More homeowners are opting for solar financing deals that put panels on the roof for nearly no money down. They don’t own them, but get guaranteed lower bills for 20 years. (Photo: Ingrid Lobet)
The cost of solar panels has dropped significantly. Thanks to that and to new financing the rooftop solar business is going gangbusters. Ingrid Lobet has the story.
GELLERMAN: Recent reports of solar companies going bankrupt and stories about alleged federal loan scandals have cast long shadows on the entire solar industry. But the sun is far from setting on photovoltaics. In fact, in 2010 - solar panels that could generate 17 gigawatts of energy - that's equal to about 17 nuclear power plants - were sold worldwide.
And this year, the US industry expects to double its production, and companies are growing fast to meet the demand for roof top panels. Living On Earth's Ingrid Lobet reports.
[SOUNDS OF SOMEONE SETTING A LADDER, A HAMMER DRILL, MOVING COPPER PIPE]
LOBET: As the sun begins its ascent on a recent morning, a crew of six prepares to install solar panels on a gently sloping roof in LA's San Fernando Valley. Their company, Verengo Solar Plus, has crews out on nine other roofs this morning. But CEO Randy Bishop says he has enough business for two more.
BISHOP: We're extremely busy. We've hired 350 people so far this year and we're hiring for 55 different positions right now. Installers, electricians, guys that are up on the roofs, call center positions, underwriting positions, marketing positions, sales positions...
LOBET: There aren't many companies in the United States who hired 350 people this year. The reasons solar is different are simple: three years ago Congress passed and President Bush signed a change that allows homeowners to get back 30 percent of the cost of a solar system from the government. And then, the moment solar supporters had waited 30 years for:
BISHOP: Solar panel prices have gone - in the last three years - from four dollars and 20 cents a watt, down to a dollar and 20 cents a watt, roughly. So it is a huge difference. It used to be more than half of the system cost when we would install one, and it is now down to less than a quarter.
LOBET: That puts people in the rooftop business in an enviable position. Their cost of merchandise is down 70 percent. - that's pure profit. And then there was a third breakthrough: in San Francisco, another company, SunRun, figured out it could buy solar systems, put them on homeowners’ roofs, and sell them back the electricity. Lynn Jurich is cofounder and president.
JURICH: SunRun will actually buy the panels for you. So we're really just becoming another utility provider. So now you don't have to pay $20,000 dollars out of pocket, and then wait to get that tax credit at the end. You’re really able to get the system for $0, to a couple thousand dollars up front.
LOBET: Sunrun owns the panels and the power. The homeowner pays them every month, but less than what they were paying their old power company.
JURICH: A typical customer would be a family with a few children, they’re paying somewhere around $180 dollars a month for their electric bill. So, now once they switch over with SunRun, the bill now is about $170 to $175 dollars. But the real benefit is that these are 20 year contracts, so you get to lock that price in.
LOBET: SunRun tripled its size last year, and has expanded to 9 states, including New Jersey, Massachusetts, Pennsylvania, Maryland, Colorado, Arizona and Hawaii. Millions of people live in places where solar now pencils out. And Jurich says it’s power that can be brought online quickly.
JURICH: If the United States is going to make a decision today to say: let's build a new nuclear plant or a coal plant, it actually takes ten to 15 years to get those up and running. At which point, solar power is going to be more affordable, and it can actually be commissioned much sooner, and built in just a year time frame.
LOBET: And SunRun is by no means the only company that offers to finance and maintain solar systems for homeowners. Another major player is SolarCity, whose green vans and radio ads are becoming ubiquitous in some cities.
[RADIO AD: MUSIC BEHIND "It’s remarkable, you save energy, you save money, you help change the world. Visit our savings calculator at SolarCity dot com or call 877-988-SOLAR ....."]
LOBET: In a vote of confidence for the business model and the company, this summer, Google put 280 million dollars into SolarCity's installations. Of course, solar still doesn't make sense for everyone. In parts of the country where electrical rates are low - like much of the Midwest - or in places with mild temperatures, it’s still not worth it. Roberta Gamble is an energy expert at Frost and Sullivan.
GAMBLE: Well, they don't work for me, for example, because I don't have air conditioning. I live by the coast, and don't really have any hot summers, so don’t spend a lot of electricity during summer months. So, I wouldn’t save any money.
LOBET: But Gamble says the growth in solar has been impressive, and she expects it to continue, in large part because of this 'solar service' model.
GAMBLE: If you can do that, and actually pay less per month, I think it's a great solution.
[SOUND OF CONSTRUCTION/WORKERS: "A little bit more to your right…" PIPE CLANGING]
LOBET: For electricians, as for so many construction workers, the Great Recession meant work simply dried up in 2008-2009.
GRISWOLD: My name is Mark Griswold, and I am an electrical foreman for Verengo Solar. I actually owned my own business for over twenty years, and because of the economy, my phone quit ringing. I had to get a job.
LOBET: The solar ramp up has made him hopeful.
GRISWOLD: I think it is the way to go. I personally think it should have been done a long time ago, but as long as the economy is the way it is, it's the place to be, and I feel blessed to be in the business.
LOBET: After decades of hopes and predictions that the solar moment was just around the next corner, the moment has finally arrived. Economics may still shift. Congress could repeal tax credits, or the price of solar silicon could shoot back up. But there's no denying residential solar has reached a long awaited milestone: it's affordable. For Living On Earth, I'm Ingrid Lobet.
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