How Solstice’s Steph Speirs Is Making Solar Power Accessible and Affordable
The Transparent Collective alum on reimagining solar and empowering low-income communities.
By Jessen O’Brien
Here’s a piece of good news: We may have reached a turning point in the fight against climate change.
“They say the next decade is going to be the decade of clean energy,” says Steph Speirs, the co-founder and CEO of community solar company Solstice and a Transparent Collective alum. “There’s a sense of urgency that has only been precipitated by the pandemic exposing how unequal our society is. I [also] think people are seeing the extreme effects of natural disasters and realizing that we have to get off of fossil fuels urgently.”
Speirs’ company strives to make solar accessible to all Americans. Even as renewable energy becomes more common, low- and moderate-income people are at-risk of being left behind because of the traditionally high, upfront costs of benefitting from renewable sources of energy like solar, which in the past have required recipients to pay tens of thousands of dollars to install panels on a roof they own, not rent.
“For decades, clean energy has been a premium, luxury product. It doesn’t have to be that way anymore,” Speirs says. “My cofounder and I started Solstice to try to create a world in which people can access solar power even if they don’t have the right rooftop or the right income, and where everyone can enjoy the financial benefits of clean power.”
We talked with Speirs to learn more about her experience with the Transparent Collective, the benefits of community solar, and how Solstice has helped its users save $300,000 annually while generating the carbon emissions equivalent of taking 8,000 cars off the road.
Tell us about Solstice. What inspired you to help form the company?
The people who need energy savings the most are low- to moderate-income Americans and Black and indigenous people of color. These are the same folks who are most excluded from the clean energy revolution. In order to solve climate change, we have to democratize access to clean energy to include under-resourced populations.
I came from one of those kinds of populations. My mom was a single mom, an immigrant who raised three kids alone working multiple minimum wage jobs. I saw her struggle to pay bills my whole life. Finally, there’s a new type of solar out there that can get people savings on their electricity bills with no upfront costs — and they get to support local, clean energy so it’s actually an affordable and accessible product.
How does community solar work?
[With] community solar, you don’t have to put solar on your rooftop; you can buy a share at a neighborhood solar farm instead. The electricity doesn’t flow directly into your home — you’re not directly plugged into the solar farm — but the electricity travels through the grid and as a subscriber you get a portion of the overall solar farm’s power as a credit on your monthly utility bill. You actually get a 10% discount on your utility bill, guaranteed.
So there’s no upfront costs, you’re not putting anything on your home, you’re supporting a local clean energy farm, and you’re getting a guaranteed discount. It’s one of the more affordable and accessible types of clean energy.
What impact has Solstice had to-date?
We’ve generated demand for more than 120 megawatts of solar projects in multiple states across the country and have personally educated 127,000 households about this new solar product. The carbon emissions equivalent of the number of people that we’ve signed up for solar is about 37 million pounds of coal not being burned — or about 8,000 cars being taken off the road.
We’re saving current users about $300,000 on their electricity bill every year. We’ve also donated about $200,000 to local community organizations — grassroots nonprofits and such — who get the word out for us.
What else sets Solstice apart?
We are the only for-profit company in community solar that’s spent many years actively advocating for low-income inclusion. That’s pretty rare in our industry.
Some context: In order to get solar in this country, you either need to pay upfront to put solar on your roof — which will cost you $10,000 — $40,000 — or you need a FICO score of 680 or above. About half the country doesn’t have that FICO score.
FICO credit scores were invented in 1956 and do not measure a lot of data points that are really important to people, like their rental history, their cell phone payment history, or their utility payment history. So we invented our own qualification standard, called the Energy Score — an algorithm backed by machine learning. It’s more accurate at predicting who pays their utility bills on time compared to FICO credit scores and it’s more inclusive of low- to moderate-income Americans.
[In addition,] we are the only women- and women-of-color-led company that has software that’s managing these projects in the community solar industry. Every other company is male-led. That’s a differentiator in [terms of] the diversity of lived experiences we bring to clean energy, which is traditionally a very mono-chromatic and mono-gendered industry.
Lastly, I mentioned that we partner with local community organizations; clean energy really hasn’t been associated with strong community motivations to-date, so that’s another one of our differentiators. We’re creating a shared community around clean energy.
What drew you to work with the Transparent Collective?
Both my cofounder and I are women of color. We didn’t know many people who were running software companies that looked like us. The people we raised money from didn’t look like us either.
Transparent Collective was one of the first initiatives specifically for founders of color of tech companies that was trying to create a real community; we applied for that reason.
What was the experience like?
It was early on in their program; we had one convening which was really lovely. They brought in a bunch of resources and they made resources available to people, [including some] really great guest speakers.
I was struck at the novelty of what it was like to be in a room of CEOs who were all people of color. That doesn’t happen that often.
Why do you think it’s so important to a community for founders of color?
Despite it’s best intentions, I don’t think the tech world has gotten quite beyond tokenism.
Tokenism is about having a small number from underrepresented groups to give the appearance of equality within a workplace; true representation is really about being consistently included. As Nova Reid, the anti-racism activist, says, it’s [the difference between] being “aesthetically diverse” and “attitudinally diverse”; there are not that many safe spaces in tech that are attitudinally diverse.
It’s important to see people who look like you in leadership positions, in order to be able to visualize a more successful future for your startup, and also to tap into the wisdom of the community.
What advice would you give to other underrepresented founders?
The biggest lesson of my startup is that your company succeeds only when you have the right team in place.
There are often moments in which being an entrepreneur feels like an exercise in scarcity as opposed to abundance. You have limited resources. You don’t necessary don’t have the money to pay for the talent that you need. But we’ve learned that our people are out there. We just have to really look for them.
In tech and recruiting, there’s often this myth that there aren’t enough diverse candidates applying for open roles. In actuality, talent is universal, but opportunity is not. So if we’re not seeing people who look like us in leadership roles, it’s because there’s a network problem, not a pipeline problem.
The antidote is to build our networks and a kind of rainbow coalition of underrepresented or under-resourced founders of colors. That’s the only way that I’ve seen work to build power that counteracts the overall system, which is biased against folks of color.
What’s next for Solstice? Do you have any milestones you’re celebrating or anything in the works you’d like to share?
COVID-19 was very difficult for us in the beginning. But thanks to the ingenuity and resilience of the team, we’ve actually emerged from 2020 with our best year ever.
We shifted how we were reaching people to that go-to-market strategy of partnering with local community organizations; we’re raising a fundraising round to expand to additional states; [and] we’ve secured contracts with some of the largest energy companies in the world in the last year — and they’ve become repeat customers.
We’re really excited for this era in which people are starting to recognize how important it is to address climate change. So we’re very excited about this new level of growth, making a lot of hires, and hoping we don’t squander this moment in history.