Yesterday’s news from the solar company Sungevity that it will partner with Lowe’s Home Improvement stores to help customers quote and install a solar system is a great indicator of where the industry is going.
Critics often charge that solar is “fringe” or “inaccessible,” which has historically been true. Since the ’70s, home solar photovoltaics has been largely a technology for environmentally conscious first adopters and high-tech lovers. But with prices coming steadily — and now dramatically — down over the years, and companies adopting innovative financing models to make a purchase easier, solar photovoltaic (PV) has moved far beyond that label.
Sungevity is an up-and-coming player in the solar services area. Started in California in 2007, the company created a web-based quoting system using satellite imagery that made it very easy (and free) to get a same-day quote for a system. If the customer approved the system, Sungevity would send an independent installation partner over to finish the job. Last year, Sungevity started offering a solar-lease product through its site, which allowed a customer to purchase a system by only paying a relatively small fee each month — in many cases less than what the consumer was paying for electricity from the utility.
On the residential side, SolarCity and SunRun have been leaders in solar leasing and power purchase agreement products (i.e. paying for the delivered electricity, rather than a flat fee per month). In fact, SunRun just brought in another $200 million in tax equity to finance solar systems around the country.
Under this new partnership, Lowe’s has purchased a 20 percent stake in Sungevity. Sungevity will install kiosks around Lowe’s Home Improvement stores in California, giving customers access to its free iQuote process and educating them about the leasing product. By exposing the service to Lowe’s massive customer base, Sungevity may be able to increase the reach of its services by an order of magnitude.
This is part of a new trend of big-box retailers thinking about either installing solar or offering services themselves. Last year, Lowe’s partnered with Westinghouse Solar, which offers a “plug and play” module that streamlines installation and opens up the market to more DIYers. (As it turns out, the product hasn’t sold as well as they’d thought it would, so the companies are looking into adding installation services to the mix — which may explain the Sungevity deal.) Home Depot has also entered the fray, offering similar solar panel products. And all kinds of major big-box retailers, including Walmart and Target, are installing large solar PV systems to offset electricity use at their stores.
Why is all this significant? It’s a strong sign that solar is emerging as a mainstream product. Yes, solar PV still plays a very small role in our current electricity supply; but with the industry now providing more “services” that eliminate up-front barriers and bring the technology to a wide swath of customers, solar has broken into more mainstream markets.
Saying that solar “can’t scale” because of our past experiences completely ignores the incredible innovation in how businesses are delivering the product to consumers and businesses.