Solar energy is a revolutionary and potentially even disruptive technology, and despite the significant strides made in the last decade or more, solar is still the “David” to conventional electricity’s Goliath. While disruption can come very quickly in some cases, in others it takes considerable time and effort to turn the tide of an established industry. Organizations taking on this formidable task meet much resistance and need every tool imaginable to keep doing what is right and further renewable energy’s growth. Meet the solar cooperative.
Around 2011, an established Colorado solar PV company named Namasté (Certified B Corporation), headed in part by employee-owner and CFO Stephen Irvin, found itself struggling to manage purchasing material and parts as a small company in a global market. Especially in the USA, a number of national installers (e.g. Vivint, Solar City (now Tesla), Sunrun) have dominated the marketplace and used their purchasing power as a competitive advantage. To do meaningful business and have a significant impact on electrical generation, a company like Namasté struggled with the economies of scale needed to compete against these much larger national installers.
In addition to having to compete with larger, national installers, in a revolutionary industry like solar, small businesses are at a natural disadvantage since they are ahead of the technological curve. Advanced technologies like solar inverters and modules will always come at a premium price, so startups like Namasté or SkyFire Energy need to work together to compete with not only larger entities in the electrical generation game, but established industries like fossil fuel generation. This is especially true early in the adoption lifecycle (e.g. at least up until the “early majority”) for emerging technologies.
Stephen and other industry associates correctly identified that their ability to successfully scale their business and fulfill Namaste’s Vision and Mission would benefit from enhanced purchasing capacity. Stephen and Amicus were able to make a compelling argument and companies around him opted for strength in numbers in response to this phenomenon, and the Amicus Solar Cooperative was born. Amicus is a community of like-minded businesses buying, working, learning, and sharing together for the betterment of the industry and the world around them.
Birth of a Cooperative
In a piece for Solar Power World, Amicus and Namasté leader Stephen Irvin spoke to the birth of Amicus: “There’s no third party involved. There’s no one who is there in the background trying to make a profit. It’s us. We own it ourselves and still do today. Amicus is owned 100% by its members.” Much like unions in the Industrial Revolution fighting for workers’ rights against corrupt capitalists, Amicus is creating a safe space for solar technology to grow in North America despite entrenched industries that resist the adoption of renewable energy.
The 50+ businesses in the cooperative are comprised of over 3,000 individual solar professionals, over fifteen employee-owned companies, and over twenty B Corporations. These numbers are proof positive of not just the inherent value of gathering together, but also of the growing trend within these businesses to work not just for profit but for the greater good of people in North America and the world. The cooperative, member-owned structure ensures every company is working in the best interest of every other and keeps the creativity and the forward-thinking mentality of every element of the team working in harmony to further everyone’s best interests.
So what does this solar cooperative actually achieve? One would think that the most critical piece of the Amicus offering, what it was founded on – purchasing power – would be the largest benefit offered to its members. By contributing to the membership of Amicus, SkyFire gets access to group pricing on solar technology that keeps costs manageable and makes solar energy ultimately more accessible and affordable for the end consumer. More money in one place makes bulk-purchasing more affordable for everyone.
While not the top-ranking Amicus member, Solar Power World’s “2019 Top Solar Contractors” ranking shows that Namaste was the 31st largest installer of residential solar in 2018 in the US (ReVision was #9 and Sun Valley Solar Solutions was #18).
While the Cooperative’s purchasing power is important, US-based trade tariffs have had a negative impact on the products which SkyFire can procure through the Cooperative at competitive prices and which renders it a distant second.
This purchasing benefit aligns and informs Amicus’ more general goal, which is to enable profitable, healthy companies to put solar energy into the world. That goal means the Amicus modus operandi has moved beyond bulk buying and into myriad additional efforts and collaborations between members.
Amicus members meet on an annual basis and at other times throughout the year to share best practices on every element of the solar trade, from IT to accounting to marketing techniques. Collaborative capital is one thing, but collective wisdom is another, and when the experience is shared, solar cooperative members can avoid pitfalls and learn from each other to smooth out every company’s experience of the modern global energy transition. To the members, there is simply no doubt that we are “Stronger Together”.
Article Written by James Nason, Electrical Apprentice for SkyFire Energy