Will Rooftop Solar Have Its Day in the Sun?

Will Rooftop Solar Have Its Day in the Sun?

Image CC licensed by Flickr user bkusler

It's been a remarkable summer for SunRun, the San Francisco-based startup that's trying to get solar power onto millions of residential rooftops.

SunRun raised $100 million in project financing from utility PG&E. Venture capitalists invested another $55 million in the company. Home Depot agreed to distribute its rooftop solar panels, and Toll Brothers, the big home builder, is using SunRun's solar leasing program to install photovoltaic (PV) panels on new homes in a luxury golf course community in Yorba Linda, Calif.

Today, SunRun enters Pennsylvania, its sixth state. You wouldn't think of Pennsylvania as a solar-friendly state but, as it happens, the Keystone State has all the right ingredients -- high and rising electricity prices, generous state subsidies for renewable energy, and a regulatory framework that permits homeowners to sell surplus power back to the electricity grid.

Says Lynn Jurich, the president and co-founder of SunRun: "We want to go to markets where we can save customers money, and where we can make money."

I've written about SunRun before (See SunRun: A New Deal for Solar and Solar's Strange Bedfellows) but the company is growing so fast, albeit off a small base, that it makes a lot of news. The PG&E, Home Depot and Toll Brothers agreements, along with its geographic expansion, all seem to further validate the company's business model.

As Jurich put it:

The top utility, the top home improvement company, and one of the top five builders in the country are all working with SunRun ... Residential solar is finally going mainstream.

Well, not quite yet -- SunRun has about 5,000 customers, just a few more than the little village where I grew up. Solar panels, while coming down in cost, remain a much more expensive way than coal or natural gas to generate electricity, so they are dependent upon a variety of government subsidies. Some homeowners don't like the way panels on the roof look.

But SunRun has removed two big obstacles to the mainstreaming of solar -- the upfront costs and the hassle factor. Purchasing a solar system outright can cost $25,000 to $45,000, but because SunRun owns and maintains its systems, homeowners frequently don't have to pay any money down. The company works with reputable local installers, and makes technology decisions that could confound newbies to the field.

"If you can remove all the hassles, we think solar can be a very mainstream product," Jurich says. "Our biggest barrier, really, still, is education. People don't know that they have an alternative to the utility company. You can get some of your power from your rooftop and we will manage the whole thing for you."

In essence, SunRun is a service, financing and marketing operation -- it doesn't actually make anything. The company raises the money to buy the systems, arranges the installations, takes advantage of a 30 percent federal tax credit that's available to home owners who install solar energy, monetizes the Renewable Energy Credits or RECs available in many states, and collects monthly electricity payments from homeowners. If the business model works, those revenue streams, taken together, are sufficient to repay its lenders (like PG&E), pay its own costs and generate a profit.

Jurich told me that SunRun has, so far, raised enough money to pay for about $300 million worth of solar installations. She expects that figure to climb past $1 billion in the next year or two. That's impressive for a company that got its start less than four years ago when Jurich and Ed Fenster, SunRun's CEO, were MBA students at Stanford.

Of course, SunRun isn't the only solar home financing company. It's got competition from, among others, Solar City, which is backed by celebrity entrepreneur Elon Musk. BYD, the Chinese electric car and battery company, last spring struck a deal with KB Home, to install solar panels in a new development of modestly priced homes in Lancaster, Calif. (See Warren Buffett's BYD: Revving up Fast) I'm sure there are other solar financing firms out there that haven't gotten my attention.

But the competition should be good for everyone involved, not least the customers.

As Jurich told me: "If residential solar works -- residential electricity is a $150 billion market -- there's plenty of business to go around."

GreenBiz.com Senior Writer Marc Gunther is a longtime journalist and speaker whose focus is business and sustainability. Marc maintains a blog at MarcGunther.com. You can follow him on Twitter @marcGunther.

Image CC licensed by Flickr user bkusler.