It's been a wild year for solar. On one hand you have Fremont manufacturer Solyndra, driven out of business by stiff competition from China. The company was promptly paraded across the country by conservatives as a poster child of government largesse, and as a whipping post for others mistrustful of renewable energy. Who can afford solar panels when all we need is jobs?
The solar sector itself was a bit flummoxed by the attention. The same dip in silicon prices that spelled doom for Solyndra, which had errantly banked on a costly alternative technology, was a boon to consumers and evidence that the global solar industry was maturing. The very month that Solyndra announced its bankruptcy, a solar-jobs census from Washington, DC, nonprofit The Solar Foundation noted that the industry had added nearly seven thousand jobs between August 2010 and August 2011 — a growth rate of 6.8 percent, eclipsing the economy-wide figure of 0.7 percent. Jobs in fossil-fuel electricity generation, meanwhile, declined 2 percent.
More than a quarter of all US solar jobs reside here in California. They're split among three sectors: residential (standard rooftop panels), non-residential (panels over parking lots and on businesses, schools, churches, etc.), and utility (massive solar plants in the desert and Central Valley). California leads all three, with the largest portion of jobs going toward installation.
San Francisco company SunRun, which pioneered the solar lease in 2007, allowing homeowners to harness solar energy without having to bear the upfront cost of a rooftop system, is responsible for many of them. According to spokeswoman Susan Wise, SunRun has twice the market share of the next-largest provider in California. Nationwide, it represents about a third of all residential solar customers.
Over the past year the company has strengthened its hold, just as it did in 2010, when it grew 200 percent over 2009. SunRun added sixty employees last year and another eighty so far this year, with many positions still open. It's now installing roughly $1.5 million in solar systems every day, up from $1 million last year. "We're growing tremendously," Wise said.
So is just about everyone else. Oakland company Sungevity, which like SunRun leases solar systems rather than selling them outright, tripled in size over the past twelve months. "The 2011 numbers have sort of made for a banner year for us," said founder Danny Kennedy. After launching in the Bay Area, the company expanded to five northeastern states this summer and is partnering with a Dutch company to add the Netherlands to its network, making it the first residential solar company to expand internationally.
As of April 2011 Sungevity had sold approximately one thousand systems since forming in 2007. But this year it sold about six hundred in the East Bay alone, said spokesman John Ordoña. A growing portion of these have gone in east of the hills, where homeowners spend more money on air conditioning and can offset their costs considerably with solar power.
Berkeley's Sun Light and Power, founded in 1976 with a focus on solar water heating, enjoyed a fine 2011, too. In recent years the company has transitioned away from residential installations, but there's plenty of work to be had elsewhere: Projects for Clif Bar in Emeryville, affordable housing developers in Oakland and Fremont, schools in Oakland and Walnut Creek, a nonprofit health-care provider in Concord, and VF Outdoor (representing North Face, JanSport, and Lucy) in Alameda kept the company busy this year.
"In general, solar electric has been as strong as last year, which was a pretty strong year, one of the strongest we've ever seen," said founder and CEO Gary Gerber. Solar thermal, which uses the sun's energy to heat water, is making a comeback as well, growing by about 50 percent in 2011, Gerber said. A new system at The Cheesecake Factory in Pleasanton, for example, allows it to save considerably on hot water costs for dish washing.
Even nonprofit organizations are benefitting from the expansion of the solar industry and ensuing dip in prices. Oakland-based GRID Alternatives, which partners with solar-incentive programs, government agencies, and various sponsors to install solar systems free of charge on homes in low-income areas of the state, performed 191 installations representing 675 kilowatts of power in 2011, versus 128 installations and 325 kilowatts in 2010. "We did better than we expected in terms of how many we installed," said Bay Area Regional Director Mary Biasotti. "This year, we've really hit our stride."
While she doesn't anticipate the same level of growth to continue into 2012, at least in the Bay Area, other residential solar companies remain upbeat — regardless of what happens with government incentives demonized by the Solyndra backlash. After all, less than 1 percent of US homes are outfitted with solar panels.
"We expect a lot of people across the country to be going solar in the next couple years," said Kennedy. "We're very confident the trend will continue."
The Solar Foundation agrees, projecting job growth industry-wide in 2012 to be three times what it was in 2011. If the sky was falling earlier this year, it sure brought sunshine with it.