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Solar energy discounts expand worker perks in new program

Expanding the notion of corporate benefits beyond discounted health club memberships and low insurance rates, a group of major companies is set to offer employees access to cheaper solar systems for the home.

Under an arrangement announced Wednesday, employees of the companies — Cisco Systems, 3M, Kimberly-Clark and National Geographic — will be able to buy or lease solar systems for their homes at rates substantially lower than the national average, executives said. The program, offered through Geostellar, an online marketer of solar systems, will be available to more than 100,000 employees and will include options for their friends and families in the United States and parts of Canada.

Conceived at the World Wildlife Fund, the program, called the Solar Community Initiative, aims to use the bulk buying power of employees to allow for discounts on home systems.

The program’s expansion is a reflection of the shrinking gulf between camps that were once considered mutually exclusive: environmental advocacy organizations and mainstream corporate America.

“Our objective was to make this as simple and cheap as possible,” said Keya Chatterjee, senior director for renewable energy at the World Wildlife Fund. After receiving discounts through a group program for employees last year, officials at the environmental group approached a few of their corporate partners, she said.

The program is consistent with the group’s approach of working closely with corporations, often quietly trying to nudge them toward change from the inside, rather than pushing from the outside through more confrontational tactics.

That has sometimes earned them criticism from other groups of being too cozy with the very businesses responsible for pollution, but some are pursuing similar paths as climate advocates grapple with how best to engage powerful, moneyed interests in achieving their goals.

Increasingly, said Dan Reicher, executive director of the Steyer-Taylor Center for Energy Policy and Finance at Stanford University, groups are working with businesses to influence not only energy policy but also the markets, which dovetails with a growing corporate focus on clean technologies.

“In the old days there wasn’t a big alliance to build around solar energy because it was such an infinitesimal part of the energy picture and prices were so high,” Reicher said. “Now that it’s becoming a more mainstream, cost-competitive approach, it makes sense for environmental organizations to build alliances with the business community to get this technology to market.”

For Geostellar, which built a virtual marketplace from satellite imagery and big data, it offers a new route to attracting customers, which is still one of the more stubbornly high costs of operating a solar business.

Other solar companies have established corporate partnerships to funnel new customers to them. SolarCity, for instance, recently announced that it was renewing a deal with Honda that provides its systems to the automaker’s customers at a discount.

“It’s over 100,000 people who are all prequalified because they have good jobs,” said David Levine, chief of Geostellar. “They’re going to pass the credit.”

For the companies, the arrangement offers a way to attract and retain a workforce that is increasingly attuned to the environment and to the steps employers take to preserve it.

It is a natural extension of the sustainability efforts already underway, executives of the companies said, whether cutting carbon emissions by installing solar panels at their facilities, offering preferential parking and charging stations for electric vehicles, or introducing Meatless Mondays at the cafeteria.

“I get the emails: ‘Why aren’t we recycling this, or why don’t we have 45,000 more electric vehicle charging stations,’?” said Ali Ahmed, who manages energy and sustainability at Cisco. “So we had a really good feeling that our employees would engage and latch onto this kind of discount.”

That interest is already evident, the companies said. Three Cisco executives have already decided to install solar systems in their homes through Geostellar, Levine said. At 3M, employees lined up at a kiosk at lunchtime to learn more about the program, said Gayle Schuler, vice president of global sustainability at the company.

Pricing and savings will vary depending on factors like the pitch of a roof and the levels of sunlight.

But the average base cost of a system will be $3 a watt of the system’s capacity — roughly 17 percent lower than Geostellar’s regular price and almost 34 percent lower than the average cost in the United States last year of $4.53, according to the federal government.