Mountains

The Tupperware model of selling solar

ARIZONA AND THE NATION

It is puzzling, perhaps, that solar power accounts for less than 1 percent of the electricity generated in the United States. The cost of solar panels continues to drop, and canny utilities have begun to welcome the new power source as a way to stave off building astronomically expensive new power plants. Yet most homeowners resist going solar, uneasily weighing the big hit of buying and installing a solar array against the immediate lower monthly costs for electricity.

To push people over that hump of uncertainty and inaction, solar coaches from nonprofits and utilities are rolling out the Tupperware model in Arizona communities, where they’re meeting with surprising success. The coffee-klatch path was blazed decades ago when the Tupperware company asked enthusiastic customers to host home parties. And “just as Tupperware failed to fly off store shelves without a sales person showing customers how to work the airtight seal,” reports The New York Times, “solar panels often require demonstration and explanation to make the sale.” People making referrals also earn money — $400 from companies like SolarCity; $250 from SolarParty.Org. Pebble Creek, Ariz., a gated community of 6,000 homes, now boasts that 10 percent of its residents have gone solar, with more jumping on board all the time. It’s all about getting referrals from people you trust, learning exactly how efficient solar energy can be from somebody you know, and perhaps even some old-fashioned one-upmanship.

“People brag that ‘I have the biggest solar system in the community,’ “ says Pebble Creek resident Dru Bacon. “They don’t say, ‘I have the lowest electric bill.’ “

CALIFORNIA

San Diego Gas & Electric is succeeding with a different approach to reducing energy use, one you might characterize as “fun and games,” reports Rachel Cernansky on Grist.org. Partnering with Boulder, Colo.-based Simple Energy, the California utility encourages people to cut their energy consumption by showing them, on their computer monitors, exactly what it costs each time they run the dishwasher or turn on an air conditioner. They also see how much they save when appliances get turned off. Residents can compete with themselves or set up contests with their neighbors, trying to score points for prizes by using less energy. “Gamification” works, says Simple Energy founder Yoav Lurie, as more people pay attention to their energy use minute by minute, day by day. He adds that because many utilities have to comply with state-mandated efficiency goals anyway, it’s in their best interest to figure out how to decrease demand by asking customers to join in the effort.

WYOMING

There was disappointment in store this spring for the 18-year-old Newcastle, Wyo., high school student who built a nuclear fusion reactor in his garage — really — but was then prevented, by a technicality, from competing in an International Science and Engineering Fair. Conrad Farnsworth had simply entered too many science fairs, says the Salt Lake Tribune, and done so in the wrong order, and the then-director of the Wyoming State Science Fair spilled the beans and got him disqualified. Apparently, no one else at the young inventor’s high school knew the fine points of entering the international contest, a goal Farnsworth said he’d been working toward for four years. Farnsworth is the first person in the state to build a fusion reactor and “one of only 15 high school students in the world to successfully achieve fusion.” He accomplished his feat by assembling an array of parts he ordered online, traded for or built himself.

Betsy Marston is the editor of Writers on the Range, the op ed syndicate of High Country News (hcn.org). Tips of Western oddities are always appreciated at betsym@hcn.org.

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