For a handful of large U.S. companies and organizations, employee benefits are extending beyond the three-legged stool of health care, retirement and vacation to include clean energy delivered to employees' homes at little or no upfront cost.

This week, four major firms—3M Co., Cisco Systems Inc., Kimberly-Clark Corp. and the National Geographic Society—said they would provide uniform discounted pricing for rooftop solar photovoltaic (PV) systems for employees who chose to participate in what is being billed as "the first nationwide bulk solar purchase program."

Under the Solar Community Initiative administered by the World Wildlife Fund and executed by solar firm Geostellar, employees of the four firms can install rooftop solar PV at prices that average 35 percent below the national average for solar and nearly 50 percent less expensive than average grid-delivered electricity, according to WWF and Geostellar.

And through the end of the year, the program is open to all U.S. and Canadian homeowners, regardless of employer affiliation, a deal WWF and Geostellar hope will generate thousands of new residential solar owners. And even after the open enrollment period closes, other companies will also be allowed to join the bulk purchase program by simply registering with WWF.

For most companies participating, employees will have up to a year to decide to install a solar system, officials said, and the PV panels and other equipment can either be purchased or leased with a range of financing options.

Officials estimate that if 1 percent of eligible participants chose to power their homes with solar, it would avoid more than 74,500 metric tons of carbon emissions—the equivalent of taking more than 15,000 cars off the road.

A low, flat national rate
"This takes the bulk purchase model from individual neighborhoods and organizations to a national scale," Keya Chatterjee, senior director of renewable energy at WWF, said in a statement announcing the program. "A coast-to-coast, low, flat rate helps mitigate two major barriers of solar adoption—complexity and price—making it possible for more American families to save the planet without leaving their homes."

In a telephone interview, Chatterjee said the primary drivers behind the program are both economic and environmental. While solar panels reduce their users' electricity bills right away, solar adopters are also increasingly aware of how their energy investments are offsetting dirtier forms of electricity.

"People see that climate change is happening right now, and a lot of them are looking to do something" to help reduce or mitigate greenhouse gases that scientists have linked to the problem, she said.

"One thing that we've seen with solar is that when people see other people installing solar panels, they're much more likely to do it themselves," she added. "That's why we wanted to do this not in one particular sector, but across a variety of sectors. Enormous benefits to the planet are gained when you achieve that kind of scale."

Also, by pooling more than 100,000 potential solar adopters into a bulk purchase group, WWF was able to secure competitive pricing under a request for proposal process.

West Virginia-based Geostellar, whose business model is built on a Web portal that links customers to solar vendors around the country in what its founder calls the "virtualization of the supply chain," won the contract and will install systems for between $2.80 and $3.20 per watt, according to CEO David Levine.

Most customers will be able to install solar for between $10,000 and $20,000, depending on the size of the system and after accounting for federal and state tax credits, he added. Most of the systems Geostellar offers are financed over 20 years, he said, while the equipment comes with a standard 25-year warranty.

'Virtual infrastructure' becomes real
"The bottom line is we've been working on this kind of deal for years," Levine said in a telephone interview. "This is the first time we've had a group like WWF come to us with four large companies ready to offer solar to their employees. We were able to show how this entire virtual infrastructure could be mobilized to meet their needs."

Levine said he expects the program will generate an average of 1,000 new installations over the next year from the four companies currently participating in the program. Geographically, the installations will be scattered around the country, with some concentration around the firms' headquarters and U.S. regional offices and facilities.

3M, for example, is headquartered in St. Paul, Minn., but has 35,000 employees who work at facilities in 29 states, according to the company's website.

"We are partnering to take sustainability to a whole new level by making solar power more financially accessible for tens of thousands of our employees across the United States and Canada," Gayle Schueller, 3M's vice president of global sustainability, said in a statement.

"The initial employee feedback has been very positive," she added. "I'm proud that our efforts to be more environmentally sustainable are extending beyond 3M to the homes and lives of 3Mers."

Ali Ahmed, manager of Cisco Global Energy Management and Sustainability, said that "by extending the benefits of affordable solar energy that we have as a corporation to our employees and other stakeholders, we are multiplying our sustainability impact."

Cisco is headquartered in San Jose, Calif., but employs thousands of information technology workers in both the United States and Canada. Dallas-based Kimberly-Clark is one of the world's largest consumer products companies with operations in more than a dozen states, while the National Geographic Society is headquartered in Washington, D.C.

Reprinted from Climatewire with permission from Environment & Energy Publishing, LLC., 202-628-6500