Interview with Krishna Patel - January 2020

ERCG continues its ABC leadership interview series with Krishna Patel, Director of Community Solar Customer Acquisitions at Clearway Energy Group. We sat down with Krishna and discussed several topics, including –

  • Leveraging retail energy expertise to enhance their community solar product offering
  • Factors that make community solar attractive to customers, renewable energy advocates, and regulators
  • How both retail energy suppliers and brokers can stand to benefit from community solar

 

ERCG: Can you give a brief background on Clearway Energy Group and the Community Solar division?
 

Krishna Patel: Clearway Energy Group is one of the largest renewable energy companies in the United States, accelerating the world’s transformation to a clean energy future. With more than 4.1 gigawatts of solar and wind energy assets in 25 states, and a 9.5 GW development pipeline across the country, we are offsetting the equivalent of nearly 9 million tons of carbon emissions for our customers. The company is headquartered in San Francisco, CA with five additional major U.S. offices. For more information, visit www.clearwayenergygroup.com.

 

Clearway Community Solar is the largest developer and operator of Community Solar farms in the United States with nearly 100 Community Solar projects active or in development, and 300 MW of operating solar capacity service approximately 15,000 customers. Since 2015, Clearway Community Solar farms have offered universal access to the benefits of solar to residents, businesses, schools, hospitals and municipalities — no roof required. 
 

ERCG: You have over 10 years of experience on the retail electricity side of the business. How does that help in your current role?
 

KP: As we developed a Community Solar business from the ground up, from operations to sales, to portfolio management and partnerships, I was lucky to be able to draw from in-depth retail energy experience. Much of our leadership and colleagues also come from retail electric companies, and with Community Solar we were able to bring collective experiences together and borrow from what worked. For example, product development and pricing were among my chief retail responsibilities, and I was able to use that knowledge base to build our pricing models for each market. My counterpart Operations Director has used her billing and systems know-how to ensure services and support for what has grown to our customer base of 15,000 customers. We could also cite examples across marketing and advertising, field agent management, and special partnerships that we learned from retail electric.

 

ERCG: In what ways is Community Solar a departure from your retail electricity roots?

 

KP: While we owe much gratitude to our past experience, we really want to do things differently with Community Solar – we want to change the way people see energy. Consumers nowadays approach their utility and any retail provider with skepticism. They’re looking for a catch. Teasers and gimmicks are all too common and consumer interest isn’t always at the heart of providing a commodity that they are dependent on. With Community Solar, we’ve designed a 100% renewable option that is completely different than anything the market has known. We don’t require upfront fees, there are no green power premiums, there are no ongoing maintenance costs for the upkeep of the solar projects, and many of our programs offer guaranteed savings. When a customer joins our program, they have complete transparency upfront on all program terms and costs. It’s new, it’s different, and we prioritize customer education. We are working every day to find new ways to communicate and get the right information out so that any subscriber feels confident. And I believe that is a refreshing change from a retail electric program.

 

ERCG: Community Solar has been gaining traction lately. How does it work? Where does it work best?
 

KP: We first started with service in Minnesota. Since then, we have expanded to Massachusetts and New York, and we are excited to expand to Illinois customers with a special offer. Our business looks for regions that have the right regulatory framework to enable our development work and a viable customer product that puts customer experience first. The relationships with the utilities are equally important. Each state’s program is unique, and when the right groups come together and begin talking, the collective input threads the rules and requirements together. We have to ensure they work for our business models and enable us to develop a strong offer for customers. 
 

ERCG: Do you find that there is there is good support from utilities and customer advocates for your programs? Why or why not?
 

