How does subscription solar work? This Spanish company instals panels with no upfront investment – Euronews

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Want a ‘money printing machine’ on your roof? This Spanish company instals solar panels with no upfront investment.

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“I’m building something with purpose and I even get goosebumps when I share it with you,” says solar entrepreneur Wouter Draijer.

Born in New York and raised in Amsterdam, the 29-year-old is CEO and co-founder of SolarMente – a company aiming to change the way people consume and distribute energy in Spain.

Its subscription service allows homeowners and businesses to install solar panels with no upfront cost – a model that has attracted investment from Hollywood star Leonardo DiCaprio and US technology startup accelerator Y Combinator.

Euronews Green spoke to Wouter about his company’s mission to install “climate saving money printing machines” on roofs across Spain.

Spain’s solar revolution

Flying into Barcelona five years ago, Wouter was struck by one thing: the near absence of solar panels on the city’s roofs.

He soon discovered that Spain’s controversial ‘sun tax’ was to blame. From 2015 to 2018, it tightly regulated the self-consumption of energy in Spain and deterred homeowners from installing solar.

Homes fitted with solar panels paid a 7 per cent tax to remain connected to the national electricity grid. Panels also needed to be registered and homeowners had to report on their energy production and consumption.

Public opposition and legal challenges to the tax stressed the importance of solar in the green transition and reaching energy independence, and it was eventually abolished.

This was the start of Spain’s solar revolution, and SolarMente was at the forefront.

“We were the first registered solar company here in Spain,” says Wouter.

“Four years ago, there was a market penetration of 0.01 per cent – like no household had solar… There are 7 million empty roofs as we speak. And we’re addressing all of it.”

‘I felt something is going really wrong here’

Armed with a degree in technical engineering and renewable energies from the Netherlands, Wouter was well equipped to recognise and address Spain’s solar shortage.

“I come from a country where one out of three households have solar, and there’s no sun in the Netherlands – in Amsterdam, it’s always raining,” he tells Euronews Green.

“I entered Spain, a country where there’s a lot of sun and there’s just no solar energy installation. I felt something is going really wrong here.”

His mission was clear: “To accelerate the energy transition by making it very easy for every Spanish house owner to go for solar.”

How does subscription solar work?

SolarMente’s subscription and service model allows you to install solar panels with no initial investment. Instead, you rent the system for a monthly fee – €50 on average – and start reaping the cost-savings right away.

“It’s actually saving money from day one without initial investment,” says Wouter. “We found out that especially Spanish people, they don’t want to pay €10,000 or €5,000 upfront, they like to see a direct benefit.”

The systems work for around 20 to 25 years, with installation and maintenance included in the subscription fee.

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“It’s a ‘no BS, no small print’, simple agreement for people to benefit from solar from day one.”

Any surplus energy you generate can be used to offset your bill or sent to your second home, business or friends. This is thanks to the company’s AI-powered ‘virtual battery’ service, which balances supply and demand and can be lent on even when your physical battery becomes full.

On average, SolarMente customers see 90 per cent of their energy needs covered by their solar panels. Between April and September 2023, 95 of their clients enjoyed 100 per cent self-sufficiency, says Wouter.

The contract can be cancelled at any time. If you move house, your buyer can either take on your contract, purchase the system at a highly discounted rate, or you can move it to your new home with you.

SolarMente claims that its solar installations can increase the value of your home by 3.5 per cent.

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“When you sell your house, you want to sell at the best price,” says Wouter. “You do that better when you have a money printing machine installed on your roof.”

The company also facilitates the installation of solar powered EV chargers and home heating and cooling systems.

Overcoming Spain’s suspicion of solar

“Right now, Spain is at the beginning of a massive energy revolution,” says Wouter. “Everybody can install solar, the grid is very favourable, it’s already ready for hyper growth, as Spain eight years ago was a world leader in residential solar.”

There’s also €163 billion of grants available for the Spanish energy transition.

But years of restrictions have eroded people’s trust in the energy sector and renewables.

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Wouter and his business partner Victor Gardrinier decided they needed a recognisable name on board to rebuild this trust. So they reached out to one of the world’s most prominent climate activists and investors: Leonardo DiCaprio.

“We thought, ‘this is impossible’,” says Wouter. “Why on earth is he going to invest in Spain, into young first time founders, in a company that didn’t even do €20 million in revenue? But we thought let’s give it a try.”

To their disbelief, the response was positive and they were soon flying to LA to meet with the man himself and strike an investment deal.

“He knew so much about the industry… It was very inspiring for a young entrepreneur like me. I’m 29 years old and I’m sitting with the biggest climate activist, that is inspiring.”

That’s not the only dream deal the ambitious duo has landed. Two-and-a-half years ago, they were also one of the 100 in 100,000 applicants accepted by US technology startup accelerator Y Combinator, which has invested in the likes of Dropbox, Airbnb and Twitch.

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“My life completely changed,” says Wouter. “We gained access to the biggest network, the smartest people out there, and knowledgeable companies – just because we were extremely resilient and never took no for an answer.”

As of 2024, SolarMente is available in “every corner of Spain – including the islands”. Currently, 1 per cent of homes have solar panels, so there’s still a long way to go. For now, their focus will remain on Spain, with a view to possibly expanding into Italy and Portugal in the future.

“Every time I drive in the Costa Brava or I go anywhere in Spain, I recognise the SolarMente installations, and there are 1,000s of them,” says Wouter. “And I think ‘yes, this is the James Bond version of myself.’ This is the best that I can do.

“We’re building something that’s extremely powerful… That feels good. It’s satisfying.”

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