It’s no secret that utilities are having a difficult time in California right now. With wildfires increasing in intensity each year, more utilities are having to shut down power to save their grids. It’s pushing even more people to consider solar and storage to create their own microgrids to keep emergency services online.
So it’s not especially surprising that the state’s investor-owned utilities have cried that age-old claim that solar customers are not paying enough for grid upkeep. The California Public Utilities Commission (CPUC) is now considering a monthly charge for solar customers, and solar advocates have joined against this attempt by the utilities to “undermine consumer choice.”
It leaves installers like Cosmic Solar in a precarious position. In this episode of the Contractor’s Corner podcast, Solar Power World editor-in-chief Kelly Pickerel talks with Cosmic co-owners Bahram and Judith Shadzi about how they are supporting the “Save California Solar” campaign while also diversifying into roofing and maintenance services to ensure the 13-year-old business stays afloat in the worst-case scenario.
A portion of the interview is below, but be sure to listen to the full podcast for even more insight, including how the Shadzis’ solar-powered home encouraged customer trust in the product and how customer education has evolved over the last decade.
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Judith: Bahram got a job offer down in San Diego, so we ended up down here. We saw solar information coming in the mail, and I said, ‘This is what you need to be doing. This is your line of work.’ I studied consumer economics, so I think that’s helped us on the consumer end with customer service. We started up 13 years ago, and at that time, there were 10 strong solar companies in San Diego already. We would go to the fairs down at the fairgrounds and there would be so many solar companies there. We live in a smaller town, so we decided it would be better to be a big fish in a small pond rather than a little fish in a big pond. I had just finished my teaching credentials, and people needed to learn more about solar, so we started having classes at the library. We’d advertise in the paper and we started getting like 30 people coming. That year got us started with our first solar jobs. Then we slowly started growing. We started out in our guest house office and now we have three warehouses and a big office with about 28 employees.
Bahram: We have so many customers waiting [for batteries]. We live in a fire zone, so the electric companies are shutting of power to protect their systems. So our customers are getting very concerned about this, and the battery has gained a lot of focus, but we’re having a hard time getting supplies. We have maybe 45 to 50 customers waiting right now for various types of batteries.
The permit process is becoming really cumbersome right now in California. It’s taking sometimes up to three to four months to get a permit. Sometimes we have all the materials and everything ready but we don’t have a permit. Sometimes we have the permit and don’t have the materials. There are a lot of challenges. A lot of that has to do with COVID. Many [permitting] people are working from home, so things have slowed down. Last year, we were able to pull a residential rooftop permit in one or two days, and a ground-mount in maybe a week. But now, residential rooftop is taking probably a month and the ground-mount systems are taking up to three to four months. We have a lot of customers waiting, but we just can’t do anything until we get the permits.
Bahram: When we finish with a customer, we have what we call the ‘closeout process,’ so we usually send one of our technical representatives with the data. We turn it on and go through this process with them. We also offer a warranty package that has all the information about their system — the single line drawings, the permits. We ask them if they’re happy with our service to refer us to their friends and neighbors and also review us. We just ask, and sometimes they do and sometimes they don’t. We don’t really push people. We just ask politely and we’re hoping they’ll do it. Most of our customers respond that they’re happy and are glad to do it. I would say 90% of our business is just word-of-mouth referrals.