Commentary

Solar Panel Benefit Program Is A Win, Win, Win, Win, Win Collaboration

It would appear that everybody wins in a novel employee benefit program initiated by the World Wildlife Fund that helps consumers underwrite the cost of installing a solar electric system in their homes.

If you’re a worker at one of the participating companies (or a friend of one), it’s dollars in your pocket and a sense of doing the right thing. If you’re an employer, you generate goodwill and PR. If you’re Geostellar, an online marketer of solar systems, you sell more product. If you’re the World Wildlife Fund, you’ve demonstrated again how to collaborate with business to reduce the impact of human needs on the natural environment. And if you’re the climate, you get a break from all that carbon dioxide spewing into the atmosphere.

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“The initiative, facilitated by WWF and managed by Geostellar, presents a new approach to purchasing, financing and installing solar panels at a uniform discounted price to anyone in the U.S.,” according to a release yesterday about the expansion of the Solar Savings Community Program, as it is called. 

“Developed in concert with 3M, Cisco, Kimberly-Clark and the National Geographic Society, the initiative gives employees of these companies, their friends, families, and communities across the country access to solar power for their homes at a flat rate that is on average 35% lower than the national average and roughly 50% less expensive than the average electric utility rates.”

More than 100,000 employees at the companies are eligible for the discounts. If 1% were to participate in the offer, it would be the equivalent of taking 15,000 cars off the road, according to the announcement.

The Geostellar website offers to help “your office, church, school, town, club... or any other group!” organize its own Solar Savings Community. The city of Cleveland, Johnson & Johnson and Democrats.com also participate in the program, which offers cash rewards to sponsoring organizations for each member that goes solar.

“The program’s expansion is a reflection of the shrinking gulf between camps that were once considered mutually exclusive: environmental advocacy organizations and mainstream corporate America,” writes Diane Cardwell in the New York Times.

“Our objective was to make this as simple and cheap as possible,” according to Keya Chatterjee, senior director for renewable energy at the World Wildlife Fund. She said officials at the environmental group approached a few of their corporate partners after receiving discounts through a group program for employees last year, Cardwell reports.

Geostellar, which won the contract through competitive bidding, will run the online solar platform and manage the financing, design, permitting and installation processes. Approved contractors in the purchaser’s community will perform installations.

“Renewable energy is an interest to employees, we know, and we want to to increase our engagement with employees around sustainability in general,” Keith Miller, 3M strategic adviser on global sustainability, tells the Minneapolis Star Tribune’s David Shaffer.

As Cardwell points out, some environmentalists have criticized the WWF in the past for being overly cozy with business interests. For its part, the WFF maintains that its private-sector partnerships “not only provide conservation benefits that help us to achieve our goals, but also give us the opportunity to increase business commitments to sustainable development and environmentally sound business practices.”

As opposed to unsound practices, to be sure. The WWF’s “Living Planet Report 2014,” released earlier this month found, in fact, that “examples of habitat destruction by businesses are plentiful,” Tansy Hoskins observed in the Guardian. “From oil companies devastating rainforests and oceans to mining companies dumping toxic waste.”

The WWF’s Living Planet Index (LPI) has registered a 52% decline in wildlife between 1970 and 2010 as a result of this and other factors, such as overhunting. 

A recent McKinsey & Company article by Marco Albani and Kimberly Henderson points out that “companies are increasingly expected to join with other organizations — both public and private — to address social and environmental problems” but that “such collaborations often go through phases—good, bad, and sometimes ugly, particularly in the early days.” 

Albani and Henderson offer seven ways to make such alliances successful, starting with identifying clear reasons to collaborate. In the case of Solar Savings Community Program, the only clear reasons not to collaborate would seem to be an ardent fondness for oil, natural gas, coal or woodburning stoves.

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