SolarCity’s new Chico operations center part of a burgeoning industry
California’s solar-energy industry—long beholden to state incentives that subsidized the cost of residential installations—appears to be taking off under its own power.
The recent expansion of SolarCity, the San Mateo-based solar installation company that on Monday, Nov. 25, announced the opening of a Chico-based “operation center,” is a local indication of an industry that is finding its legs sans government assistance. The new center has hired 23 employees and has five remaining open positions; statewide, SolarCity will open 10 new operation centers by the end of the year for a total of 24 centers and 2,100 employees.
California has become the largest solar-power market in the country, according to Forbes magazine, largely due to the California Solar Initiative (CSI), which was signed into law in 2006 as part of former Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger’s Million Solar Roofs program. The CSI set an initial goal of 1,940 megawatts of new solar-generated electricity by 2017, offering rebates to help lower the cost of solar arrays for homeowners. Residential solar-array rebates were exhausted about four years ahead of schedule due to their popularity, leaving installation companies such as SolarCity to their own devices when it comes to attracting customers.
Will Craven, public relations manager for SolarCity, believes that California’s solar industry has “matured past the point of needing state-based incentives.
“The fact that we’re able to keep growing without [the CSI] is a testament to its effectiveness as public policy,” he said during a recent phone interview. “It did exactly what it was designed to do, and succeeded to the point where it was no longer necessary.”
In a national context, the amount of the energy captured from the sun remains small in comparison to coal, natural gas and nuclear power, which, combined, provided about 86 percent of the national energy supply in 2012, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration. Renewable energy sources such hydroelectric, wind and solar power accounted for 12 percent of the nation’s energy. Solar power alone—including both utility-scale projects that feed into the grid and residential solar arrays—provided only about 0.18 percent of U.S. electricity generation.
But the solar industry is still in its infancy. According to Greentech Media, more than two-thirds of non-utility-scale solar panels in the U.S. have been installed since January 2011, and the market is expected to jump 200 percent by 2015.
Craven attributes the solar boom to the rapidly declining cost of solar panels and solar systems, increasing utility rates and a public becoming more aware of solar power’s accessibility.
“We find that one of the obstacles for people going solar is simply an outdated misconception that solar is too expensive for them and is exclusively for the wealthy,” he said, adding that, since 2009, two-thirds of the state’s residential solar arrays have been installed in middle- and low-income neighborhoods.
Elizabeth Stevens Omlor and her husband, Teddy Omlor, had SolarCity install a solar array on the rooftop of their home in Chico last year.
“We had really high utility bills because our whole house is run on electric [power],” Elizabeth said during a phone interview. “We really liked the idea of green energy, so we decided we wanted to get solar panels.”
SolarCity, like local installation company Elite Solar, operates on a leasing system in which customers don’t pay for installation or the solar array itself, just the monthly bill for solar power. When the agreement has run its course, the customer can opt to upgrade the system or have it removed—both options are free of charge.
The Omlors’ energy bill has been “drastically” lowered by making the switch to solar power, and from an environmental standpoint, Elizabeth said the couple “is just so proud to have solar panels. We wish everyone had this opportunity.”
Craven said his work is aimed at just that. “I felt I could really make a difference at SolarCity, to change the status quo,” he said. “My personal goal is to help get as many solar panels on an as many rooftops as possible.”