Years ago, Archie Bunker - of All in the Family fame - would look over at his daughter and son-in-law locked in an amorous embrace and bemoan, “Aw geez, they’re at it again!” Well, a recent Fox News story attacking solar has us feeling Archie’s pain.
It seems that every story ever aired by those who support the fossil fuel industry will inevitably tie any solar company to Solyndra - regardless of how unrelated the two may be. Case in point is this Fox story about questions being raised about SolarCity and its financial dealings, bearing the circuitous title: Solar firm linked to Obama donors could be ‘next Solyndra,’ top GOP Sen. warns. Wow - how about that for connecting some dots - SolarCity, linked to Obama, linked to Solyndra - a trifecta of irrelevance! (In an interesting tell, it turns out the story is filed under “Politics” which probably tells you all you need to know.)
What is this really about? It turns out that Senator Jeff Sessions (R-AL), ranking Republican on the Senate Banking committee, sent a letter on Monday to Treasury Secretary Lew, asking some pointed questions about how SolarCity determines the value of its systems for the purpose of claiming the 30% federal investment tax credit. Fair enough, as far as that goes, since many in the industry have raised questions about SolarCity’s practices in that regard. (Anyone who follows this blog knows that we have expressed our own concerns going back several years including this piece from 2011 and this one from 2012.) But it is the spurious - and frankly quite tortured - connections to Obama and Solyndra that are most annoying.
First of all, as SolarCity itself was quick to point out, Solyndra failed because it bet that high silicon prices would make solar panels that were dependent on large amounts of silicon ever more expensive. Their design required less silicon to produce comparable power output - a clever idea if the premise were to hold true. But it didn’t - silicon prices plunged and panel prices followed. Suddenly Solyndra’s products found themselves priced out of the market and the company failed. As we have noted before, smart investors with political leanings on both sides of the aisle backed Solyndra. Yet it is that very drop in prices for solar panels that has fueled the growth of the installation industry - and SolarCity with it. Say what you will about Solyndra, but what pushed them out the door has propelled SolarCity to dramatic growth in its stock price since the start of the year, nearly quadrupling from $12 in January to $47 as this is being written.
Second, the assertion that SolarCity has lost millions despite receiving tax credits represents two accurate statements that have nothing to do with each other. They are placed together simply to suggest some sinister linkage in the reader’s mind. SolarCity has lost money, like many other start-ups do, while it expands its business model. Part of that model is installing solar systems and then receiving the investment tax credit - just like everyone else who installs a solar power system does. There’s just nothing sinister there. It is the equivalent to saying that they have lost a lot of money, despite their customers having paid them millions. This is nothing more than the difference between revenue and profit.
Will SolarCity ever turn a profit? Not at all clear, but then, lots of savvy investors think that is a bet worth making.
Finally, the reference to “Obama donors” is just plain silly. For example, the Fox article asserts that Elon Musk - Chairman of the Board at SolarCity - donated $750 to Obama’s first presidential campaign. Really? Seems like awfully small potatoes for a man with Musk’s money. And of course, it isn’t accurate at all. According to the brilliant Open Secrets website operated by the Center for Responsive Politics, Mr. Musk has donated freely to both political parties, with donations of $212,750 to Democrats and $211,500 to Republicans going back to 2003. From what we can see, he actually donated $7,300 to President Obama, but he also gave $2,000 to President George W. Bush and $5,200 to Senator Lindsey Graham. (Perhaps he should have donated something to Senator Sessions!) Far and away his largest contribution total is to the National Republican Congressional Committee - $150,900 since 2003 with $32,400 just this year. Seems unlikely that he made those contributions at President Obama’s behest, but Fox can’t be bothered to tell people that.
No, this is nothing more than Fox News trying to push as many buttons as it can with its base and using Sessions’ letter to attack, yet again, the value of solar energy to this country and the world. The public deserves better.
Perhaps you’ve had this experience - you have an outfit that you really love. You loved it the day you picked it out, years ago, and it remains a favorite to this day. You wear it constantly - it is so comfortable and just putting it on reminds you of great times you’ve had wearing it. And what’s more, when you wear it, “You. Look. Mahvelous!“
But then a close friend pulls you aside and questions whether you should maybe reconsider your fashion choice. Shocked - and somewhat offended - you discount your friend’s concern. Until another friend, and then another, gives you the same, sad news - your outfit, however spif it once was, is long past its prime. It looks old and tired. Even a little frayed at the edges. Bottom line - it is making you look bad. Finally, painfully, you come to realize your friends are telling you the truth. Time for that old, beloved outfit to finds its way to the recycle bin - you need a new look!
