Is it finally time for solar?

By Heidi J. Ellsworth, RCS Partner.

Martin DeBono, president of GAF Energy, shares insights on the future of roofing and solar.

For most of my career in roofing, I have been the one who was excited about solar rooftops. But more often than not, I was a bit disappointed that the roofing industry did not out and out own the solar market and make every roof a power source. But it may have not been the right time for it even five years ago. The discussion of who owns the roof when it comes to solar has been debated by roofers, electricians and most of all the solar companies. But every roofing contractor I talk to knows that the roofing professional needs to own the whole roof, but how do we do it?

So, when I had the chance to interview the president of the newly formed GAF Energy, Martin DeBono, I have to say, I was really excited to hear what he had to say.  How was GAF going to make this change in the market?  I knew that GAF has had solar products for the last five years but how was the creation of GAF Energy with Martin DeBono at the helm going to change the market?

Starting out, I wanted to understand more about Martin DeBono.  I found out that he has been working and active in the solar market since 2013 with SunPower Corporation.  He brings a wealth of knowledge about the solar market and also shared that he has been working with one type of contractor or another for fifteen years.  A veteran of the Navy where he was a submarine officer, he has worked with resellers and contractors in several industries.  He believes that success is accomplished when you really understand how to work with partners in order to bring products to market.

In fact, that was one of the key motivations in the formation of GAF Energy.  Standard Industries who owns GAF and now GAF Energy company, saw a future where solar rooftop sales and installation is owned by the roofing contractor.  They knew they needed to take the steps to create a company that would focus on this mission, GAF Energy.  “These two companies are the confluence between roofing and solar,” stated DeBono.  “There is no doubt that in the future, all roofs will have the capability to produce energy.  GAF’s huge network of contractors opens up mass opportunity for roofing contractors to sell and install solar solutions.  The roofing industry is twenty times larger than today’s solar industry.  The opportunity to bring the GAF network and solar technology together is what drew me to GAF Energy.”

Sharing my past experiences of watching solar come and go in roofing, I asked how it might be different this time.  “The experience I had with SunPower of bringing products to market with the right channels is the key,” noted DeBono.  “If you want to sell solar you have to understand how roofing contractors operate.  Everyone who has worked on solar in the past focused on just the product.  We understand at GAF Energy that we need to focus on product and service.  Roofing contractors are great with roof installations but for the most part do not understand the solar elements, inverters, etc.  If the roofing company does not want to handle the electrical, GAF Energy will coordinate that with the contractor and the customer.  By having everyone do what they are good at GAF Energy provides the products and processes that work.  Customers get solar and lower electricity bills while the roofing contractors get to sell and install more roofs that include solar solutions.”

But really the big question that always needs to be answered is “What is in it for the roofing contractor?”  DeBono continued, “Homeowners want solar and the roofing contractors want to sell and install roofing.  We offer training for roofing contractors to not only install solar but sell it too.  That is really where we are focused, on the training.  We have training teams that work with the contractors to make them comfortable selling solar.  The best time to get solar on the roof is when you are reroofing but a large number of solar arrays are going on over existing roofs and often, they are installed incorrectly.  We believe that the solar array needs to be a part of the re-roofing sell, helping the contractor diversify their company, be more profitable and offer new skills and opportunities for their employees.”

“We also help the contractors with all the services around solar that have been confusing in the past including permitting and financing,” continued DeBono.  “We provide all the solar permitting in one package that can simply be dropped off with the local permit authority.  Once the contractor has the permit, GAF Energy trainers go with the roofing crew on the roof and train them on how to install the solar panels.  Then GAF Energy helps finish the installation by sending out an electrician to connect the array to the electrical panel.  No one in the past has taken the time to train the crews while explaining the benefits to ownership on how they can get more margin per roof.  We are finding that both the ownership and the crews are benefiting from this model.”

I also asked about the tax benefits.  It has always been a confusing aspect for both roofing contractors and homeowners.  “We are providing all the information on federal tax incentives and the training on how to actually get the tax credits,” noted DeBono.  “Many states have specific tax breaks for customers, GAF Energy works with the contractor so they can educate the homeowner.  In fact, we are also helping in the sales process with training for the roofing company’s sales team.  Our trainers go into the home with the salesperson and trains them through example.  The training includes how to talk about tax benefits, energy savings, lower electrical bills and how to make it an easy decision for the homeowner.  The trainers continue to work with roofing company’s sales team for however long it takes to close solar with the as part of the new roof installation.  We have developed sales kits to help contractors sell along with training in the classroom, at the home and in the office.  We are committed to offering the materials and training they need to make it happen to sell and install solar.”

And the most important question, how is it working so far and what are they seeing with solar adoption by the roofing contractors?  “Contractors are saying “Finally” and the adoption of the program by contractors is beyond what we expected,” confirmed DeBono.  “They love the services that enable them to sell and install solar without needing to be experts on solar design and connection.  They are seeing that they can rely on us for services or they can take it in house with their own estimators and electricians someday.  There does not need to be a conflict between solar and roofing because they can do both now.  It is right for the customer, the business and the environment.  It is just a good thing for them to do.”

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