Impact Investing Fellow Marissa Silapaswan interviewed Vikram Aggarwal of EnergySage about his professional journey, his favorite entrepreneurs, and his experience in our Social Business Accelerator.
What is your background? How did you end up at EnergySage?
I spent about 15 years at a very large financial services company in town – Fidelity Investments. Right after getting my MBA, I started there and had a number of different roles in the company. But I had always wanted to start a business and I was looking for a business that met certain criteria for me. So over the years, I kept a log of a number of ideas that came to me. I would evaluate them and see if they met my criteria.
My high level criteria were something that I’m passionate about, something that is scalable, and something that would make a difference. I would keep a list of ideas that would come to me during different interactions. In my last few years at Fidelity I was investing in the construction place. We end up investing in and creating one of the industries’ largest building material supply business. I would talk to building contractors and, see where they would need help. A lot of them were interested in building more green homes, and powering those homes using clean and highly efficient energy.
We need organizations like yours to help create the awareness and help bring the right resources to businesses like EnergySage so we can be successful.
Solar energy has been something that I’ve always been passionate about. I spent two to three years researching, even considered investing in a couple businesses. From 2006 to 2008, when I was looking at solar, it was not ready for primetime. It was delivering value to the consumer, but it was delivering value in the sense that it was the “right” thing to do. It wasn’t providing financial incentive yet for homeowners and business owners. That started changing at the end of 2007 when the federal investment tax credit was extended to residential solar and solar panel prices started declining. So I realized this would be a great time for me to start a business in the solar space, and we could get to primetime financially in a few years. This was a lightbulb moment. Solar was now an excellent financial product. Even though the return on investment was not that high, it was higher than the other financial products available to other homeowners.
Volatility free, tax free, and guaranteed for decades. As more residential and business owners understood the financial rationale behind this, they would get behind this.
What were some of your milestones in launching and running the business?
I came up with EnergySage idea in 2009, and launched website in 2010. It was focused on educating homeowners and business owners on clean, highly efficient energy systems. We would tell them about the options and what the technical feasibilities were behind these technologies, and also about the financial feasibility (costs and returns). We believed that in educating consumers about technologies and their financial returns that more consumers would adopt them. That was my website in 2010 and I would work with home and business owners in evaluating these technologies.
Over the next few months, I noticed a lot of consumers gravitating towards solar panel systems (solar pv, solar energy systems, solar portable takes). People were very interested in solar energy systems, and would ask me for help getting and comparing different quotes because different contractors were using different metrics and the number of options was also increasing. So I would build financial spreadsheets for them and give them presentations on how to evaluate their options. This was a trigger for us to pivot and focus on solar, and basically build a reverse option marketplace that would make it easier for consumers to comparison shop for solar.
I’m a student of business. I’ve seen how marketplace solutions have transformed every other industry, so I thought, why not solar? That’s what prompted us to build a marketplace solution for the solar industry. That’s what EnergySage is today. It’s where consumers can make informed decisions on what equipment to buy, who to hire to do the installation, and how to finance it.
What’s your biggest recent success?
What we are seeing is that we are right in the middle of a perfect storm. Every day we are realizing that we are validating our value proposition. The solar industry is growing very rapidly because electricity generated from solar is now cheaper than electricity generated from fossil fuels, and it allows consumers to reduce their energy bills dramatically, while also becoming more sustainable. These trends are actually becoming better everyday; solar is becoming cheaper and cheaper.
As solar energy is becoming more accessible to homeowners, more homeowners are looking to install solar. Solar is just like buying a car in terms of having similar options. Similar to cars, consumers are now very interested in shopping for solar. EnergySage is the only platform in the country that allows consumers to comparison shop for solar. We are right in the middle of this virtuous cycle – prices, consumers, more people shopping, prices falling even more. The industry is becoming more efficient, and if we keep succeeding, the industry will succeed even more. We feel good that we are adding value to everybody. We’re helping consumers shop with confidence. We’re actually helping solar companies who are selling solar reduce their costs. As solar is growing, it is driving economic growth in each of these markets. This year, residential solar will be an over ten billion dollar industry, and it’s creating a lot of high quality local jobs.
We’re proud to be part of this growing industry and to be actually adding value to the American economy.
What is your vision for long-term change?
We started by looking at eight different technologies, and we decided to focus on one because we’re small. Our long term goal is to become the marketplace for all things energy, and to help transform all aspects of the energy system. Air conditioning, heating systems – we can help you find the right technology that is sustainable and help you reduce your cost so that people actually buy it. Our goal is to be the destination site for energy systems comparisons shopping – we will help educate and inform you, basically offering you the business case for why you should be installing these highly efficient energy systems and in doing so, build a more sustainable future in renewable energy.
So what are your next steps?
For a company like us, it is always a question of resources. The resources come in a number different phases. At the very basic level it’s money that allows us to hire the right resources and staff up the company. Building a business takes a lot of time and requires a lot of resources. The resources are also mentors and advisors. We are operating in a complex business world, and we need to make sure we are moving in the right direction.
We also need the general support from our citizens. Renewable energy is a disruptive technology changing the way we produce and consume energy globally, and we are taking business away from established energy companies that are focused on fossil fuels. These people are very wealthy, giant companies, and they are protecting their turf with every bit of power they have. We can only succeed if the industry succeeds, and the industry doesn’t have that kind of wealth that the fossil fuels have. The only way we can succeed is through channeling resources of citizens and grassroots organizations who have awareness, and can pressure government and legislation to help enable this. We need elected officials to know this and see the benefit.
What drew you to the Social Innovation Forum?
What drew me to SIF was your focus on social impact. We need organizations like yours to help create the awareness and help bring the right resources to businesses like EnergySage so we can be successful. We need all these, and, without your help, companies like ours might not succeed. This fits into our argument that we need resources, and they’re coming in the right place, and the right impact investors. You are giving us a platform to create awareness about the issue we care about.
Who is your favorite entrepreneur?
I love business so I find hundreds of ideas and have met so many entrepreneurs. Every company in our cohort is my inspiration. I love what ClearGov is doing, very close to my heart. PlenOptika also speaks to me because I got eyeglasses early on, but lost a couple years of education because of not wearing them soon enough – it really is such a huge aspect of other people's lives. Every single one of these companies that I’m looking at, I am in awe. My cohort is what I really admire. For every success, there are 99 people who fail. Success is really luck of the draw often times. What each of these companies is doing is very admirable, and if I wasn’t doing what I was doing I might want to work with them.