Well, that is pretty much where things stand with our beloved (by us) website at RunOnSun.com. It has been nearly three years since we did our last major redesign and while we’ve continued to add features, the underlying look is tired and behind the times. Not exactly a good image for such a progressive company.
So, having heard our friends/critics concerns, we are pleased to announce that a major redesign is underway with a target go-live of Q1 next year!
In addition to incorporating a leaner, less cluttered appearance, we are also taking strides to address one of the major complaints of the existing site - it is too wordy. (Now there is a perfectly reasonable explanation for that - we are better with words than we are with art. So… easy to create textual, some would say verbose, content - hard to produce stunning visuals.
But we are trying to change!)
The new site will be far more visually oriented with greater interactivity. We are experimenting with some new technologies - most significantly D3 - that we hope will make the website as fun to explore as it is informative.
Trust us - this isn’t about dumbing down the site. Rather, it is about making all of our information more appealing and applicable to why folks come here in the first place.
If you have thoughts about what you would like to see (or NOT see) at the new site, please let us know in the comments.
Run on Sun is competing to earn a $250,000 grant from Chase bank as part of their Mission Main Street campaign. We thought folks who were supporting us might be interested to see how we have answered the competition questionnaire and that is the topic of this post.
First, some background.
The competition is for small businesses (i.e., fewer than 100 employees) that have been operating continuously for at least the past two years. Twelve winners will receive grants of $250,000 each.
To qualify, businesses must complete the questionnaire and get 250 people to go online and vote for them. Clearly, this latter requirement is easier for some than others - if you run a storefront where customers come by everyday, getting 250 of them to vote for you is pretty easy. But for a company like Run on Sun, where we mostly do “one and done” projects for our clients, it can be quite a slog to get to 250. (You can help by clicking on the giant logo above to vote for us.)
The questionnaire asks five questions which are all pretty straightforward, but here’s the rub - you only get 500 characters in which to answer! Counting spaces and punctuation!!! (Oops, there goes three characters with those exclamation points!) To say that this puts a premium on brevity would be a major understatement. Still, we gave it our best shot. So, without further ado, here are our responses:
1. Tell us about your business. What inspired you to start your business? How is your business successful? What makes it unique?
I founded Run on Sun to replace the well monetized misery of Big Law with a chance to do well while doing some good. Seeking solar for my own home convinced me a niche existed for a company that could answer client questions with honesty & clarity. Key to our mission, therefore, is educating the public via our website, blog & recently published book, Commercial Solar: Step-by-Step. Our three owners have earned the distinction of NABCEP certification, a claim no other solar company can make.
2. How is your business involved with the community you serve?
We serve two communities: LA & the broader solar industry.
LA: We facilitated the donation of solar equipment to USC’s Solar Decathlon team. As their pro bono solar contractor, we provided thousands of dollars of in-kind assistance on their entry, fluxHome, to be donated to a family near USC.
Solar Industry: Our widely read blog, a respected voice on best practices and making our industry viable long term, has been quoted in respected print media (e.g., Wall Street Journal, LA Times).
3. What would a $250,000 grant mean to your business and how will you utilize the funds to ensure long-term growth and stability?
We would capitalize on our recent growth by spending:
- $73,500-Expand into new office/warehouse space
- $37,800-Office Manager @ 30 hrs/wk
- $48,000-Salesperson base salary for two years (commission from sales)
- $24,000-Second salesperson base in Y2
- $18,000-Online marketing
- $10,000-Website redesign
- $2,750-Direct mail to commercial clients of our book, Commercial Solar
We will grow our commercial project pipeline, hire additional crews (from project proceeds) & expand our local community outreach.
4. What challenges can you identify for your business, and how do you plan to overcome them?
Identifying & retaining superlative sales staff is hard–we will address this by tapping our extensive network of solar contacts to attract the best possible talent. We will also offer best-in-class commission payments tied to performance that does not require high-pressure tactics.
Hiring our office manager will provide needed admin assistance to manage our growth, and free our core personnel to do what they do best–strategize, market, design & build world-class solar power systems.
