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Q&A: PosiGen CEO Ben Healey talks simplifying solar to improve access and impact

Environment, Social Investment Practice

The Kresge Foundation Social Investment Practice has partnered with the Environment Program over the last several years to find ways to break capital barriers to bring more green, energy-efficient projects to underserved communities. Too often, projects like adding solar + storage to residential properties are marketed and designed only to serve wealthy communities while leaving other communities behind. One stream of work to address this has come through support for PosiGen, a for-profit solar company that has upended industry norms to target its products to areas where homeowners might have lower credit scores and less generational wealth. In 2020, Kresge made its first program-related investment via a convertible $5 million loan to PosiGen. The loan converted to equity in the subsequent years, and this summer, Kresge made a new commitment, providing a $820,000 program-related investment loan to help the company continue to expand and reach more customers with affordable solar products.

In this Q&A, Senior Communications Officer Krista Jahnke spoke with PosiGen’s newly appointed interim CEO Ben Healey to better understand this moment in the movement toward solar and how PosiGen is bringing improved access to communities.

What brought you to PosiGen four years ago, and how have you seen the company grow since then? 

Ben Healey, CEO PosiGen

I always say I joined this company with my head and heart. I was a lender from the Connecticut Green Bank and was attracted to PosiGen’s mission-based value proposition. We can actually solve important problems for homeowners, meaning solar plus energy efficiency, combining two complicated things and making it a seamless experience. We are doing that with an origination process at scale. We honor the customer through savings-based underwriting. We are able to transform the financing challenges associated with this market by breaking down credit and income barriers and providing access for all to this solution. We are resolutely focused on the homeowner and delivering clean energy to that household. PosiGen as a mobilizer or partner to a much broader population was certainly part of the appeal and remains a key component of my commitment to the company’s growth.

As a new CEO, what vision do you hope to implement for PosiGen?

We now have a set of circumstances where we have proven out core parts of the company’s thesis. The portfolio performs. We can serve this population, and they will pay because we deliver value right there. This is financeable. We have a regulatory environment that is aligned to support what we do. We have a broader market that is poised to embrace what we provide. This can now be “mainstream” – how you make clean energy accessible to everyone who owns a home or who lives in a community where we can serve! Our approach must take all the levers that are now aligned and build a platform that can expand across the country. We would welcome more folks to come into the category and serve the same folks we do. In fact, we need to build communities of practice in serving the communities where working families live.

What are the major sticking points for seeing solar reach more underserved communities?

The most important sticking point centers around the trust gap. This idea that folks don’t qualify or that it’s too good to be true when they see an offer must be addressed. These communities have been scammed more than once. And so that barrier is a really important one to overcome, which means we need to embed ourselves with demonstrable positive impact in community organizations, local governments or support campaigns.

Second, the fundamental infrastructure of not just solar but everything associated with the condition of the electrical grid and the overall housing stock are things that need to improve. PosiGen can’t solve that on our own. What is the holistic approach to neighborhood investments, where clean energy can be our contribution? And that can be a major unlock. I don’t have all the answers to that. But the Inflation Reduction Act (IRA) policy investments, combined with those of the bipartisan infrastructure jobs bill and the PosiGen-specific “trust factor,” those are major pieces.

As structured, what do you predict the IRA and the money that flows into communities will do for the solar market? What needs to happen to ensure communities with low wealth benefit from this capital flow? 

This stuff is not simple, even as designed from a regulatory perspective, even with all the technical assistance in the world. Not many companies are taking advantage yet, and it’s not just because there are multiple hard things. There are fundamental business problems that need to be solved. I look at what PosiGen has done and say, “Great, we have created the conditions and established the precedent such that those dollars can be effective.” But I look across the landscape and see far too few others like us.

Having said that, the combination of incentives with good regulation and strong local leadership can drive multiples of investment versus what we’ve seen in the past and create lasting wealth-building in those communities. This can’t just be a new extraction economy where we’ll put some infrastructure there and take it out. Rather, I think about the most important answer to this question… how do we bring entire neighborhoods along with us so that when we install solar, do energy-efficient upgrades, and hire locally, we truly support an entire community development strategy?

What would you change if you could wave a magic wand to change a policy that would allow more people to access solar? 

This is a bit of a heretical view, but much of the solar industry is focused on questions of “What’s the net metering policy look like?” or “How would you do community solar in a better way?” I think that’s the wrong approach to the infrastructure we currently have in place. We already have a socialized grid system, and then we try to desocialize it. We put clean energy on it, but then those benefits only flow to the folks who can “afford” it or have a qualifying roof or something else. The simple answer is to embrace the fact that we actually have socialized infrastructure built out for a reason. Take out all these acquisition costs, whether it’s a feed-in tariff or another approach. Connecticut’s “Buy all, sell all” is a thoughtful and well-executed model. That’s really just about putting more clean energy on the grid and then trying to localize it in communities of need, adding on battery storage or resiliency where we can, and we pay for that. Distribution infrastructure is socialized, and that’s okay because it makes sense for how the value should be distributed!

What’s one thing you’d like more people to know about PosiGen?

It’s incredibly important for our work NOT to be put in a subprime box. The communities we serve and the work that we do are often viewed as subprime through the lens of the mortgage crisis a decade ago. But what we do is about homeowners investing in their primary asset, taking the time and making an effort with us to make that a stronger asset, and creating more available income every single month that they’re a customer. This should be repositioned as a piece of critical infrastructure for the homeowner, increasing overall wealth and recurring income and, therefore, eminently financeable.