2014: Residential Solar Goes Nationwide

on January 13, 2014 at 2:00 PM

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Despite its rapid growth, the US solar market is still a bit of a Balkanized mess. It’s a highly fragmented collection of states with different policies and politics, some that have preferential programs such as Renewable Portfolio Standards (RPS) or net energy metering (NEM), and others that are resistant to change or beholden to incumbent energy interests. As a result, money has flowed to whatever state has the best economic incentives, creating a quasi-market.

In 2014, however, breakthroughs in new financing models and the further reduction of both “hard” and “soft” costs will mean that for the first time in history, the United States may actually be able to refer to a national residential solar market. And in some cases, a subsidy-free market.

Not only that, several other dynamics are at play that could accelerate the march toward a standardized, national residential solar market – the evolution of DIY solutions that significantly simplify going solar through the use of technology and the internet, as well as new sales channels that reduce friction for homeowners. And the convergence of utility-scale and residential solar in the new category of “community power”, a 600 MW opportunity in California alone, spells an important growth opportunity with national ramifications.

Under-pinning the industry advances is a rise in consumer awareness and overall support for solar.

Financial Maturity

Significant new investment sources for the funding of residential solar leases are coming to market, and will continue to deepen and broaden in 2014. Over the past six months, we have seen multiple investments by utility companies into leasing company’s, such as OneRoof Energy. 2014 will see additional new investment into residential solar leases by those and other electric utilities.

With the addition of new investors coming into the market, and the recent successful securitization of the first residential solar lease portfolio, the overall cost of capital is decreasing. As securitization becomes even more mainstream, so will the reach of residential solar into new, previously-untapped regions. This is creating more opportunity to both expand into new markets with more competitive lease products, and open further the opportunity to provide energy savings to even more residential consumers.

Technology and Trust

The door-to-door sales tactics of many smaller residential solar installers has resulted in some consumer trepidation. Homeowners are interested, but they aren’t sure who they can trust. Some companies such as Sungevity have forged relationships with well-known retailers such as Lowes, helping to make solar more accessible through known retail brands. In 2014 the development that could truly blow DIY solar out of the water is the use of internet and ecommerce platforms. Mobile and online tools for solar are gaining in sophistication, and we can expect the developers of those tools to start partnering with brand-name ecommerce websites.

At the same time, experimentation with new types of affiliate programs will expand in 2014 as companies look to not only lower the cost of customer acquisition, but also tap into trusted relationships with homeowners that already exist – namely professionals that advise on such areas as wealth management and home insurance.

Trust will be further increased through a more standardized contract process that began rolling out in late 2013. The lack of standardized contracts has been a major hindrance to residential solar’s national ambitions.

The Shared Economy Goes Solar

Despite the huge growth potential of solar, there has been some tension between utility-scale developers and residential solar companies. Net metering has been the main point of contention. But that will start to shift in 2014, with one of the key drivers being the emergence of “shared renewables”. In California, Gov. Brown is about to approve 600 MW of such renewable resources. Not only do both utility-scale and residential players benefit from this development, shared renewables also remove the contention over net metering, and can be developed without subsidies. The program also brings entities into the clean energy economy who were previously unable to benefit directly from their own solar installations – such as renters, business owners who lease offices and homeowner associations – allowing them to purchase up to 100 percent renewable electricity.

Power to the People

Overall, 2014 will mark an important year in putting the power to go solar into the hands of homeowners anywhere. The US solar industry marks its 40th anniversary in January. American philosopher Walter Pitkin once noted that “Life begins at 40.” So too will the era of national rooftop solar.

David Field is President and CEO of OneRoof Energy, Inc., a residential solar financing provider based in San Diego.