In a time of increasing discussion around clean energy, Spotlight Solar shows every day that solar panels do not have to be the unattractive, seemingly out-of-place devices many often picture when they think of a solar panel. Instead, they can be artistic and complementary shade providers in both public and commercial spaces.
Chapel Hill’s Spotlight Solar, which has brought solar structures to over 200 locations nationally, boasts an artistic design that the traditional solar panel lacks. Craig Merrigan, Spotlight Solar’s Co-Founder and CEO, teamed up with Co-Founder Rob Surra in 2010 to join an industry that he found energizing given his background in marketing for Quaker, IBM and Lenovo.
But Merrigan was disappointed to find out the solar market had already been commoditized, essentially selling products entirely on price. He wanted to do something different than the many solar companies that had failed before. He wanted to market his specially designed solar structures to companies and institutions to showcase their support of clean energy and the environment to customers while, especially in the case of universities and other public areas, inspiring support for solar energy in the people who pass by.
“That is kind of left to the side and everything competes on the spreadsheet,” Merrigan said of the current solar market. “So we decided that there ought to be a way to make solar highly visible, highly engaging, and beautiful in order to capitalize on that affinity that people have for it. And the effect of that is essentially to increase adoption by making it a lot more visible.”
Solar energy costs have come down about 80 percent since 2010 and the solar industry has grown about 40 percent a year in the last decade, Merrigan said. Solar energy benefits the environment compared to burning fossil fuels and also saves money without involving a tremendously complex process, he said.
“The elegance of solar is a solar panel will sit there for 30 years-plus with no input other than free sunlight, not make any smoke, have almost no maintenance and you can put it where you need to use the power,” Merrigan said. “It’s an incredibly elegant solution, so that was compelling to me.”
Merrigan said Spotlight Solar’s products are artistic, but they are not art projects and do not take long to install. Some of the startup’s installations are located at NC State and Florida’s Kennedy Space Center.
“It’s designed to be public art-meets-clean energy machine,” Merrigan said. “We have this design theme we call ‘beautiful machine,’ so when you see it, we want you to know it’s productive. It has a purpose. It’s making clean energy. But it’s the best-looking clean energy thing I’ve seen, and we want it to be easy.”
Spotlight Solar currently has 12 investors, including Steve Monti with Triangle-based Solidarity Capital, which does social-impact investing. The startup has had two rounds of funding—a seed round of $250K and the current one at $665K out of an intended million raised. Merrigan said that after the seed round he and Surra went full-time and tripled their revenue.
RE100, an organization of 181 multinational companies that pledged to commit moving to 100% renewable energy, demonstrates the shift of corporations towards using the market power of environmental responsibility. For instance, Merrigan said Budweiser’s Super Bowl ad focused on its commitment to renewable energy—which can also be shown by Spotlight Solar’s aesthetically pleasing solar panels on a company’s premises.
“They’re spending many, many millions of dollars communicating that they’re using clean energy,” Merrigan said, “and rightly so because that earns preference among their consumers. The more there’s kind of that brand-benefit feedback loop, the more people are going to want to invest in large-scale solar energy. So we’re trying to create that virtuous cycle.”
While Spotlight Solar gains traction on its goal to make solar power attractively visible to millions of people, Merrigan also wants to foster the culture of the company as it grows.
“One of our themes is creating dignifying work, and that’s not just for the people who work at Spotlight Solar,” said Merrigan. “It’s for people who work alongside us, our re-sellers, our manufacturing partners, our clients. So whenever we introduce ourselves to people, we bring this up and we invite them to hold us accountable to that standard. It’s essentially about treating people the way you’d like to be treated and trying to bring benefit in every exchange.”
Increasing solar energy adoption remains Merrigan’s desired goal of Spotlight Solar’s presence in public places, universities and companies because of what he calls the “neighbor effect.” If someone’s neighbor uses solar, or another trustworthy entity like a university, they are more likely to buy solar themselves, Merrigan said.
“We’re trying to activate the neighbor effect by putting our product where millions and millions of people can see it,” Merrigan said. “We’ve made calculations that show that our product has been put where at least 25 million people a year will see it. This is how we intend to have a positive impact.”