CLEANTECH: Not Exactly Million Solar

By Published On: February 4, 2011

It’s creepy, but it provides a new photovoltaic business model. Try entering your home address into a search engine. Among the hits, you’ll find drive-by photos of your front door, satellite pictures of your backyard, and aerial shots of your roof. That mapping technology allows Sungevity to give you an email estimate for rooftop solar without ever having its sales force leave its airy confines at the Oakland waterfront. In my case, it took two days for Sungevity to send me an email declining my rooftop for, among other reasons, lack of proper position. If it was approved, the project would have been sent to a roomful of project managers that take care of the permitting red tape for homeowners, and accountants who grab all the subsidies and tax benefits to send back to investors. If completed, Sungevity is the proud owner of your electrical needs. You, the homeowner, pay the company like you would a local utility (the utility still gets paid for distribution and other fees). Sungevity owns your rooftop solar for a decade. “We don’t have to buy real estate” like centralized solar projects, said Danny Kennedy, Sungevity founder. “We have permitting burdens,” he added, but nothing like desert solar power. “The reality bites in the paperwork,” he added. The time spent on installation is insignificant in comparison. While some solar companies based on subsidies are predicated on a pure business ethic, Kennedy comes from the missionary zeal side of alternative energy. His longest gig was for Greenpeace. He also worked on San Francisco’s alternative energy ordinance. While the paperwork bogs things down, it is the coincident timing of technology availability, like satellite photos, that speeds Sungevity’s growth. In October 2010, for instance, Kennedy said the company covered 170 homes--about 1.5 MW. Not everyone who receives a solar installation saves money on electricity bills. Sixty percent “are cash-flow positive,” Kennedy said. So far, most of Sungevity’s clients are those who care about saving energy, he added. The company is branching out to those “who care about saving money.” Clients might be saving money, but Sungevity’s investors are counting on it. The 30 percent tax credit is packaged up and assigned to investors who apply it to tax liability, according to Kennedy. Despite the economic travails of the state and federal government providing the subsidies, Kennedy appears nonplussed. “The federal tax credit is the real driver. It’s set until 2016, and we don’t think there’s significant political risk” of its demise, he said. “By the time tax credit is gone, we’ll be the lowest cost provider.” Kennedy estimates that bundled utility rates will continue to increase. Sungevity’s levelized cost is 20-22 cents/kWh.

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