Business

Solar energy discounts become employee perk

NEW YORK — Expanding the notion of corporate benefits beyond discounted health club memberships and low insurance rates, a group of major companies is set to offer employees access to cheaper solar power systems for the home.

Under an arrangement announced Wednesday, employees of the companies — Cisco Systems, 3M, Kimberly-Clark, and National Geographic — will be able to buy or lease solar systems for their homes at rates substantially lower than the US average, executives said. The program, offered through Geostellar, a cost comparison site for solar panels, will be available to more than 100,000 employees and will include options for their friends and families in the United States and parts of Canada.

Originally conceived by campaigners at the World Wildlife Fund, the program, called the Solar Community Initiative, aims to use the bulk purchasing power of employees to allow for discounts on home systems.

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“Our objective was to make this as simple and cheap as possible,” said Keya Chatterjee, senior director for renewable energy at the World Wildlife Fund.

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After receiving deep discounts through a group program for its own employees last year, officials at the environmental group approached a few of their corporate partners, she said.

For Geostellar, which built a virtual marketplace from satellite imagery and big data, it offers a new route to attracting customers, which is still one of the more stubbornly high costs of operating a solar business.

Other solar companies have established corporate partnerships to funnel customers to them. SolarCity, for instance, recently revealed it was renewing a deal with Honda that provides SolarCity systems to the automaker’s customers at a lower price.

“It’s over 100,000 people who are all prequalified because they have good jobs,” said David Levine, chief executive of Geostellar. “They’re going to pass the credit.”

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For the companies, the arrangement offers a way to attract and retain a workforce that is increasingly attuned to the environment and to the steps employers take to preserve it.

It is a natural extension of the sustainability efforts already underway, executives said, whether cutting carbon emissions by installing solar panels at their facilities, offering preferential parking and charging stations for electric vehicles, or introducing Meatless Mondays at the cafeteria.

“I get the e-mails: ‘Why aren’t we recycling this,’ or ‘why don’t we have 45,000 more electric vehicle charging stations,??’” said Ali Ahmed, who manages energy and sustainability at Cisco. “So we had a really good feeling that our employees would engage and latch onto this kind of discount.”

That interest is already evident, the companies said. Three Cisco executives have already decided to install solar systems in their homes through Geostellar, Levine said. At 3M, employees lined up at a kiosk at lunchtime to learn more about the program, said Gayle Schuler, vice president of global sustainability at the company.

Pricing and savings will vary depending on such factors as the pitch of a roof, the levels of sunlight, or the sophistication of the equipment.

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But the average base cost of a system will be $3 per watt of the system’s capacity — roughly 17 percent lower than Geostellar’s regular price and almost 34 percent lower than the average cost in the United States last year of $4.53.

The arrangement offers a way to attract and retain a workforce that is increasingly attuned to the environment.

The program is available both for leasing or buying solar systems. Homeowners paying an average of $147 a month for electricity would instead pay an average of $97 a month over 12 years if they financed the entire system, after which the payments would go to zero, Levine said.

Geostellar, which received an Energy Department grant aimed at lowering solar costs, has an automated system that allows homeowners to type in their address and see options and estimates of potential savings before connecting with installers and lenders if they decide to proceed.

The discounted rate will be available to employees at the partner companies indefinite-ly.