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Impact 0045: Creating a positive change with solar energy

Bolong Chew · 27 July 2021
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Bolong Chew, 29, is the founder of Solar AI Technologies. Founded in May 2020, the software startup aims to connect property owners with energy companies by providing building intelligence for rooftop solar projects. 

The current team of 10 work together to scale the distribution of solar energy by improving the way rooftop solar is sold.

Bolong took time out of his busy schedule to find out more about Solar AI Technologies, his interest in climate change, global development and poverty alleviation, and why he chose to focus on solar energy to enact positive change.

Why the interest in climate change and solar energy?

I saw that my main mission was to help alleviate global developmental problems or income inequality as those are the two concepts I really care about. In the past couple of years, I started to look at the numbers on climate change and CO2 concentrations. I realised it was the people at the bottom of the pyramid who are most adversely affected by it. 

They don’t have the ability to be mobile or move from where they’re living if they are adversely affected by climate change. 

I started doing Solar AI Technologies not because I’m super interested in solar, but because solar is one of the most effective ways to reduce the negative impacts of climate change. I fundamentally believe that if I want to make a difference or a dent in climate change, there are many opportunities through Solar AI Technologies.

That’s interesting, so is it right to say solar energy is the vehicle you use to drive change?

Before I started National Service, I started volunteering with Breadline Group. That’s when I heard about “effective altruism”. Effective altruism believes the way every individual can maximise their impact is different. 

So, for instance, if you’re really good at trading, you could dedicate most of your time to your trading career, take that money you get, and donate it to high-impact charities. Potentially, you could end up creating more impact than, say, quitting your job and volunteering at a non-profit.

So for me, I use effective altruism as a concept as a way to frame my thoughts on how I can create the most impact. Hence, solar.

From a climate change point of view, we’re trying to reduce the reliance on fossil fuels by driving the deployment of solar. And when we reduce carbon emissions, one business at a time, we can try to control or negate the effects of climate change. That’s the hope.

What is the main barrier you’ve faced when adopting solar energy commercially or industrially in Singapore?

Many people I’ve spoken to say profits and social impacts are at odds.

The cost of installing technologies for solar energy has reduced a lot in the last ten years. It has dropped like 90 per cent, essentially. But the majority of the solar installation projects are done through financing arrangements like power purchase agreements. 

What this means is that an energy company will go to a property owner and say, “You know, you’ve got a big rooftop, and it’s not being monetised at all. Let me install solar panels on your rooftop. You don’t have to pay me any money. I’ll cover all the upfront capital expenditure. In return, I’ll give you a discount on the electricity which is generated, compared to whatever you’re paying your current electricity retailer.”

Generally, this is a 20 to 30 per cent discount. And this is the model which is driving most of the commercial and industrial solar installations at this point. The reason why it works is that it is a model that aligns both parties’ interests financially.

But then the challenge is that these power purchase agreements can only be feasible or viable from a profitability standpoint for these energy companies on large-scale rooftops, where a thousand solar panels and above are installed at a time.

So how is Solar AI Technologies a game-changer?

Traditionally, when people in this industry are looking for new clients, they’ll drive around industrial estates and do door-to-door sales or go on Google Maps’ satellite view and scroll around by looking for big rooftops. 

Sales in the solar industry have a really low conversion rate as they are large projects and major decisions for companies to take on. The sale cycle is between 12 to 24 months. You can imagine that the sales approaches are efficient. So now, many solar retailers rely on referrals or respond to tenders.

At Solar AI, we use data analytics and software to automate and streamline processes to identify suitable rooftops for solar installations. We want to bring this minimum viable project size down. That will allow us to deploy solar on a lot more commercial rooftops in the region.

For residential homes, what are some misconceptions about installing solar panels?

Primarily, solar energy is still a new thing and there is a general lack of awareness. Not many people have friends or colleagues who have installed solar panels into their homes, making it more difficult for people to be convinced to get solar panels. 

A lot of people are used to the concept of solar water heaters. But I’ll get questions like, if I use solar energy in the night, there’s no more sun. Then what happens? Because most people don’t know that solar is actually connected to a grid.

For property owners we speak to, they’ll have to pay upfront costs if they want to install solar panels. For a landed house, it’s at about $20,000, and the breakeven is about six to eight years. They’re worried about panels breaking down before the breakeven, the maintenance costs, and if solar can deliver the energy levels they’re expecting.

That’s why a lot of my business is geared towards helping people understand the benefits of solar. It’s not just good for the environment but also can save them money.

Could you give a quick rundown of how far Solar AI Technologies has come and how effective you’ve been?

Close to a thousand individuals have searched their addresses on our solar assessment tool; this is a blend of residential and commercial addresses. About 90 per cent are from the residential segment, and we started closing our first solar installations through this tool digitally. 

And we have more than ten solar companies we work with to do these installations. We’ve got about $450,000 from ENGIE, a French energy company, in terms of seed funding.

Thoughts on being a young entrepreneur and how you deal with stress?

This is my first startup, so a lot of things are still new to me. I want to continue to do new things and grow. In the next five years, my hope is for Solar AI Technologies to be a sustainable business financially so that we’re able to scale up the impact and increase solar deployment in the region.

With entrepreneurship, it’s always a roller coaster. There are moments where I feel really good, but there are days that I wake up and think, “Ah crap, should I really be doing this with my life?” But if I feel really stressed out, I go for a long run in a park. And on my worst days, I reflect on what is the reason why I’m doing this.

Ultimately, I do have confidence that what we’re working on is adding value to the industry and is aligned with the impact of what I want to create. So that’s what keeps me going.

If you could give your one-year-ago self advice, what would you say?

I would say be more revenue-focused at the start; I think that’s something that I’ve learnt over time. Also, to start being a creator and experiment with making new things. To take the leap of faith and not be held back because of insecurities. It’s always about taking the first step.

If you want to be philosophical about it, all of us are just specks in the universe. What’s the worst-case scenario? I die, right? And even if I die, it’s not going to be such a big thing [in the grand scheme of things].

So when I think from that perspective, I’m like, “Ya, I should make the most out of life while I’m living.”

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