Making An Impact With The Power Of The Sun: How Solar AI Co-Founder Bolong Chew Intends To Help Singapore Users Enjoy Solar Energy With No Upfront Cost

While in university, Bolong Chew conducted a reductive thought experiment.

“I was like: ‘Okay, let’s say I can have a happy family, pleasure, impact, fame, et cetera,” he recounts. “Is there one thing that I could have such that if I could not have anything else, I would still say I’ve had a life well lived?’

And for me, that really boiled down to impact.”

He didn’t know it then, but his path to making an impact would come in the form of helming Solar AI Technologies—a startup on a mission to “make it as simple as possible for property owners to get solar”.

Read Also: 7 Ways Singaporeans Can Go Green And Save Money (And Be Part Of Singapore Green Plan 2030)

Solar AI helps landed property owners install rooftop solar panels in two main ways. Users can make an outright purchase of a solar panel, where Solar AI helps with installation and the obtaining of a solar panel loan from its partner bank OCBC.

Alternatively, through Solar AI’s pioneer Rent-To-Own model, users can have solar panels installed at no upfront cost. Depending on their chosen pricing tier, they pay only a monthly rental fee of $185 or $240 that goes towards the startup’s maintenance of the panels on their behalf. At the end of the contract, users can keep the solar panels as their own without paying any further monthly fees.

And with the generated solar energy offsetting the electricity they draw from the main power grid, users stand to enjoy electricity bill savings of as much as $200–$300 per month—an amount that possibly exceeds the monthly fee they pay Solar AI. Some users may even generate excess electricity they can sell back to the grid!

That said, there are many ways of making an impact. So how did the co-founder and CEO of Solar AI end up trying to tap the power of the sun?

A Heart For The People “At The Bottom Of The Pyramid”

Volunteering with social service agency Breadline Group before his national service stint opened Bolong’s eyes to the difficulties faced by Singapore’s needy.

Of the financial aid he distributed to his beneficiaries, most of it went towards paying off their subsidised flat rental and electricity bill. There was little left after that.

“That was the first time I realised that there were so many people like this,” Bolong says.

“This is something we will never normally realise growing up, because the government will keep them out of the streets […] even in a society as wealthy as Singapore, there were a lot of people who were not able to make ends meet.”

So even though his first job out of university saw him doing management consulting for Southeast Asian banks and insurance firms, the causes of poverty and equal opportunity never left Bolong’s mind. He began exploring roles in the startup scene with an eye to eventually running an organisation that made a positive impact.

As a Senior Associate at venture builder HYPE, Bolong worked with Carousell, Homage and other startups on their expansion plans in Asia. He was then recruited to join corporate venture builder ENGIE Factory as an Entrepreneur in Residence. His work involved validating problem statements for commercial viability, then bringing in founders to take the shortlisted ideas forward.

And while Bolong’s career was taking its course, he began to grow concerned with the issue of climate change.

“The environment is just something that isn’t talked about much, and people don’t really believe that [climate change] is a problem,” he says.

Such general nonchalance to climate change started to “scare [him] a lot”. After all, it was the people “at the bottom of the pyramid” who were hit hardest by the impacts of climate change.

From reviewing climate change research such as Project Drawdown, Bolong learnt that at least 100 possible solutions for addressing climate change had been identified. And one of the most effective climate solutions on that list?

Solar.

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Tapping Into His Strengths To Help Tackle Climate Change

The conventional method of burning fossil fuels to generate electricity is a major source of carbon emissions. In contrast, converting solar radiation into electricity is not only cost-efficient, but also has a much smaller carbon footprint.

Bolong is also part of the local Effective Altruism community, where members aim to use their innate abilities to contribute to positive change. So as he assessed his strengths, getting into the solar industry also seemed like a good fit.

Being a finance major in university, he didn’t have an engineering background. This ruled out working on developing carbon capture technology and other climate solutions that involved hard science and engineering.

Meanwhile, solar power technology was a mature technology proven to help reduce a user’s carbon footprint. It just suffered from a low adoption rate—and Bolong’s experience with business model innovation spurred him on to focus on solving this problem.

