Collaboration Powerhouse

Lessons From The Largest Grassroots Solar Event in History

A solar thermal house near Minneapolis uses the sun’s energy to heat water. There were nearly five thousand homes like this one on the ASES National Solar Tour. Photo: Innovative Power Systems

through this coordinated effort we’re demonstrating that solar power is already in use and making a difference from coast-to-coast.”

When Charlie Garlow opened his solar-powered home to a hundred strangers he knew he was in good company. His home was one of about 5,000 across the U.S. on the ASES National Solar Tour, the largest grassroots solar event in the world.

The ASES National Solar Tour, which offers open-house tours of homes and buildings across the U.S., highlights how neighbors are using solar energy and other sustainable technologies to reduce monthly utility bills and carbon emissions. Some 140,000 guests participated in 49 states last year, and the Tour is expected to reach all 50 states this year.

“People have been touting the promise of solar energy for years,” said Garlow, “but through this coordinated effort we’re demonstrating that solar power is already in use and making a difference from coast-to-coast.”

And it’s not just the use of renewable energy that’s noteworthy – it’s also the effective use of collaboration that helps power this event. Collaboration Powerhouse An early ad for the ASES National Solar Tour highlights the events initial focus on homes off the electrical grid. With 99% of today’s solar installations on buildings tied to the electrical grid, the Tour has since broadened its focus to a variety of renewable energy and energy efficient technologies. Photo: American Solar Energy Society.

Coordinated nationally by the non-profit American Solar Energy Society (ASES), the National Solar Tour consists of more than 200 local and regional tours throughout the U.S. These tours are run by passionate solar supporters, almost all volunteers, who work together to help share real-world insight about renewable energy and energy efficiency.

“The Tour is truly a grassroots, viral event,” said Richard Burns, who manages the Tour for the American Solar Energy Society. “The Tour could not happen if it included just a few random individuals opening up their homes.

The roots of the ASES National Solar Tour can be traced to a collaborative effort that started years ago. In the 1970s the Real Goods organization in Hopland, California sold some of the first solar panels in the world. Their goal was to help families in Northern California live more independently, off the electrical grid. By 1994 the Real Goods organization started inviting its customers to share their experiences with neighbors in the first ‘National Tour of Independent Homes’. Homeowners from 40 states got involved to demonstrate how they were powering their homes with the latest technology.

There is strength in numbers. Organizations that work together ultimately create a stronger force to achieve their common goals.”

As the event grew, Real Goods turned to the American Solar Energy Society to help reach a wider audience. ASES, which also produced the National Solar Conference and SOLAR TODAY magazine, was well-positioned to grow the event through its national network of solar professionals and grassroots advocates. More than a decade later, the event continues to grow.

“People want to get involved,” added Burns. “Collaboration is about painting a common vision and finding how to best tap into talents for a satisfying and rewarding experience.” Of course, passion for that vision certainly doesn’t hurt.

Consider the experience of Kiril and Sarah Lozanova. When the young Chicago-area couple was about to get married they pondered how to create a sustainably-minded lifestyle together.

“As we curled up to create our wedding gift registry, we talked about the kind of life we wished to lead,” recalled Sarah Lozanova, a renewable energy specialist at Solar Service Inc. in Illinois. “We thought about the clean, healthy world we value, and concluded that the only thing we really wanted was a solar system,” she said. So for their wedding, instead of registering for dishes and silverware like many couples do, they invited guests to contribute to their ‘solar gift registry’ to help fund the 1.7-kilowatt photovoltaic solar system they wanted. They set up a blog to educate their wedding guests about this solar system and importance of living a sustainable lifestyle.

After reading of the couple’s plans, the majority of their 75 wedding guests happily contributed to their solar fund. A state rebate and federal tax credit covered about 50% of the cost of the $12,300 system, and what started as a creative idea soon turned into reality. Not only did Sarah and Kiril raise enough funds to install their solar system, but they also included their home as part of the Tour in 2008.

“We were proud to be part of the National Solar Tour,” said Sarah. “We had nearly 100 curious visitors stop by our home, which gave us a chance to share our passion for solar energy.”

Sarah and Kiril are not alone in their passion, but with thousands of other homeowners on the Tour, coordinating such a large event is not without its challenges. Collaboration Powerhouse Richard Burns recalled some of the approaches that worked well, noting that, “we conduct monthly organizer calls with local Tour leaders from across the nation, not only to share good ideas, but to reinforce our vision to create the largest grassroots solar event in history. The amazing diversity from these regional tours – from metropolitan areas to rural ones – highlights the differing needs from across the group. The key is to weave that common thread that connects us all, to help everyone stay focused on why we’re all working together.”

Without that common thread it’s easy to lose perspective and slip into tunnel-vision thinking. People often view other organizations exclusively through a competitive lens. This narrow approach can put otherwise good organizations at a competitive disadvantage, precluding the possibility of working with partners. In today’s economy, strategic collaboration is critically important and needs to be part of the organizational toolkit.

The ASES National Solar Tour provides a good illustration of the exponential success that can come from coordinating efforts to achieve a worthwhile vision. This event could hardly exist without collaboration – and it’s helping to change how a nation thinks about its energy choices, one person at a time.

“Just like farmers, these Tour hosts are laying solar seeds all throughout America,” said Burns. “Some sprout quickly. Some grow slower. But what each of these individuals is doing is laying the groundwork for a sustainable energy economy and lifestyle. Once they catch this vision, they see how their actions have a tremendous impact.” And that’s an approach that can energize a nation.

Neal Lurie is Director of Marketing & Communications for the American Solar Energy Society, a non-profit organization that’s been leading the renewable energy revolution for more than fifty years. Learn more about ASES or the National Solar Tour: