UPDATE - 5/7/2013 - Read our post detailing how SolarCity and SunPower have settled this litigation.
Just in time for Valentine’s Day, solar powerhouse SunPower sued SolarCity and five of its employees in federal court on Februrary 13. Alleging violations of the federal Computer Fraud and Abuse Act as well as various state law claims including theft of trade secrets, the Complaint is less of a Valentine and more of an existential threat to SolarCity’s commercial solar division.
The suit alleges that the five employees - all of whom previously worked for SunPower before being employed by SolarCity - illegally accessed SunPower computers and stole tens of thousands of computer files. Indeed, it appears from the documents filed with the court, that SunPower has some fairly extensive forensic evidence of the theft, noting the specific types of USB drives that were used to acquire the stolen files and where and when the downloading occurred. Assuming that evidence holds up to review by computer experts, it could be pretty damning against the five former employees.
Far less clear, however, is whether there is actually any case to be made against SolarCity. Having lititgated a number of corporate espionage cases (in one of my earlier lifetimes), I know that it can be difficult to connect the dots between the illicit conduct of the former employees and their new employer. It is the classic question of “What did SolarCity know, and when did it know it?“ Interestingly, SolarCity put out a statement regarding the suit, but did not expressly deny any of the allegations. Instead, it simply noted that:
SolarCity upholds high standards in operational integrity for itself and its employees. SolarCity takes trade secret issues very seriously and we will ensure that we act in accordance with the law.
(Curiously, that statement does not appear on the SolarCity website’s list of press releases, but you can find the entirety of the statement here.)
It is unfortunate to see two well-known solar companies involved in such a dispute, but it was probably inevitable. Indeed, the history of Silicon Valley is replete with similar lawsuits and as the financial stakes in the solar industry increase, the potential for such actions will also increase.
Of course, the public is unlikely to ever learn the whole truth behind this story - as common as such lawsuits are, public trials are a rarity. Factor in SolarCity’s rumored desire to go forward with an IPO this year and the likelihood of a settlement increases dramatically.
We will keep you posted as new developments unfold.
Back in October, we wrote about some early trends from LADWP’s restart of their Solar Incentive Program and we thought it would be worthwhile to see how things have fared in the months since. LADWP had some flaws in the dataset issued in December so we decided to wait until the next revision which came out last week. (You can access the dataset here.) As before, when reporting on project costs/Watt, we used the reported cost and the CSI AC Watts as we believe that is a more reasonable reflection of the value of the projects being proposed.
In our previous post, we predicted that the Residential rebate program would drop from Step 5 (paid at $2.20/Watt) down to Step 6 (paid at $1.62/Watt) on or about November 26, 2011. The last confirmed rebate reservation to be paid under Step 5 was #1120 and it was submitted on December 12 and confirmed on December 30. So our November 26 prediction was not too far off, and a complete application that was submitted by then should have received a Step 5 rebate.
We also previously predicted that the residential sector would run out of rebate funds around April 3 of this year. How has that prediction held up? The chart below summarizes requested rebate amounts by week starting with the program restart on September 1, 2011 up through last week. Also shown is the cumulative amount requested and a linear trendline.
As of the last day in the data, the total rebate amounts requested was $11.2 million out of the available $20 million. It is also apparent from the graph that there has been a significant decline in the requested amounts following week 15 (starting December 8, 2011). Our revised prediction is that the residential sector will run out of money around May 7, 2012.
A program of this size provides some interesting insights into which manufacturers have the “go-to products” in terms of number of projects and total Watts. Here is the data from the Residential sector:
Yingli leads the way thanks to their heavy use by SolarCity which accounted for 144 of the 188 projects using the Chinese panel. Kyocera was a strong second, again benefiting from their use by SolarCity in 137 of their 155 projects. Verengo Solar drove the demand for Suntech panels, accounting for 75 of their 99 projects. Canadian Solar is the true democratic player in this field, its 80 projects were distributed amongst 31 different installers!
Not surprisingly, different panels demand different prices, but the results are not as clear as they might be due in part to how SolarCity includes its accounting/financing costs into its reported costs. As a result, both Yingli and Kyocera are substantially higher on average in the data than one would otherwise expect. For example, Yingli comes in at $8.91/Watt on average whereas Suntech is a mere $6.17/Watt - with both of these being top-tier Chinese panels. The two manufacturers renowned for their high-efficiency, high-cost products - SunPower and Sanyo - came in at $7.60/Watt and $8.07/Watt respectively. No one in the industry believes that Yingli panels outperform those produced by SunPower and Sanyo.
Similarly, it is interesting to see what the distribution looks like in the realm of inverters.
No surprise that SMA leads the way; after all, SMA is the largest manufacturer of solar inverters in the world. Their popularity is driven not only by major players like SolarCity (65 projects with SMA) and Verengo (89), but collectively by 55 different installers. Contrast that with Fronius, which achieved its #2 ranking almost entirely thanks to SolarCity which accounted for 206 of the 231 projects (89.2%).
Coming in at a respectable third place was Enphase Energy with its 74 projects being distributed amongst 31 different installers - clearly the most broadly distributed installer base in the list. None of the Enphase installs were performed by SolarCity or Verengo. Given the sheer volume of installs done by those two companies, surely some of those sites would have benefited from micro-inverters but the leasing giants were not making that technology available to their customers.
