Solar power is the newest employee benefit.

In the first program of its kind, 3M Co. is one of three large U.S. companies that are offering assistance to employees who want solar panels at their homes.

The program, called the Solar Community Initiative, promises discounts of 30 to 35 percent on solar-panel projects, start-to-finish help on planning and installation and, ultimately, a reduction in a homeowner's carbon footprint and electricity bill.

"Renewable energy is an interest to employees, we know, and we want to to increase our engagement with employees around sustainability in general," said Keith Miller, 3M strategic adviser on global sustainability who helped develop the new benefit for the company's more than 35,000 North American employees.

Maplewood-based 3M quietly introduced the program to employees in Minnesota last week, and it will be formally announced on Wednesday at a solar power conference in Las Vegas.

Two other companies are offering the benefit: Cisco, the San Jose, Calif.-based computer networking company, and Kimberly-Clark, the maker of personal care products based in Irving, Texas. All together, the three companies have about 100,000 employees eligible for the program.

At 3M and the other companies, human resources intranet sites will supply employees a solar discount code and link them to the program's administrator, Geostellar, an Internet-based solar services company founded in 2010 in Martinsburg, W.Va.

Relying on Geostellar's Web-based tools, employees type in a street address for an initial assessment of their home's solar potential. This pioneering tool uses 3-D landscape imagery to calculate sun and shade on 70 million homes. Geostellar also offers other solar-development services, including automating some of the design, permitting and logistics.

Geostellar CEO David Levine said a key part of the employee benefit program is lowering solar's cost through bulk purchase of solar panels and special pricing with installers.

"With bulk purchase, we have gotten the cost of equipment way down," Levine said in an interview. "We have gotten the cost of installation way down. It is like Amazon, the price you get online should be substantially below the quote you would get from a local installer."

A boost to solar services

After a homeowner decides to build a solar project, Geostellar also will handle applications for utility solar rebates, help with financing and arrange the final design and installation. "We handle the whole thing from end to end," Levine said.

Levine said Geostellar makes a small fee on each solar transaction. 3M and other participating companies don't pay Geostellar to run the program. Miller of 3M said the corporation's costs consist of the time commitment by employees like him and modest expense for the intranet portal and benefit information.

Geostellar has received two U.S. Energy Department grants, totaling $1.25 million, to work on ways to bring down the cost of solar energy. To set up the employee solar program, the nonprofit World Wildlife Fund worked with 3M and other employers to solicit and review proposals from solar-services companies like Geostellar, Miller said.

Now that Geostellar has set up the program, Levine hopes other large companies will decide to offer it to employees. He said the start-up company is poised to add call-center capacity as interest grows.

Levine said he had projected that about 1 percent of the three companies' employees would take advantage of the program, resulting in about 1,000 new solar installations across North America.

At an employee event last week at 3M, 326 people signed up for a preview. Not all of them are likely to sign contracts for solar projects. Even so, the initial interest "was way more than we expected," he said.

"I think it is going to be very popular," Levine added.

David Shaffer • 612-673-7090 Twitter: @ShafferStrib