Member Interview: Potluck Energy
How one small business builds community by utilizing open space
Potluck Energy is a CABA member business and self-described “roof broker”. Curious about what that means? We interviewed Michele Lunati, founder of Potluck Energy, to get the scoop on the services Potluck Energy offers, their newly opened community solar project in Somerville, how Massachusetts energy policy has affected them, and how they build community as a small business.
Jamie Garuti: What exactly does Potluck Energy do?
Michele Lunati: We are essentially roof brokers: we work with property owners to assess the conditions and potential uses of their roof that can benefit the larger community. Then we help them achieve that vision, whether it’s setting up a community solar system on the roof, leasing the space out to a solar developer, planting a rooftop garden or hydroponic farm, or making the space usable for entertainment or events. We set up options to find the best developer or financier to carry out the project. Once the project is completed, we help the community gain access to it, for example, signing up community members to get their electricity from a new solar project.
Perhaps most importantly, we remove the headaches of roof maintenance for the property owners. Through our proprietary roof leak sensors, we can be alerted immediately if there are any issues on the roof, and prevent major leaks from happening. In addition, we inspect the roof regularly to identify any membrane problems through thermographic scans, and fix them upfront.
JG: I know you just launched your first big community solar project – congratulations! What was the development process like for the project?
ML: Since this was the first community solar project in the Greater Boston area, and the first one we have launched, it took a long time to set up. The system is located on a commercial building owned by Dave Lewis, Antonia Shelzi and Julian Lewis of Avid Management, which sponsored the project. Using this project to make the building a hub for the community was particularly exciting for the building manager. Sunbug Solar, a fellow CABA member business, built the solar system, and as you know, we also partnered with CABA on the project.
The biggest thing was figuring out maintenance issues – who would be responsible, who would pay for issues. We worked with the building manager on this, and once we figured out the maintenance problem and who was going to invest in the project, everything worked out very smoothly. We did end up going online a little behind schedule due to the lengthy permitting process, but being the first community solar project in the area, we expected this challenge.
The community was very enthusiastic about the project. We’ve seen an impressive number of applications for membership. There were a lot of members that we couldn’t add to the project because of the capacity for the system, so they are on a waitlist. As it stands, Avid Management uses the energy generated from their panels, in addition to seven families in Cambridge and Somerville.
JG: Did you find that most people in the community had heard of community solar?
The short answer is no, most people don’t know what community solar is, so there is definitely an education component to all of this. The term “community” for somebody that works in the real estate industry evokes something done just for the community, not necessarily the property owner. Indeed to property owners community solar projects may sound just a good fit for a nonprofit, or for a company not looking for a return on investment. In reality, depending on type and size of the roof, some of these projects may generate return on investment far higher than other applications. One way we’ve gotten around this is by positioning ourselves as purely roof brokers, rather than starting a conversation just from the solar energy aspect.
We are also trying to dispel the myth that the northeast isn’t suitable for solar investments. On the contrary, with the increase in solar efficiency and cost competitiveness over the last few years, much of the northeast is ripe for solar development and there is a lot of potential for growth in the solar industry here.
JG: How did you get property owners and community members interested in the project?
Ultimately, we’ve gotten community members interested in the project by offering 100% renewable energy with a 10% discount on their utility bill and the ability to cancel the membership every six months without any fee. Most other companies in the space either charge a large cancellation fee or have a premium on the electricity bill. The profit is primarily for the property owner (the investor in the system). For Potluck, the benefit is the stabilization of the market. The reason these projects are economically advantageous for property owners is that we significantly reduce the cost of maintaining the roof for them. The whole system ends up being way cheaper than traditional solar projects, once you have taken roof maintenance out of the equation.
The launch party also really helped spread awareness. We got to speak with a lot of supportive community members, and met property owners interested in working with us. We see this as the beginning of many other projects.
JG: Has Massachusetts energy policy affected your business at all?
ML: So far none of our property owners have had any particular issues with policies. Transitioning next year from SREC, the state’s current solar incentive plan, to the replacement program, SMART, might change the economics of some of the projects we’re looking at.
I think what will happen is that the value of each MWh will decrease. We haven’t looked deeply at the impacts of pricing yet, since it’s still under review, but we know that many of our property owners might request from us just monitoring and maintenance going-forward, instead of community solar.
JG: Given that reality, what’s next for Potluck Energy?
ML: We currently have a few projects in the works – community solar projects in Somerville, Cambridge and South Boston, and community rooftop garden projects in Somerville. The system design and financial details have been figured out, we’re just waiting on project permitting. As we approach the new regulatory window, some of our property owners might decide to change the type of projects, if the returns from the projects diminish significantly.
JG: Why is it important for businesses to engage with the community around them, and what advice do you have for businesses looking to be a deeper part of their community?
ML: Community members and organizers in Cambridge and Somerville have helped us out a lot. The connectivity already present in those communities, and their eagerness to get clean energy off the ground was key. For a business that relies on other organizations and ties in the communities like we do, what’s most important is getting feedback on what we are doing and improve from that. I think the best way to engage and leverage a community is to listen to the feedback from them. It’s one of the most effective ways to adapt your business to the challenges or to specific preferences that residents have.
For more information on Potluck Energy, visit their website.
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