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Solar company, online retailer form unusual partnership

F. BRIAN FERGUSON | Gazette-Mail file photo
A home in Charleston’s South Hills neighborhood sports solar panels.

The residential solar installation market in West Virginia could soon get a helping hand from an unusual source: Etsy, the startup that allows its members to sell handmade goods around the world.

Late last month, Geostellar, a Martinsburg-based solar marketing business, announced a partnership with Etsy. Geostellar will get access to Etsy’s substantial membership base to help market solar panels for those people’s homes and businesses. In return, Etsy will be able to offset its carbon footprint by collecting the renewable energy credits from the solar panels that are installed as part of that business deal.

The partnership between the two innovative companies could mark a new step for residential solar marketplaces in the United States and offer an alternative incentive to people who have been considering solar power.

In other states, lawmakers have set up solar marketplaces that allow electric utilities to buy people’s solar credits to meet state standards, which require those utilities to obtain an increasing percentage of their power from renewable energy sources.

In West Virginia, no such renewable energy standard exists. That means West Virginians who want to put solar panels on their home and want to sell their energy credits have to use marketplaces in neighboring states, like Pennsylvania. But in recent years, the price residential solar users receive for those credits in Pennsylvania’s marketplace have declined.

David Levine, the founder and CEO of Geostellar, believes that is where his company’s partnership with Etsy can come into play. When an Etsy member decides to install solar panels on his or her roof or yard, he or she will get a substantial discount on the installation from Geostellar.

That discount will be based on what the Environmental Protection Agency has determined is the social price of carbon pollution. For the average customer, Levine said that discount could mean up to $3,500 off the solar installation cost, a substantial amount for solar technology that continues to drop in price.

Etsy, which operates a substantial distribution system, is then able to claim those renewable energy credits and effectively offset the carbon emissions coming from its shipping network, which makes up 95 percent of the company’s carbon emissions.

Etsy’s interest in the partnership is driven by the company’s environmental consciousness and its hope of reducing the e-commerce industry’s environmental impact — what Levine called the “dirty little secret.” Levine said the hope is that Etsy’s carbon footprint will be completely offset by 2020.

West Virginia is one of only four states chosen to be part of the companies initial solar pilot program, along with California, Florida and Utah. So far, that pilot is showing success.

“It’s going great guns,” Levine said. “We see it being expanded to the entire Etsy ecosystem fairly quickly.”

While those four states were based on where the companies saw the most opportunity for solar growth, Levine said Geostellar’s presence in West Virginia also played into the Mountain State being one of the first states where the credits are offered.

Levine said Geostellar is currently offering the same rebate for solar installation to non-Etsy members in West Virginia for a short amount of time.

The deal could mean continued growth for Levine’s company, which finds qualified solar installers, helps purchase the panels and equipment in bulk and finances the solar installations, too. In the past two years, Levine said the privately held company has been growing dramatically. It’s been listed as the best funded technology startup in the state.

Scott Rotruck, a large private investor in Geostellar, said he believes the company’s business model and innovative thinking is setting itself up for longterm growth.

“I think the work with Etsy is a wonderful partnership,” said Rotruck, a member of the West Virginia Board of Education.

Rotruck, who used to be an investor in railroad, coal and oil and gas, said the only energy company is invested in currently is Geostellar.

“I just think Geostellar, right now, has a great business model,” he said.

As the relationship with Etsy grows, Levine envisions business partnerships with other technology companies that want to reduce their environmental impact opening up.

Levine has already been in contact with some of the largest e-commerce companies in the country, and he believes the success of the current pilot program could convince those companies to partner with Geostellar.

“We were talking to them before,” he said, “but now that Etsy made the plunge, we’re getting just a lot more interest.”

As residential solar continues to grow around the country, Levine is considering more innovative markets too, like travel companies offering frequent-flyer miles in return for solar credits to offset emissions.

Reach Andrew Brown at, 304-348-4814 or follow

@Andy_Ed_Brown on Twitter.

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