One Block Off the Grid: Bulk solar, tell your friends

One Block Off the Grid, which uses bulk purchasing and social media to ramp up solar installations, lands $5 million from New Enterprise Associates to expand.

Corrections made at 8:20 a.m. PT to number of Twitter followers and number or regions it works in.

Just like you need an accountant to navigate the tax code, you need an agent to get a good deal on solar panels, according to One Block Off the Grid.

The San Francisco-based start-up on Thursday announced that it has secured a series A funding round of $5 million from New Enterprise Associations to expand its operations. It follows angel funding it raised a little over one year ago.

Martin LaMonica/CNET

One Block Off the Grid seeks to make it cheaper and simpler for homeowners to buy solar electric panels by acting as an agent to solar installers. It is able to lower the cost of solar about 15 percent by aggregating hundreds of interested customers to get a group discount, explained CEO Dave Llorens.

At the company Web site, consumers can evaluate how good their location is for solar and get an estimate of the cost, taking into account state and federal subsidies. Once a sizable number of people show interest, One Block Off the Grid will take bids from solar installers. At that point, homeowners can get bids for the work. One Block Off the Grid charges a fee to installers once a job is completed.

The whole goal is to scale up the use of solar energy to power homes, said LLorens. The problem is that even when people show some interest, it's hard to get a good idea of what's entailed in installing panels or the cost. Installers, meanwhile, are reluctant to share pricing information, in part because the price for solar panels is high--anywhere from $25,000 to $40,000 before rebates, depending on the size.

The model has worked so far: there were 600 installations done in 2009 and the company was profitable, said Llorens. This year, its goal is to do another 5,000 to 10,000. The company is now in ten regions cities around the U.S. and hopes to expand to another ten to fifteen this year.

Key to the entire enterprise is the company's social marketing skills, which helps bring down the cost of sales. The company has 300,000 followers on Twitter and uses Facebook and its Web site to sign people up.

One Block Off the Grid isn't just appealing to hard-core environmentalists. Depending on the state incentives, homeowners can get about half of a solar panel installation paid and then make money from renewable energy certificates. "Nobody seems to know it, but the economics of buying solar panels in New Jersey are ridiculous," said Llorens.

The company hopes to offer similar bulk-buying services for solar hot water installations, too, he added.

 

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