Friday, May 27, 2016

Will Solar City 'rise All boats, or just theirs?

My first meeting with Solar City.

I recently attended a Solar Summit in Harrisburg PA to discuss the current state of solar and where we want to go as an industry in PA.  There were about 50 attendees, 10 or so were from Solar City, up from two last year and zero the year before.  Their growth in attendance mirrors their expansion into PA.

As a local installer, I view Solar City much the same way a corner store viewed Walmart’s entry into their neighborhood.  A large corporation, well-funded and aggressive in their entry to the market, opens across the street.  As any good business would do, they are using leveraged purchasing of their nearly nationwide operation to drive down their product acquisition costs.  Since they operate in highly profitable markets like California, MD, NJ, etc. they can redirect these profits to subsidize the anemic PA market allowing them to enter our market with an insurmountable advantage.   As a local company where we are focused on quality and customizing each array to our client’s needs, seeing this massive company open up shop and drop millions in advertising overnight for a one size fits all solar array, is indeed intimidating.  

During introductions, Solar City said how excited they were to enter the Pittsburgh market.  When it was my turn for an introduction, I explained that I was not excited to see them come to town.  A little later in the day one of their young exec’s came up to me to ask why.  He explained how ‘the rising tide lifts all boats’ and how I should be happy to see them come to town since it is good for the whole industry.  

I have to admit, having a company like Walmart or in this case Solar City in your corner legislatively is a great asset.  Politicians typically listen to money long before reason and one thing they have an abundance of is money.   We truly are on the same side in a macro sense so perhaps there is some good to come of this if their intent is in fact to ‘rise ALL boats’.

One thing I had found unsettling, however, is that a few weeks prior to the meeting I got a call from a very connected solar advocate who warned me that Solar City was coming to Pittsburgh and that they had been spending a ton of money and time lobbying in Harrisburg.  His information was that they were attempting to redirect several funds of solar designated moneys that my company and all the other local PA companies have spent years of time and lots of capital lobbying to make available for the entire industry.  Most notably, the CFA has roughly $30 million and there are additional funds for Solarize in Allegheny County.  EIS has invested significant amounts of time in securing and assisting both of these programs development so ALL solar companies in PA can utilize them and the entire industry can benefit.  Many strange and suspect things have happened locally since just before Solar City announced it was coming to Pittsburgh but I will not expand upon this because it would hurt the position of some involved that I respect that are fighting for solar.  

What I will expand upon is the CFA.  During our summit a lobbyist came in to give us an update on what was happening with the fund.   He was flanked by several executives from Solar City.  Out of sheer coincidence, this lobbyist was wearing a Solar City pin and was on a first name basis with nearly every Solar City person in the room.   Seeing this, I asked him some pointed questions, which I received very vague responses to, regarding whether this fund was being lobbied to change rules to favor any particular company or business model held by a particular company.  When I asked the questions, the gentlemen wearing Solar City pins across the table from me shifted in their seats repeatedly, another coincidence I am certain.  The responses to my questions were non-committal but the comradery and timely entrance of Solar City execs with the lobbyist tells a story.  

So I said to this the young exec, if you truly are trying to raise the tide so we all can prosper, then welcome to the neighborhood.  We welcome your big name, your fancy lobbyists, your millions of dollars in mass marketing.  If your intentions are to grow solar, then we are happy to have you.  However, if you are trying to redirect funds or programs, sway politicians to legislate in your favor, or any way manipulating the market to unfairly control it, we have a problem.  From the evidence I have seen it looks like this could be the direction you are headed.  I sincerely hope it is not.  The young exec assured me it is not, and gave me his card so I could reach out to him in the event something shady happens.

So for now, I welcome Solar City.  I hope that they are sincere and that they will use their big corporation to do good things for Pittsburgh solar.  I hope that they plan to do this in an attempt to ‘rise all boats’ and not to manipulate the field to intentionally sink those of us who built this market.  I hope that they generate the 100 promised jobs, Pittsburgh can use them.  

I hope that they have good intentions and one thing is certain, I will be watching very closely to ensure that they do.  

Joe Morinville
EIS Solar

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