One-stop solar shop

Treehouse is taking the hassle, intimidation and cost out of residential solar

Few people walk into a car dealership and ask to see all of the 2.0 liter engines or only the 200 horsepower cars. Those technical specs are important, but most people shop by model, price or features.

Yet homeowners that want to install solar panels often find themselves buried in a mound of technical details that are not only confusing, but intimidating. And expensive. Austin-based sustainable living retailer Treehouse is changing that and proving that energy innovation is sometimes less about technology and policy and more about thinking like customers.

"The solar industry has done a great job educating people about the benefits of solar energy," said Treehouse founder and president Jason Ballard. "But it's done a bad job of making solar easy to buy."

So Ballard and his team went to work finding out what was keeping people from buying solar (complexity and up-front cost) and eliminating these barriers.

"We started by talking like customers, not engineers. We made solar dead simple. And then we made it free," he said.

Treehouse

Photo credit: Treehouse

The first step was designing a solar product that "regular" people could understand without becoming solar experts. Instead of talking about kilowatts, panel efficiency and installation fees, Treehouse created products based on square footage of available roof space.

"We use the best panels, inverters and installation hardware on the market so customers don't have to think about that, and we wrap up all installation costs into a fixed fee," Ballard said.

Treehouse's solar options range from a small 210-square foot system (3.12 kW, for those that speak solar) all the way up to an extra-large 555-square foot system (8.32 kW). All size kits use the same top-of-the-line panels, inverters and installation hardware and come with a multi-year warranty.

The second step was tackling up-front costs, which can be insurmountable obstacles for even die-hard solar enthusiasts.

Ballard's answer: Zero-down, 2.99% financing from Utah-based EnerBank monthly payments lower than the energy savings the systems will generate and a payoff period of 7-12 years.

For example, Treehouse's large system has a monthly payment of $90 and generates an average of $100 of energy per month — whether it's used or returned to the power grid for sale to the utility. In winter months, when less energy is generated, savings might be a bit lower than monthly payments. But over the course of the year, the cost is less than zero.

Treehouse

Photo credit: Treehouse

"People buy large appliances and cars all the time with zero down and low interest loans," said Ballard. "But few if any of those purchases end up being free when you're done."

The affordability and simplicity of the system is already yielding new solar converts. Treehouse can determine whether your house is a good fit for solar, size a system to fit your roof, set up financing and schedule a site meeting for an installer – all in one visit.

"We're selling to people that had never even considered solar before," Ballard said. "One customer came in looking for eco-friendly cat litter and left with a solar system."

Innovation highlights

What: Sustainability retailer Treehouse has developed customer-friendly solar packages that take the hassle, intimidation and up-front costs out of going solar.

Where: Treehouse in Austin, TX

Why it matters: Buying solar can be a complicated process. And financing it often puts solar out of reach for consumers. Finding innovative ways to make the “solar decision” simpler and more affordable is a great example of retail-oriented energy innovation.

We started by talking like customers, not engineers. We made solar dead simple. And then we made it free.

Jason Ballard Treehouse founder and president

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