CleanFactor Energy out of the Bay Area is one of CivicSolar’s oldest customers. We sat down with their founder, Phil Mickelson, to discuss the state of CleanFactor's business model and the state of the solar industry. CleanFactor Energy's financial expertise and deep industry-wide partnerships allow them to thrive in a competitive market. Here's what Phil had to say:
“What makes CleanFactor unique is a couple of things. We’re a smaller, more nimble company. [Put differently], we’re like a really good wedding planner. We know different resources to call whether it’s installation, labor, engineering or procurement. Our strength is the analytics on the front and on the financial acumen to understand solar for what it is: a financial investment. It’s a different type of product than putting in a new kitchen where everybody oohs and ahhs. It’s a financial investment and that’s my background as a financial analyst. What makes us different is that we’re best of breed, but we’ve never gotten large where you start getting a company that’s unruly to manage and then your quality begins to suffer.”
“He was my favorite in the sense that he was very technical. He was a very successful business guy and ran a large, successful business that was based in Healdsburg. The family was well-known in the city so it was a great reference customer. We did commercial projects for them and we did family projects for them over time. And just overall they were great people. I would say it’s really hard to limit it to one favorite customer because there are so many great, fun people we’ve worked with. I’ll just reference that one because that favorite customer also happened to be our first.”
“Maybe I can just call it my first customer. I was modeling out the economics of a residential solar project. I went to a buddy of mine who lived in Healdsburg and he had a new house that was perfect for solar. We modeled it all out and I had my [construction partner] lined up but he ultimately didn’t pull the trigger. This inspired me to go to this massive, beautiful house next door and I didn’t have a company or anything but I knocked on the door and said, ‘We’re doing solar on your neighbor’s house, is this something you would be interested in?’ He responded and said, ‘Absolutely I’m interested in solar!’ Ultimately he became my first customer!”
“It’s the mentality of the company to be much more progressive in terms of not just being an order-taker, but rather be an expert in the products. Making product recommendations is absolutely critical for us. I’m a research analyst by trade so a lot of times I’m doing that sleuthing around. At the end of the day, when you get a business rolling, you suddenly have a lot less time to be a research analyst because you’re fighting the fires of running your business with scheduling, deployments, projects, and sales. All of a sudden I can’t dedicate the time to product research for [solar panels, inverters, and racking]. That’s where CivicSolar came into place.”
"They also had an in-house resource that was critical to our success in Stuart Fox. He would work to promote CivicSolar and give us a lot of advice while we were bidding large commercial projects. At the sales level, there were people that were really well-versed in the products that we were using and suggest alternatives. That’s where CivicSolar’s expertise sets them apart from a lot of the other distributors that are out there in the market.”
“Financing is just like any other product we bring to the table. Whether it’s solar panels, inverters, or racking, [it’s the same] with finance solutions. I have a matrix of all the major lenders that we are partnering with so that I can give them up-to-date information (much like when I was a Financial Analyst). What’s your lowest APR? If you want a short-term 10-year solar loan, here are your best options. If you want a long-term PACE loan, here are the current rates of providers. Just like [explaining equipment], I try to bring that as a service. Once you hand that over to them, they can take that information and go to another installer and I don’t make any money. But that’s what builds credibility with customers: being a fully transparent provider.”
“That’s a great question for us. So it’s interesting I remember when we first started doing solar I was trying to find little niches of opportunities. We were always trying to identify rebate programs that may be abnormally high that made solar advantageous. The first area that we started working was Healdsburg. The city of Healdsburg at the time had a really generous rebate program. That’s where we started knocking on doors. People are more interested in a product when there’s some special incentive waiting out there and they want to get it before other people do. So the mandate for housing and solar is a really great program. There’s a lot of negative sentiment because [it doesn’t seem democratic]. Overall, it’s a good thing and it should be done. It’s where our government needs to in order to be a leader in this direction. As far as our company, I can see this becoming a game of big housing developers partnering with the biggest solar companies. I’m not sure how a smaller company like ours would be able to fit into that kind of model. If we were put into that situation I’m sure we could put together a great solution them."
We are proud to have served CleanFactor Energy and Phil Mickelson for almost 10 years. CleanFactor Energy is a great example of how the long tail of solar installers know their respective markets best.