KP: We do find there to be good support and this is an imperative part of our business function. On the utility side, we maintain close business relationships with every utility we work with. We jointly build operational processes to ensure the measurement of solar production and how that gets applied to our customer’s bills in the form of solar bill credits. We depend on the utility to ensure certain program components and collaborate for one another’s mutual success. Community Solar is new, so at times we have to troubleshoot, but with open communication we find solutions. Renewable energy is of more importance at the state and national level, and everyone wants to make it work. That includes our customers. As our customer portfolio has grown, customer feedback has, too, and we have seen customer advocates come through our referral program, which is a major source of new sales, as well as positive online reviews. We’re focusing on how to continue to grow and nurture these long-term relationships and ensure our customers feel connected to the program and valued.

 

ERCG: How do you typically enroll subscribers onto a Community Solar farm?
 

KP: Subscribers often learn about our program through neighborhood field agents or in-market events, like town halls. We also have many customers who learn about us through online research or advertising and engage with us through our website or simply by calling in and speaking to our energy consultants. Referrals have become more and more frequent as well – we are always happy to hear about other happy customers sharing the program with their friends.

 

As to the enrollment process, we start with education and explaining what our program offer is and how it works. To complete enrollment, we require a customer’s utility bill in order to understand their energy consumption and create a fair subscription size for their home, and additionally require a soft credit check. Our Customer Agreements include all contract terms, and once executed, enrollment is complete.
 

ERCG: What partnership opportunities does Clearway’s Community Solar provide to retail electric suppliers and brokers?

 

KP: Energy brokers working with Clearway Community Solar have the opportunity to position our product as a renewable energy solution for retail suppliers. Given Clearway’s Community Solar capacity, retailers looking to provide a 100% renewable energy product, that also happens to be local, to their customers can do so at a large scale with Clearway. Our solar farms’ size enables us to offer more capacity to retailers than competitors, and our business arms are also able to model the return in an attractive manner for retailers – this is another example of where our past retail experience comes in handy. Not only are energy shoppers looking for something new and different, they want renewable power at a reasonable rate, and the local appeal of Community Solar farms also has resonance. As retailers additionally have regulatory pressures to show their support of renewable power, Community Solar offers a solution with a product that regulators know. Clearway looks to our partners to build these partnerships and create a mutually beneficial relationship that puts Community Solar in the wider market through specialized retail offerings.

 

ERCG: You mentioned a new offer in Illinois. Can you tell us a bit more about it?
 

KP: The process is simple: First, Clearway builds and operates Community Solar farms throughout the state that are available to ComEd and Ameren utility customers. We currently have the largest development capacity of any Community Solar developer in Illinois. Our dedicated, professional teams maintain them year-round, so that a customer’s roof, and time and effort, are removed from the equation. There are no home qualification visits, enrollment fees, sign up costs, green power premiums or maintenance fees. What that means is that finally, a roofless solar program is available to Illinois customers, as well as a renewable energy offer free of Retail Electric gimmicks.

Once one of our solar farms completes construction and is placed in service, energy is generated and polluted power from fossil fuels is replaced with 100% renewable power and the state is able to move towards their renewable energy goals of 25% renewable energy source by 2025. In return, customers receive solar bill credits directly on their utility bill, reducing their charges. A customer pays Clearway for those solar credits, at a guaranteed 20% discount on the value of those credits. So, in short, you help contribute to the state’s clean energy goals and pay 20% less than the credits you receive.

 

ERCG: What customer classes are eligible for Community Solar and what is the average savings someone can expect?
 

KP: While Clearway’s Community Solar program is designed to offer universal solar access to businesses, schools, hospitals and more, our mass market program focuses on small businesses and homes within rate classes defined by the Illinois Power Authority (IPA).  Specifically, our guaranteed savings program is available to customers on the default utility supply rate within the Residential or Commercial Demand rate classes.  For those customers on an ARES rate, our analysis actually found that switching back to the default utility supply rate has historically shown to be financially beneficial. When you couple that default supply rate with Clearway’s Community Solar offer, even greater savings are achieved. This is because Clearway guarantees 20% off the cost of the solar bill credits generated, based on the utility default supply rate. The consumer benefits are illustrated through the following analysis:

 

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The transcript is available in the ABC Leadership Interview Series section.