Finally, potential clients often ask about the difference in cost between a string inverter system, such as one using SMA inverters, and a micro-inverter system, such as one using Enphase. The average installed cost for the 334 SMA projects was $7.15/W. The average installed cost for the 74 Enphase projects was $7.32/W. That is a negligible difference and given that the two largest players in the data - SolarCity and Verengo - had none of the Enphase projects, we would expect the SMA projects to have a volume pricing advantage from those two companies alone. Bottom line: in the real world, there is very little cost difference between these two technologies.
One of the more disturbing things that we uncovered in our previous analysis was the degree to which some companies were apparently overcharging their customers. In particular, we singled out A.S.E.S Electrical Group (aka American Solar Energy Solutions) for being particularly egregious in this regard. So, after an additional three months of data, how have things changed?
Once again, we restricted the data to only residential projects where the system owner is also listed as residential - a total of 846 projects. Our previous size filter was 20kW; for this expanded data set we increased the size filter to 45kW, meaning that only companies with at least 45kW of projects in the data would be included. As a result, the chart below accounts for 560 out of the 846 projects described in the data.
Sadly, our results are as disappointing as last time - check it out:
What is going on here? While the average system price declined from $8.91/Watt back in September to $8.24 over the entire dataset, the disparity between the most cost-effective performers and the least is as great as it ever was! Indeed, our repeat failure as the biggest gouger of solar consumers in Los Angeles is once again, A.S.E.S. but now their cost is more than three times the cost of the lowest price company, Ronco Solar.
Indeed, while A.S.E.S. did lower their cost somewhat, they apparently did it by replacing the Schuco brand solar panels that they were using before with third-tier Chinese panels from Sopray Energy. (In contrast, Ronco consistently uses Canadian Solar panels, a top-tier Chinese solar panel.)
Certainly caveat emptor applies when purchasing a solar power system, but at some point it seems like the utility should step in and warn its customers about predatory practices. So how about it, LADWP, isn’t it time to give your customers a heads-up about what is going on?
Put another way, if you are considering going solar and your installer proposes a system that is more than $8.24/Watt - and indeed, that is a very high number for installations today - we have one word of advice: RUN!
The California Public Utilities Commission (CPUC) has just rejected the anti-solar Network Usage Charge (NUC) proposed by San Diego Gas & Electric (SDG&E). We first wrote about this cynical attempt by SDG&E to penalize solar customers back in November. At that time we reported that SDG&E was claiming that solar customers “do not pay their fare share of costs incurred on their behalf by SDG&E to provide service, including use of the distribution system." SDG&E made this claim despite being unable to identify what those costs actually were, and while ignoring the clear subsidy that solar customers provide to SDG&E by reducing their distribution costs by producing energy at the point of consumption.
SDG&E’s scheme to address this so-called unfairness was to impose a Network Usage Charge that would be applied to all residential customers. SDG&E’s fig-leaf claim of ratepayer fairness could not hold up to scrutiny. Since only solar system owners actually export energy back onto the grid, they would be singled out for the additional charge. We doubted then that the CPUC would manage to do the right thing, given their dismal performance in setting up the compensation structure required by AB 920, and predicted that this fight would have to be won in the state legislature.
We are pleased to report that (at least this time) our skepticism was unfounded.
Commissioner Mark J. Ferron rejected SDG&E’s proposal, using language directly from the arguments of the solar community. Ruled Ferron:
My concerns about the legality of the current proposal are based on the following analysis: The last sentence of subdivision (g) of Section 2827 [of the California Public Utilities Code] in essence provides that a utility may not create a “new charge” that would increase an eligible customer generator’s costs beyond those of other customers in the same rate class who are not eligible customer-generators. SDG&E’s proposed NUC is a new charge. While the NUC rate would apply to both customer-generators and those who are not customer-generators, it would apply differently to customer-generators, who would pay the charge on both incoming and outgoing power under SDG&E’s proposal. By contrast, the non-generator customer would pay a NUC only on incoming power. Thus, as proposed, the NUC might be viewed as imposing costs on customer-generators beyond those imposed on other customers in the same rate class. Further, the immediately preceding sentence of subdivision (g) states that “The charges for all retail rate components for eligible customer-generators shall be based exclusively on the customer-generator’s net kilowatthour consumption over a 12-month period, without regard to the eligible customer-generator’s choice as to from whom it purchases electricity that is not self-generated.” SDG&E’s NUC proposal raises concerns under this provision was [sic] well, because the NUC would base the generator customer’s charges on network usage that is unrelated to net kWh consumption.
Noting that the NUC proposal could have impacts in other IOU areas (both PG&E and SCE intervened on behalf of SDG&E’s proposal), Ferron ordered SDG&E to go back to the drawing board on their proposed rate structure filing and to produce one without the NUC by February 17, 2012.
This is an important victory for the existing Net Metering law in California and it means that - for now - utilities will not be able to tack on discriminatory charges onto their solar customers. Nicely done, Commissioner Ferron.
The latest newsletter from the California Solar Initiative (CSI) highlights some of the precedent shattering developments in solar this past year. Here’s our summary of the most notable developments this year:
We will be writing more about the details of all of this growth in the New Year. What oddities and outliers will we discover then? Stay tuned!
We have written before about the importance of the federal section 1603 Treasury Grant Program as a means to spur further growth in solar. Well it is crunch time and if you agree with me that this is a program that needs to be continued, there are a couple of things you need to do, NOW.
The good news is that it is easy, thanks to the 1603 Coalition folks over at SEIA - here’s what you need to do:
We have railed in the past about the PR problems plaguing solar - well, here is a way for you to help counter some of that by making a little positive PR of your own. If everyone who supports solar were to take five minutes today to do these two things, we would be well on our way to getting the 1603 program extended for another year - and wouldn’t that be a swell way to ring in the New Year?