10 Years and Counting

10 Years and Counting

In so many ways, the first half of 2019 has been a whirlwind for nearly everyone in the solar business.   Several key factors, such as the impending end of the 30 percent ITC for solar systems and a generally good economy for many, have factored into what’s been our best first and second quarter ever in terms of total systems sold.

We’ve been so busy that an important anniversary kind of snuck up on me. 

June marks the 10-year anniversary for us as a solar design and installation business.

It’s been a busy, and in many ways surprising, 10 years.

Here are some of my recollections and observations from 10 years of fulltime solar work.

Technology Keeps Moving Forward

When we started, solar modules averaged in the 180-watt to 210-watt range.  I can vividly remember when we installed out first 240-watt modules and what a big deal that was to us.

In our first years, we installed mostly string inverters, and the installer had to do some real installer stuff, like calculating temperate-corrected voltages and proper string sizing.  A far cry from today’s plug-and-play systems.

Roof attachment best practices were usually based on L-feet lag-bolted to roof trusses with a water barrier of butyl tape in between.  Effective, but very primitive compared to the elegant, flashed-in, roof attachments we use today.

Monitoring was at the string level, and troubleshooting required some real technical skill to identify and correct issues like ground faults or arc faults.

Prices Keep Moving Down

When we really got rolling, in 2010, the average cost per watt for a residential solar system was around $7.00. That’s why most customers couldn’t cost- justify a system large enough to produce 100 percent of their annual usage. Today, by contrast, we can install a state-of-the-technology, high-performance  residential system for less than $3.00 per watt in most cases (battery backup not included).

The difference is amazing and compelling.  In 2010, 5 kW of solar was around $35,000.  Today, 5 kW of solar, with great modules and inverter system, would be a lot less than $20,000..  This means many customers can now afford to consider a larger system that can offset a very high percentage of their annual electric bill.

Only the Best Have Survived

It gives me no pleasure to report that most of the companies that were major installation players in the region when we started are no longer around. I’m sure there are many reasons for this, but I suspect a big factor was a hyper-competitive market’s pressure to cut margins to make sales. 

It’s exactly the same with many manufacturers.  Many of the bigger module companies like Evergreen, Siliken, Solar World and Suniva are long gone.

This is why I never based our marketing on offering the lowest-price systems.  We’ve always tried to install the best possible systems, using highest quality components and closely following industry best practices, with highly qualified personnel.

Recent years have added another factor for customers to consider:  Don’t just buy a solar module system, but also evaluate the company providing the products.  We install mostly Panasonic solar modules.  I like their chances of being in business 10 years from now. Don’t you?

Beware of Trojans (and phony promises)

As in any quickly evolving industry, there will always be the slicksters and quick-buck artists gaming the system to fool consumers.

Over the past 10 years we’ve seen plenty.  Most come and go, and some never seem to go away.

For several years, the majority of solar systems installed in Maryland were so-called “free” leased system, installed mostly by two national companies.

All you had to give up to get this great deal was the 30 percent federal Investment Tax Credit, any state grants, and the sale of SRECs.  It was a great deal for someone, but not, in my opinion, for homeowners.
 
As the value of SRECs plummeted in Maryland, the lease companies seemed to move on, or started offering only the opportunity to buy systems. This left homeowners with a power plant they don’t own on their roofs, a liability to resolve if they want to sell the house, and a system that will need a lot of mostly non-existent (again, my opinion) service in the coming years. (The “my opinion” inserts are for companies with their legal reps on speed dial.  I’m allowed to have an opinion, as far as I know.)

After years of watching the co-op thing in Maryland, West Virginia and Virginia, I’m of the same opinion concerning co-op solar purchases.   The premise seems to be that a group of non-technical area residents can band together, solicit bids from installers, and enjoy the benefits of “bulk” pricing and protection from dishonest installers.  The co-op folks say they’re providing technical oversight, but that seems to me to be hard for non-technical folks to do. Just saying.

I consider this to be pretty close to a scam, and more than a little bit insulting.  The co-op people seem to be saying that you can’t trust installers to give you honest and accurate information to base your purchase on.  And that you don’t have sense enough to make good purchase decisions without their oversight, so you need the co-op ‘s protection.   We have dozens of reference customers who would strongly disagree with that assessment.

At this point in time, I consider the co-ops to be a direct competitor and have zero interest in participating in this taxpayer-funded farce.  I’ll go on urging anyone involved in a co-op to get at least one other quote.  You may be pleasantly surprised.  We’ve sold many systems in co-op areas in Virginia, Maryland and West Virginia where our everyday price was less, and the components better, than the supposedly special co-op deal.  It has to do with clever adders and up-selling by the co-op winning installers.

One other thing on co-op membership:  If the installer chosen by the committee does not have a NABCEP Certified Installer on staff, you’re not getting a fully qualified installer.

 This is particularly true in West Virginia, where consumer protections for solar customers basically do not exist.  An Electrician License or Electrical Contractor License does not qualify one to design and install solar systems.

This Joint Task Analysis (JTA) for the NABCEP solar installer exam shows the weighting for each test that would-be certified installers must pass.  An electrician’s license would cover less than half of them.

 
There are now quite a few certified installers in all states – including West Virginia.  Protect your property and your investment, and choose one.  In West Virginia we’ve had installers claim multiple NABCEP certifications when they hadn’t even earned one.  We’ve also seen an installer claim credit for installing a particular solar system that a competitor installed.  Both actually happened.

So choose your installer carefully.

The Next 10 Years

It’s a certainty that solar technology will continue to evolve as we go forward.  For example, one module company is saying they’ll have 400-watt modules available this year.  Another says they’ll be releasing so-called AC Modules, where a microinverter is part of the solar module assembly rather than a separate component.

Interesting stuff for sure, but as usual we’ll wait and see before offering this technology to customers.

Storage continues to be one of the industry’s fastest growing segments, and its growth will continue.   More and more, the power companies are lobbying for changes to the Net Metering rules.  If we ever lose net metering, it will be game on for storage and running your house off the solar array during the day and running off batteries at night.  Homeowners in many parts of Europe already do this. Europe. It’s not a good idea while we still have Net Metering, no matter what you may be hearing from the plug-and-play solar experts.

This is a really interesting environment, this solar business thing.   I really like the fact that we can be driving on an Interstate throughout most of West Virginia for example, and pass exit after exit where systems we’ve installed are in service.  I point this out to the young guys all the time.  They have the good sense not to complain about it.

When we started, I never imagined we’d have installed so many systems in 10 years.  In fact, I often wondered if we’d even sell enough systems to be able to call it a business 

To the many who trusted us with their hard-earned money and allowed us to install various solar technology on their property, I can only tell you how much we appreciate your business, and in many, many cases, your ongoing friendship. 

It makes all the effort more than worth it.