Using Microsoft Dynamics GP To Bring Solar Energy to Low Income Families – The Inspiring Story of RReal

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"Solar assistance is not a hand out, but a hand up. It is a cost effective, fiscally responsible solution that empowers low income families." -Jason Edens, Director, RReal
"Solar assistance is not a hand out, but a hand up. It is a cost effective, fiscally responsible solution that empowers low income families." -Jason Edens, Director, RReal

How many great companies start with a group of dedicated individuals with a vision working out of a garage? Some of the most successful companies in America started out that way.

In the case of RReal, Jason Edens goes as far as to say that it started with “a group of wingnuts volunteers in an unheated garage in Northern Minnesota.” Their vision was to deliver solar energy to low income families as a lasting, clean domestic solution to low income fuel poverty. Today, Jason and his RReal team run 3 companies (including a manufacturing facility), are changing federal policy on fuel assistance and are expanding to provide solar energy to hospitals in rural Africa.

Microsoft Dynamics GP is helping them do this.

When I interviewed Jason Edens, Director of RReal, at Convergence 2015, I was already impressed with his story.  As a graduate student in northern Minnesota he was cold and broke. He didn’t have enough money to buy the propane to heat his small home. When he heard about a family that was throwing away a solar system he literally went dumpster diving and installed it at his own home. He was warm and saving money.

Then something amazing happened.

The idea was born to bring affordable solar energy to other low income families in need. RREAL was founded in 2000 and supported by a group of dedicated volunteers who operated from Jason’s garage for five years. RREAL remained an all volunteer organization until 2005 when funding allowed them to focus their efforts full time.

No Margin, No Mission

Although their non-profit organization was helping people, there was a problem: “When you serve low income families, there is no money in it. We can’t accomplish what we are doing unless we are able to generate revenue. After all, no margin, no mission. Because we are so dedicated to advancing this solution, we had to create other revenue streams.” said Jason.

Solar Manufacturing, Distribution and Installation

RReal got a patent on their solar heating technology, and realized it was more cost efficient to manufacture it themselves.

According to Jason, “We are an anomaly in the non-profit community because we are a manufacturer.  We are even more outlier because we are a non-profit manufacturer that is manufacturing something that we developed. We now manufacture and distribute our products across the country to end users and to solar design build companies.”

The second revenue producing business installs solar energy systems for home and business owners, utilities and municipalities.

Both of these businesses generate revenue that RReal is able to put back into their low income program.

This is where Microsoft Dynamics GP enters the story.

Now RReal needed a financial system that could not only handle their non profit requirements, but manufacturing and distribution for multiple companies.

“As our business model crystallized, we realized that Quickbooks was not enough; it was not equipped to manage the complexity within our non-profit organization much less the manufacturing process, inventory and payroll needs. And to have several separate companies within that system didn’t work,” said Jason.

Quickbooks also could not provide proper costing. The Board of Directors requested that RReal get a system that would allow them better control over their costs and margins, which would mean more money for low income families.

One of RReal’s solar design build clients was Syvantis Technologies, a Microsoft Dynamics partner in Minnesota.

Syvantis introduced RReal to the Microsoft Dynamics products and they initially deployed Microsoft Dynamics GP on premise. Since then the company has moved to Dynamics GP on Azure connected to Microsoft Dynamics CRM Online, Power BI and Office 365. They even use a Microsoft SharePoint site to share reports with their Board of Directors.

RReal is able to truly take advantage of everything that Dynamics GP offers – Non Profit functionality, Manufacturing modules, Distribution features, Payroll, Management Reporter and of course core financials. All of this is done within the main system, no add on or third party products are used. This keeps the overall cost low.

“RReal is a small company with complex needs. Microsoft Dynamics GP Online allows them to have full access to enterprise tools at a small business price,” commented their Dynamics Partner (and Board of Directors member) Janelle Riley, President at Syvantis Technologies.

Microsoft Dynamics saves the company time and money.

Before RReal installed Microsoft Dynamics it used to take between 2-3 days to set up a solar assistance project, now it takes just 1 day.  This is due to a better flow of information within the organization, an easy transition between teams and reliable inventory control.

Another key benefit is the ability to work remotely. This allows RReal the flexibility to attract the best and brightest talent, regardless of their location.

“Dynamics GP on Azure, Dynamics CRM online and Office 365 are all connected and function as one business solution. This helps us get the information we need for our complex organization in real time, which ultimately translates into our being able to serve more low income families, advance more innovative solutions with clean energy and ensure that we continue to success,” said Jason.

And their partner Syvantis has played a key role. “They have been so supportive, by our side the entire time during the learning curve. We are solar geeks, not IT geeks; the team at Syvantis has gone to great lengths to hold our hand through the process and make sure that it is properly executed and fully adopted. The Microsoft products, with the help of our partner Syvantis, allow us to focus on what we do best.”

What is Fuel Poverty?

40 million Americans are impacted by low income fuel poverty, which means a family has to choose between home heating and other basic necessities. In some cases the choice is between “heating or eating”. But according to Jason, it is an issue that is barely on social radar.

The team at RReal is changing that.

What about the Federal Energy Assistance Program?

Very few people are aware of it, but the Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program (LIHEAP) is a federal program that pays portions of low income families’ heating bills - targeting those who are truly vulnerable: the disabled, elderly, and families with preschool-age children. However, far more apply for assistance than can be helped.

And there are other issues: according to Jason, “This program is an important safety net, but every year they spend $5 billion coast to coast putting a band aid on a wound that needs a tourniquet. They are just hemorrhaging public resources.  Energy assistance is at best a temporary solution. Families depend on it year after year but it does not solve their problems.

We are advocating for solar assistance, not energy assistance but solar assistance.

Solar assistance is not a hand out, but a hand up. It is a cost effective, fiscally responsible solution that empowers low income families.”

In 2000 RReal had a novel yet powerful idea to use solar energy to address low income fuel poverty in the United States. As a result of their efforts the national dialogue is changing.

Jason predicts, “I am confident that within the next 5-10 years the energy assistance program will start to use solar energy as part of its regular program. So I think a bunch of low income wingnuts in Northern MN are actually going to change this federal program.”

How can you help?

Are you moved by their vision?

RREAL is a 501(c) (3) nonprofit organization that relies on the generous donations of individuals and foundations dedicated to the ideas of environmental and social justice. Please consider making a tax-deductible contribution so they can continue their important work of making renewable energy accessible to people of all income levels!

https://www.rreal.org/donate/

By Anya Ciecierski, ERP Software Blog Editor, www.erpsoftwareblog.com

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