In his capacity as Entrepreneur in Residence, Bolong built the first website for Solar AI and brought in its first data scientists. At some point, the next step would have been to bring in a founder to run the fledgling startup.

But with the project feeling like his “baby” by then, Bolong got his team’s green light to run Solar AI himself. He terminated his contract with ENGIE Factory and signed his own founder contract to become Solar AI’s full-time co-founder and CEO from May 2020 onwards.

Discovering The Real Reason For Low Solar Adoption In Singapore

Being new to the solar industry, Bolong needed to get up to speed with it.

He reached out to solar teams within ENGIE Factory’s global network to explore the reason for low solar adoption in the region, as well as best practices that could be applied in Singapore. Connecting with LinkedIn users in the solar industry, Bolong also found people in this niche space generally “very willing” to share what they knew.

Armed with the belief that people weren’t adopting rooftop solar systems due to an expensive and complicated acquisition process, Solar AI started out by providing users with a streamlined service for obtaining solar panel quotes.

But as inquiries started coming in, Bolong realised that they had gotten it wrong.

It wasn’t that users couldn’t afford rooftop solar systems. For landed property owners, the approximately $20,000 upfront cost of installing solar panels was the same as the cost of “a small kitchen renovation”.

Rather, it was a “lack of trust and awareness” that was holding users back.

Some of them mistakenly believed that their home would run out of power at night. (It won’t, as the home will draw power from the main grid instead.) Meanwhile, other users expressed their concern over not knowing how to maintain the solar panels, and not knowing who they could approach for help if their solar panels malfunctioned.

It took Solar AI a year to come to this realisation, which is when it decided its business model needed a pivot. Drawing inspiration from the established rent-to-own rooftop solar model in the United States and Europe, the startup tested the concept in Singapore and found it to be financially viable.

Three months into the launch of its Rent-To-Own solar programme, Solar AI has onboarded 30 customers. It has also been able to convert inquiries into sales 2.5X more easily, which gave the team the confidence to say “we’re really solving the problem [that users are facing] here”.

Bolong acknowledges that the market for private solar systems in Singapore is rather small.

The abundance of sunlight in Singapore seems to make generating solar energy a no-brainer. But people who live in HDB flats—which is the majority of the Singapore population—cannot install solar panels on the roofs of their HDB blocks. (On the bright side, HDB is overseeing the effort to install solar panels on HDB roofs.)

With this limitation in mind, Solar AI has made its Rent-To-Own programme available to small and medium corporate property owners. The team of four full-timers also has its sights set on expanding into Malaysia and the Philippines within the next two to three years.

Read Also: 5 Ways Companies Can Go Green (And Be Part Of The Singapore Green Plan 2030)

“You Are The Reason I Went Ahead With Solar”

At this point, however, Bolong has found running a startup to be “like a rollercoaster ride”.

From receiving a generous management consultant salary, he took two 30% pay cuts to transition to a startup founder role. His workdays, which can be as long as 9 a.m. to midnight, can be extremely good on one day and terrible the next. The startup also faced initial financing hurdles as financial institutions were reluctant to finance and insure its solar projects.

But what more than makes up for all these obstacles is the satisfaction Bolong feels when he successfully helps a customer adopt solar energy.

“The customer comes back to tell us ‘Hey, this Rent-To-Own model that you did was the reason why I went ahead with solar. I’ve been sitting on it for a very long time, and I didn’t go ahead because I didn’t really trust the product.’”

When Bolong hears such feedback, he knows he has helped the customer move away from “brown” (i.e. more environmentally unfriendly) sources of energy. But apart from that, he has also gotten validation that his team is solving a real market problem.

In other words, they are making an impact—which is what Bolong desires to do most in life.

“If I hypothetically played out all the scenarios [of how my life could turn out], I could be 60 years old […] and I’m completely poor, alone and on my deathbed,” he muses.

“But if I have been able to impact the lives of people, at that moment I’ll be like, ‘Okay, this was still a life worth living.’”

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