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Lessons in energy transformation

UNC Kenan-Flagler Business School - MBA Energy ClubWhen most people think of the high-tech innovations coming out of San Francisco, energy companies are not typically the first things that come to mind – but innovations coming out of companies in the Bay Area are changing the way we use power.

Members of the UNC Kenan-Flagler Energy Club had a chance to meet with some of the companies at the forefront of the energy transformation happening in the U.S. The companies that we visited spoke to us about how they were working to change two things.

How we produce energy  
Electricity has been produced and distributed in essentially the same way for more than 135 years. Companies like Sungevity, Sunpower, First Solar and Bloom Energy are changing this.

How we use electricity  
Most consumers use the power they need and pay their utility bill at the end of each month without much thought. Opower is working to change the behavior of the average utility customer.

Collectively, these companies are re-engineering the entire electric value chain. Rooftop solar continues to expand rapidly in the U.S. Nearly a million homes and businesses have installed solar. With the extension of the Investment Tax Credit (ITC), state renewable portfolio standards and the cost curve continuing to decrease for solar panels, the market is as competitive as ever. Because of this, differentiation in the marketplace has become more important.

Sungevity, for example, highlighted the importance of creating a superior customer experience. From the time a customer decides to go solar and throughout the next 20 years, Sungevity aims to make installing solar as simple as possible for the customer. They are a one-stop shop for the design, financing, permitting, installation and maintenance of their customer’s solar system. The company believes that making the process as customer-friendly as possible is key to increasing their footprint in the market.

Opower is doing their work behind the screens to change the way people look at electricity usage. Opower works with over 95 utilities companies and are perhaps best known for using behavioral science to encourage consumers to use less power.

For example, Opower will tell a consumer that they are using 20 percent more electricity than a neighbor. The company has found that it is a natural response for most consumers to want to improve this standing. When they do, Opower rewards them by putting something as simple as a smiley face on a bill. These may seem like small things, but when done collectively the results can be enormous. Opower clients have saved 9.5 billion kWh – the equivalent of taking nearly the entire Triangle metropolitan region of N.C. off the grid for an entire year.

With the price of solar power dropping 70 percent since 2009, clean energy is more accessible than ever before. With continued improvements in technology lowering this cost even more and the innovation we saw firsthand in the Bay Area, there is reason to be more optimistic than ever about the future of clean energy.

By Tony Rediger (MBA ’17)