5. Describe the talent and skill of your employees, and how they contribute to a successful business.
Our company is diverse: 50% female or minority.
Our chief electrician is a woman with 20-years’ experience in industrial electrical work.
Our Founder’s experience at Bell Labs, teaching high school & practicing law, gave him the ability to explain solar’s value to potential clients ranging from homeowners, to school boards & CEOs.
We have earned solar’s most prestigious certification: NABCEP.
This grant will expand our reach, enabling us to renew our business of making a more sustainable world.
What do you think? If you like what we have to say, please take a moment and vote!
We have written about the faux populism of electric utilities decrying solar generally - and net metering in particular - as unfair to poorer utility customers. But is that true? Are solar incentives really a question of robbing the poor to give to the rich? (H/T greentechsolar.)
Attacks on the solar industry as being unfair have been on the rise and getting nasty - and not just in California where folks like Ms. Burt from PG&E have been accusing the industry of being a Robin Hood in reverse. For example, over in Arizona, APS - the state’s largest utility - was just discovered as having spent thousands of dollars supporting attack ads against the solar industry. “We are in a political battle,” said APS Spokesman Jim McDonald. “We didn’t ask for it. But we are not going to lie down and get our heads kicked in. We are just not. We are obligated to fight. It is irresponsible to our customers not to fight back.”
And how are they fighting back? With ads like this one:
There’s so many things wrong with that ad - for example, I love the irony of the ad attacking “out of state solar companies” when the ad was produced by a DC-based lobbying group!
But the real message is the class warfare meme: “Out of state billionaires using your hard-earned dollars to subsidize their wealthy customers.”
Which begs the question - are solar customer really wealthy?
To be sure some are, and back in the day, perhaps most were. But as solar costs have plummeted, solar has become more affordable for more people. We see that in our own business - we have had our share of wealthy clients, but certainly the majority of our residential clients appear to be of far more modest means.
Now a study is out from the non-partisan Center For American Progress titled, Solar Power to the People: The Rise of Rooftop Solar Among the Middle Class, that seeks to answer that question more generally. The study looked at solar installations in the three biggest solar markets in the US - California, Arizona and New Jersey - and correlated census zip-code median income data against the locations for solar installs. What they discovered will surprise many and directly undercuts the faux populists at Big Energy.
Check out this chart - click for larger - it shows the distribution of solar installations across income range for these three markets over time. Interestingly, in each state, the distribution follows a similar patter with more than 60% of all installations occurring in zip codes with a median income of between $40,00-$90,000. In Arizona, where allegedly all those hard-earned dollars are going to wealthy customers, just under 80% of the installs were in middle-income zip codes! Here in California, two-thirds of installations are in middle-income zip codes. That tracks with our experience: we’ve done lots of installs in Pasadena, South Pasadena and Altadena - but none in San Marino.
As alternative financing mechanisms combine with lower prices, this is a trend that will surely continue. (Indeed, intelligent solar loan programs are the best development yet - and we will have more to say about that later this week.)
Which makes it hard to argue that solar is a rich man’s toy when two thirds of the installs are occurring outside of rich person enclaves. And yes, we realize that zip code median income is not a perfect proxy for wealth of the person installing, but it is a better proxy than any being used by the other side of this debate.
An innovative new survey on the attitudes of women about solar is now seeking user input. The survey effort, dubbed “Shining a Solar Marketing Light on Women” is the brainchild of #SolarChat visionary, Raina Russo, and solar marketing expert, Glenna Wiseman.
As Raina put it:
Women across America overwhelmingly guide the purchasing decisions in the average household. They also carry with them an intuitive nature to create a better future for their children. Understanding these two significant attributes can assist the solar industry in communicating and connecting with such an important consumer base, one that has the potential to increase the adoption of solar nationwide.
We couldn’t agree more and we urge all of our women readers to take a moment and share your views by clicking here to take the survey.
Raina and Glenna will be gathering survey responses through November 13th, and we will have a follow-up post when the results are published.
Encouraging the adoption of solar is way too important to leave it just in the hands of the men who presently dominate the industry - some of whom are completely tone deaf as to what is proper solar marketing. (After all, it was a bunch of guys who gave us women in cages as a means of marketing solar - can’t get any more tone deaf than that!)
Raina and Glenna’s survey is a great step in helping the solar industry improve its marketing to all segments of the consumer universe and those improvements can’t come too soon. So please, take a moment and take the survey!
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