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SolarCity CEO Says Solar Installation Biz Splitting into Big Guys and Little Guys

| Tuesday November 17th, 2009 | 5 Comments

SolarCity_Lyndon RivecroppedSolarcity CEO Lyndon Rive said in an interview Friday that he is seeing a growing market schism between the thousands of small, local solar panel installers and a “half a dozen or so” national players that can provide “a trusted brand focusing on scale and services.”

Rise of the Brand Names

Solarcity, which the 32-year old Rive co-founded in 2006, has grown to be one of the leading solar panel installers in California, and perhaps the most recognizable solar installation company in the country.

The solar panel industry is still one where success is measured in the thousands of customers, not millions or billions, however, and despite its high-profile status in the news media, solar installers are still in a very niche business.

As a result, until recently there were no large, integrated “brand name” solar panel companies, but only a plethora of small independent contractors, whose quality and reliability often varies greatly. This variability unfortunately has had the effect of further increasing consumer doubts about solar electricity.

“We’ve all had our bad contractor experience when someone’s doing work on your home,” said Rive. “A lot of the small companies out there fall into that category — there are some smaller guys that do do good service, but they’re not always easy to find.”

But with the emergence of big, “national” brands like Solarcity, and competitors Sunpower, Sunwize, REC Solar, Akeena Solar and others, solar power has an opportunity to escape its quirky “green silo” and emerge as a more mainstream household purchase, albeit one that still costs upwards of $15,000. Many of these companies provide not only installation, but extensive customer support as well as financing.

Solar Predictions

As evidence of this change, Rive said that after 40 percent growth in this recessionary year, he expects Solarcity’s business to grow by 250 percent next year. This despite his belief that reduction in solar rebates will swallow any efficiency-led decreases in price.

The industry took hit this year with the rest of the economy, but benefited from a drop in solar panel prices by as much as 40 percent. Rive says that dramatic drop will not continue into next year, calling this years drop “an anomaly,” although he agreed with forecasts that prices will continue to go down by percentages in the single digits.

Got Solar?

One idea that has been floated in industry circles to accelerate solar’s emergence is an industry-wide promotional campaign, similar to the very successful “Got Milk?” campaign. Also known as a “check off” program, it is being considered by the Solar Energy Industries Association, according to SEIA President Rhone Resch.

Rive said such a campaign will have to wait until the industry shake-out mentioned above takes its course. “I think for now it will still be individual efforts establishing a brand within [each company]…I like the idea — I think it will be a long time until we get there.”


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  • http://freecleansolar.com Ricky Sunshine

    There are no “national” brands in the solar industry and you are correct to point out that this is still a small, niche industry. However it is poised for mass market potential as awareness increases and prices decline.

    The most recognized brand would likely be SunPower, which operates nationwide through a dealer network of several hundred local installers. The others mentioned operate in perhaps 3 or 4 states each.

    Local, independent dealers will play an important role in the solar industry because they can provide an unbiased choice of products. In addition, local operators will be needed to provide the installation manpower for the more than 100 million roofs in the U.S.

    There are also online comparison shopping services like FreeCleanSolar.com that have a nationwide network of local solar panel installers representing most every solar panel brand. You can also find information about state solar rebates, federal tax credits, solar financing and leasing, system costs and the benefits of going solar.

  • http://www.globalenergiesinc.com David Brockes

    Soon to be announced in Calif. and Puerto Rico, large Solar projects of 500MW+ each. More large projects on the way in smaller condensed areas with higher outputs. Texas is next and will consider project discussions.

  • Don L

    SolarCity is bad for solar and sustainability. As we transition into a renewable energy economy we need to think about doing things on a local level. SolarCity brings a Wal-Mart centralized style approach to renewable energy development. Lyndon, CEO Solarcity, is only successful because his big cousin, Elon Musk, is bankrolling the whole project. SolarCity pays sub-standard wages which de-values the actual installation work that is being done and drives down the wages for us who are doing the work so we can't even afford solar on our homes. Lyndon says “small independent contractors, whose quality and reliability often varies greatly” thats an uninformed slap in the face to just about every other contractor out there. Here in Portland, SolarCity is know as the biggest hack carpetbaggers around.

  • Don L

    SolarCity is bad for solar and sustainability. As we transition into a renewable energy economy we need to think about doing things on a local level. SolarCity brings a Wal-Mart centralized style approach to renewable energy development. Lyndon, CEO Solarcity, is only successful because his big cousin, Elon Musk, is bankrolling the whole project. SolarCity pays sub-standard wages which de-values the actual installation work that is being done and drives down the wages for us who are doing the work so we can't even afford solar on our homes. Lyndon says “small independent contractors, whose quality and reliability often varies greatly” thats an uninformed slap in the face to just about every other contractor out there. Here in Portland, SolarCity is know as the biggest hack carpetbaggers around.

  • PatEnergyconceptsfresno

    I have been in solar for 34 years and I can say from experience the solar industry does not need the Solar City type of marketing companies to be involved with solar. They have already done leases which will not save any money for the home owners. They pay the sales people way more than they do their installers which tells you which is more important.
    The time will come when solar is just another trade you call when you are building a new home like a plumber or an electrician. It will happen and then where will the Solar Cities be. He should be thank full those little companies will be around to fix their work.