America goes green
iceman : America goes green
Communities go solar together and save
SolarCity challenges residents to place big orders
SOUTH ORANGE, N.J. (MarketWatch) -- Convincing a group of neighbors to agree on anything is rarely easy. But in a growing number of communities in the U.S. over the past year neighbors have proven fairly persuasive at influencing dozens of their peers to spend $25,000 or more on a rooftop solar system.
It started in Portola Valley, Calif., a sunny community 35 miles south of San Francisco. In December, 78 of the town's 1,700 homes decided to pool their purchasing power and call in a large order for residential solar systems.
California-based SolarCity offered the community a group discount on the rooftop and backyard photovoltaic systems and installed them. The company, which started out installing individual orders for homeowners, began filling bulk orders for neighborhoods in California in 2006 as a way to try to drive down the cost of solar systems.
"If an entire group comes together they get a discount," said Lyndon Rive, founder and chief executive officer of SolarCity. "With three or four homes you don't get economies of scale."
Plenty of money and effort is being spent on developing solar technology but the most neglected part of the renewable story is the installation piece of the puzzle, according to Rive. Increasing the volume of sales of solar systems will help solar-generated electricity reach price parity more quickly with the electricity generated from power plants that burn fossil fuels, the executive said.
Today, the company has community discount programs underway in seven California cities and has completed installations in another eight. The company says that by September it had sold more than 500 residential solar systems in 19 cities and towns.
By the end of this year, the company is slated to open new offices in Colorado and New Mexico and by the first quarter of 2008 SolarCity plans to begin offering community discounts in both of these states as well.
SolarCity's program is focused on retrofitting existing homes with solar panels. But so-called solar communities aren't new. U.S. home builders such as Pardee Homes, Pulte Homes and Shea Homes have been developing planned communities where residences feature solar rooftops for several years.
Convincing 40 neighbors to go green
The company's offer is simple: if a town can get a sufficient number of homeowners to sign up for rooftop or backyard solar systems they receive a 20% to 30% cut off the local market price of a home solar system. The company typically aims to sell roughly 175 kilowatts to each community. Since an average-size home in the U.S. can usually support at least a four-kilowatt solar system, 44 homes becomes the standard target. Commercial buildings and businesses can also be a part of the mix.
SolarCity set a goal of 175 kilowatts for Portola Valley residents. The community easily topped the goal, with the participating home systems accounting for 343 kilowatts. Additional installations in the community have added 55 kilowatts, bringing the town total to roughly 400 kilowatts of solar power.
Other communities have also surpassed the company's goal. More recently, 119 households in Mountain View, Calif. ordered solar systems totaling 367 kilowatts. Another 124 kilowatts were subsequently installed in the community, even though these homeowners did not receive the rebate. Today, 2% of the single-family residences in Mountain View have solar installations and SolarCity installed more than half.
But not all towns receive the discount offer. SolarCity's strategy has been to handpick towns after conducting extensive local research, educating and interviewing homeowners, inspecting homes to determine if they can be outfitted with a solar system, and evaluating homeowners' electricity bills. The process is rigorous and can take up to three months to complete with 200 site visits to 50 homes, Rive said.
Targeting big energy consumers
The cost of a typical five-kilowatt system translates into about $9 a watt, Rive said. SolarCity can shave off about $1.50 per watt by selling in bulk, which brings the cost down to $7.50 a watt, before state rebates and federal tax incentives.
Federal and state incentives are a key part of the discount program. After deducting state rebates and federal tax incentives -- which pay for about 25% of a residential solar system in California -- homeowners in California working with the discount program have paid around $24,000 on average for a system, Rive estimated.
The California Energy Commission hosts a Clean Power Estimator that allows California residential and commercial electric customers use a ZIP code to generate an estimate of the costs and benefits of investing in a solar system.
A report from Navigant Consulting released in September concluded that "the combination of California incentives, more aggressive [photovoltaic] system price reductions and new business models can have a significant impact on market adoptions."
California utilities use a multitiered pricing system for electricity that means the more electricity homeowners use the higher the rate they pay for electricity. Power prices range from 11.4 cents to 36.4 cents per kilowatt hour. This is why SolarCity employees assess the utility bills of interested homeowners to see if they are above average: higher power bills and a higher price for power is likely to shorten the payback period for a solar investment.
"In the Bay area you have homes with six computers that are always on," Rive said. "There are other parts of California that have tremendous huge air conditioning demand."
Börsengewinne sind Schmerzengeld. Erst kommen die Schmerzen, dann das Geld...(A.K.)
iceman : Part II
If an intense assessment indicates a town is right for solar, SolarCity gives the community a deadline to sign up the needed number of homes.
Mountain View residents had little trouble meeting the target. "It was pretty darn easy," said Bruce Karney, a resident who spearheaded the local buyers group. Karney now works for SolarCity as part of the team that markets and sells solar systems to other communities.
Karney acknowledged that the decision to go solar can be a significant one for many families. "It's a relatively expensive purchase. It's like buying a car," he said.
But Karney also noted that communities with high-price housing may find it a little easier to swallow the initial investment when it represents a small portion of the total value of a home. In Mountain View, the cost of a solar system is less than 2% of the cost of the average home, Karney said.
"The return on investment differs almost for every customer," said Rive, who estimates that SolarCity customers see a return investment of between 8% and 17%.
Boom in solar use
California was a natural focus for SolarCity. The sun-drenched state is the leading solar market in the U.S., representing 73% of the systems tied into the U.S. power grid in 2006.
In 2006, U.S installation of solar photovoltaic devices jumped 33% from the previous year, according to a 2007 report from Solarbuzz, LLC.
The solar boom in California is a result of the California Solar Initiative, a ten-year, $2.1 billion solar incentive program for existing residential homes and commercial buildings launched in 2007.
A new report released by the California Public Utilities Commission says solar "demand is booming." CPUC launched the California Solar Initiative on Jan. 1 with a goal of creating 3,000 megawatts of new, solar-produced electricity by 2017. The program has a budget of $3.3 billion over 10 years.
In the first nine months of 2007,requests for California Solar Initiative incentives "are on track to exceed California's total installed solar from the previous 26 years," according to the report.
Disregarding applications that have been withdrawn or rejected, the program has received 5,109 applications for 160.5 megawatts of demand, worth $320 million in incentives. Residential applications dwarf all others (4,564 applications) and comprise 13% of the total megawatts in the active applications.
As of Sept. 18, there are 1,157 projects installed and operating, and that have either received payment or are about to be paid. The installations add 9.4 megawatts of new solar capacity and total $25 million in rebates.
But California's rebates step down over time and as this happens company discounts like those offered by SolarCity are likely to become more important to customers looking for a price break. "The faster you convert the better your rebate," said Steele.
Börsengewinne sind Schmerzengeld. Erst kommen die Schmerzen, dann das Geld...(A.K.)