, churches, and workforce development organizations so that they could communicate the benefits of community solar to their neighbors and get them signed up. They were up-front about the fact that Solar Landscape is a for-profit company that ultimately owns the solar installations, but also clearly expressed their intention to provide benefits to the community.
Thanks to this engagement work, Solar Landscape quickly filled their project subscriptions. Today, Solar Landscape’s collection of 54 community solar projects is estimated to be one of the nation’s largest clean energy portfolios focused primarily on LMI households.
Solar Landscape leveraged its new network of community-based partners to bring value to the community in another way: incorporating workforce training into every project. Community organizations helped residents sign up for the solar installer training offered by Solar Landscape, and Solar Landscape used their network of solar companies to connect graduates of their training with jobs.
Solar Landscape also began delivering presentations on renewable energy at local high schools, vocational schools, and community colleges. This evolved into the Green Ambassador Program, where high school students across the state take an online course on clean energy and submit a video on how clean energy could benefit their community for the chance to win $20,000 in scholarships.
Solar Landscape believes that all community solar developers could benefit from taking the time to build local relationships and understand their communities. Ultimately, these strategies add significant value, not just because they result in cleaner energy and better, more loyal customers, but because they also leave a lasting impact on the community.
“Community solar is maturing quickly in New Jersey and is at an inflection point nationally. That’s what makes information-sharing and community-building so important,” said Solar Landscape CEO Shaun Keegan. “Our Solar Landscape team learns from other National Community Solar Partnership (NCSP) members and has the opportunity to share our successes and challenges with the NCSP community as well. That kind of exchange will be vital to meeting our shared goals in clean energy equity and community solar.”