A group of Yale students is partnering with SolarCity, a leading nationwide solar panel company, to accelerate what they consider administrative lethargy in responding to changing sustainability needs on college campuses.
The group, Project Bright, launched a referral system incentivizing students to contact administrators, faculty and staff about receiving a solar panel consultation from a SolarCity representative. Students who get the most referrals for SolarCity receive prizes of $714, the average amount homeowners save each year when they replace energy from the grid with solar panel electricity.
“What we’re trying to do is to get people to show Yale as an institution the viability of renewable energy,” James Barile ’18, president of Project Bright, said. “Nothing would make a more compelling case than a city full of people who have solar panels powering their own homes.”
Barile said that Yale has been “bearish” about the possibility of solar panels, pointing to an earlier Project Bright proposal that would have created a large solar farm to replace much of the energy currently produced at Yale’s power plants. Because this top-down approach was not implemented by the administration, he said, Project Bright pivoted to a more individual-focused model.
This shift in models by Project Bright comes alongside major efforts by the University to meet its 2020 goal of cutting carbon emissions by over 40 percent, alongside a large solar panel installation by SolarCity on West Campus this past fall. Michael Oristaglio, executive director of the Yale Climate & Energy Institute, said he expects Yale will meet this 2020 goal in terms of direct carbon consumption.
Sinead Coleman, director of SolarCity’s SunRaising program which partnered with Project Bright, said that under this model, Project Bright receives $200 for every consultation with a SolarCity representative a student is able to arrange whenever it leads to a sale. A portion of that $200 is distributed out to student participants by Project Bright as prizes.
“Our referred customers account for a third of our solar customers,” Coleman said. “These referrals have led to solar energy system installations projected to offset approximately 60,000 metric tons of carbon compared to energy produced from fossil fuels. In addition, the program has helped more than 400 homeowners take the first steps toward going solar while helping to raise thousands of dollars.”
She added that a similar model has been enacted at other locations, including one organization started to improve sustainability efforts within the Hudson Valley.
The benefit of this model of salesmanship is that it rewards participants for starting conversations rather than getting guaranteed sales, meaning that there is less of an incentive to pressure or harass contacts to make a sale, Barile said.
“We’re giving people financial benefits for starting a conversation that isn’t, strictly speaking, financial,” he added.
Frederick Van Duyne ’19, one of the students who signed on to look for referrals, said that avoiding “being a nuisance” in his salesmanship is one of his primary concerns with how he conducts his conversations with Yale affiliates about the program.
“I have so far only reached out to faculty that I know personally, and I can attest that it is a much more comfortable dynamic for me, and I’m sure my professors feel the same way,” Van Duyne said. “I feel very strongly about what I’m selling to my professors, and I love that I am in the position to facilitate real change of this sort.”
He added that regardless of the success of his conversations in terms of getting consultations or sales, his primary goal is to raise visibility for the financial value of solar panels for families. Van Duyne has not received any responses to the emails he has sent out so far.
In his emails to professors, Van Duyne assured them that “unlike collateralized debt obligations and mortgage-backed-securities, this is a legitimately risk-free (and ethically sound) venture; you are guaranteed to save money and support a technology proven to benefit the environment.”
Oristaglio said he was invited by a Project Bright affiliate to get a consultation and took them up on their offer. Though the installation did not go through due to low sunlight on his roof, he said that the contact was not a bother, and he would have otherwise been interested in making the switch.
The initiative comes after an official Yale effort to stimulate solar panel installations among Yale affiliates through Solarize U, a Connecticut initiative to bring solar panels to universities in the state. Solarize U works by organizing a critical mass of signups before production in order to capitalize on economies of scale in solar panel construction. However, Barile said that Solarize U’s bulk-buy model may no longer be necessary in New England due to the economies of scale groups like SolarCity achieve.
“Solarize U ran its course and we gave it room to do so,” Barile said.
He added that one of the perks of the Project Bright model over other models is that it works bottom-up rather than top-down, connecting students with Yale affiliates to introduce them to solar panel options.
Barile said that there are no causes for legal concerns between Yale and Project Bright.
“If there is any legal question about what we are doing in affiliating with a private corporation by monetary agreement and such, it’s important to note that our launch has been financially independent of Yale, no funding from the Yale administration has gone to that launch or other activities, we operate separately from the nonprofit elements of our group, and for the Yale student club element, there is certainly no law that prohibits Yale students from being part of a nonprofit together, even if those Yale students all happen to be part of a Yale club too,” Barile said.
This fall, SolarCity finished installing over 200,000 square feet of solar arrays on Yale’s West Campus.
Correction, Feb. 9: A previous version of this article stated that Project Bright receives compensation for all consultations they arrange; in fact, the group is paid only for consultations that lead to a sale.