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SolarCity hires former Obama strategist to ignite a grass-roots movement for solar energy

Could this become the new normal for rooftops in the United States? (Jörg Carstensen/Agence France-Presse via Getty Images)
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SolarCity has brought on Jon Carson, a former campaign strategist for President Obama, to lead its grass-roots effort to put solar panels on every roof in the United States. The idea is to use the tactics of a grass-roots political campaign to influence consumers’ energy decisions.

“What I see in SolarCity is you can explain in one sentence how you can help a family switch to solar power over their current dirty energy. It’s a tangible thing that people can be a part of in their community,” Carson said in an interview Tuesday. “It’s building a network of people, a community of people, neighborhood by neighborhood.”

Carson will be the senior director of SolarCity’s ambassadors program. Customers receive a $250 credit when they refer a friend to sign up for SolarCity. Earlier this month, the company re-launched its app so that solar energy users can better connect with one another and promote the benefits of solar energy to friends.

“I think you find people online and then you really take it to the next level when they’re part of that team, whether it’s in Bethesda or Capitol Hill or Chevy Chase, D.C., that’s driving this forward,” Carson said. “That in my experience is what really energizes and motivates people.”

Although Carson, who is just starting his new role, wasn’t ready to offer a lot of detail about what he’d like to add to the program, he did sketch out a couple of interesting scenarios. What if a soccer team tried to get a dozen families to switch to solar energy and used that referral money to pay for new uniforms? Or neighborhoods could compete with one another to see who adopted solar energy quicker?

Rather than rely on traditional advertising such as TV commercials, SolarCity is betting on the close ties that can drive the decision-making of small groups to add up to a significant boost in solar adoption nationwide.

The company’s customer base has steadily grown — recently surpassing 168,000 — as solar energy becomes more affordable and Americans grow more eco-friendly.

In October, word broke that Carson would no longer be the executive director of Organizing for Action, a nonprofit advocacy organization that pushes Obama’s policy agenda.