Category: 2012

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07/19/13

  09:17:00 am, by Jim Jenal - Founder & CEO   , 1332 words  
Categories: SCE, Ranting, 2012

Friday Geekfest - If you write it, will they come? SEO Insights for Solar

Today’s post has nothing to do with solar, except in a sort of meta sense. You see, the process of creating these posts is not really driven by some Grand Plan but rather what is going on now or at least strikes us as interesting.  But of course what we think is interesting is in no way guaranteed to interest You, the reader.  Every blogger, heck, every writer wants to create content that readers will want to read.  Finding that match is the key - but how?

We came across an interesting article on point the other day thanks to SEOMoz.  The article, titled: Two Amazing Bar Charts: % Content Consumption, % Share of Search, introduced us to a geeky way of attacking the question of what content connects with our readers.  The author, Avinash Kaushik, suggested that you could gain some useful insight into how well you were doing by combining data from two sources: your website analytics provider (Google Analytics in our case) and your content management system (in our case, b2Evolution).

By summarizing your posts by categories and then totaling unique page views for those categorized posts, you could see how much content you are creating in each category and how much those posts are driving traffic.  If you are on track, there should be a direct correlation - categories where you are writing more are getting the most visits.  But are they?  We decided to run the analysis for one year’s worth of posts, from last July through the end of June.

Seems simple enough, here’s where it gets geeky.  (Note: if you just want to see the results, feel free to skip down to the cool chart at the end of all the geek-speak.)

Talk to me, B2!

Way back when we started this blog we had to decide what software to use.  For better or worse, we chose b2Evolution, although most of what you see out there seems to be on Wordpress.  One of our biggest complaints about b2Evo is that it provides pretty meager statistics - and nothing like the data summary that we needed.  Of course the database itself must have what we needed, it was just a question of figuring out where.  Oh, and how would be important too!

The b2Evo database contains 52 separate tables - which one(s) have the information that we need?  After a fair amount of poking around and a couple of false starts, we determined that a query combining two tables would allow us to retrieve the data that we wanted: a new table that would list the URL of each post during the time period combined with the name of the primary category under which the post was filed.  (We frequently associate multiple categories with a given post, but each post has a primary category and that is what we were seeking for this analysis.)  For the mySQL geeks out there, here is the query we (finally) concocted:

SELECT post_ID, post_datecreated, post_main_cat_ID, post_urltitle, cat_name FROM evo_items__item
INNER JOIN evo_categories ON (post_main_cat_ID = cat_ID)
WHERE post_status = ‘published’ AND
post_datecreated > ‘2012-06-30 23:59:59′ AND
post_datecreated < ‘2013-07-01 00:00:00′
ORDER BY post_datecreated DESC

We were then able to export the results table to a text (CSV) file for importing into Excel.  Now we needed to get our analytics data.

Analyze This

Google Analytics (GA) is a much easier platform from which to extract lots and lots of data.  For this analysis what we needed was to filter by our one year start and end dates and look at the Content - Overview report.  That provided more than what we needed for this analysis, but significantly it gave us the URL of the viewed page (within the runonsun.com domain) and unique pageviews.  We opted for unique pageviews to filter out those instances where someone visits the same page within a session as what we were after was the post-reader connection and unique pageviews is the best handle on that relationship.

Once again, we were able to export the data into a text file for importing into Excel.

Excelling at Posting

So after importing the two data files into separate tabs of our Excel workbook we were ready to start pairing things up.  But of course, things are never that easy.  For starters, the manner in which our URLs appeared from b2Evo and from GA were not at all the same and Excel’s look-up functionality could not resolve the difference.  Take this example:

b2Evo do-we-really-need-more-failed-solar-companies
GA /~runons5/blogs/blog1.php/solnews/do-we-really-need-more-failed-solar-companies

 

To match them up, we wanted to slice off everything to the right of the last ‘/’ and use that to do our matching.  Turns out that is a more complicated task than you might imagine.  A little probing on the Internet turned up this, somewhat counter-intuitive solution:

=RIGHT(A2, LEN(A2) - FIND("|",SUBSTITUTE(A2,"/","|",LEN(A2) - LEN(SUBSTITUTE(A2,"/","")))))

(I warned you this was going to be a geekfest!)

A new column was created in the GA data table and populated with the results of that lovely formula and voilà, we had URLs in both tables that would yield a match. Now our b2Evo data could include a value for the unique pageviews from each post that was written during the previous twelve months.  From there it was a simple matter of creating a pivot table based on categories, counting the number of posts in each category (listed as a percentage of the column total) and summing the unique pageviews in each category (again, displayed as a percentage of the column total).  We filtered for the top ten categories (by pageviews) and that accounted for 110 separate posts and 13,659 unique pageviews.

Put all that into a chart and here is what you get.

Drum Roll Please

Ta da…

Post categories vs unique pageviews

(Please click on this and view the full size image to do this justice!)

So having gone through this exercise, what does this tell us?  Well, my two largest categories for posts - Solar News and Ranting (which is where this post is categorized) - are also my two largest categories for views - so that is consistent with what we would like to see.  (Ok, perhaps a little less ranting - good luck with that!)

On the other end of the scale, we are clearly writing more about both Commercial Solar and Energy Storage than our present viewership supports.  That’s ok, we are looking to build readers in those vital categories so we are willing to be leading a bit there.

But look at the two major outliers: CSI 2012 and SCE.  The CSI 2012 category only had four posts - the three part data analysis series of CSI data that we did last year, plus a teaser post - yet it drove more than 15% of our views!  Perhaps rather than doing this once a year, which is what we have done the past two years, we should do this every six months?  That’s a lot more work - those posts are very labor intensive and require rigorous editing - but in terms of what our audience is reading, it would seem to be time well spent.

The SCE category is more interesting still since it really doesn’t involve as much effort as the CSI category does.  There were three posts in that category yet they accounted for more than 14% of all views!  Wow - didn’t see that coming!  Looks like it is time for us to spend a little more time looking at SCE and putting informative posts out there for our readers.  Message received!

Perhaps the most surprising result from this analysis was that we were surprised by the results.  We like to think that we have a pretty good handle on what our audience wants to see - and for the most part the above graph suggests that we do - but still there were surprises.  Like any other business metric, knowing what your customers want from your blog - or the products that you are selling - is key to being successful.

If you are a solar company writing a blog and you are serious about better connecting with your audience - colleagues and potential clients alike - you might want to try performing a similar analysis and see where it leads you.

Geek on!

06/22/13

  08:20:00 am, by Jim Jenal - Founder & CEO   , 498 words  
Categories: All About Solar Power, Solar News, 2011, 2012

It's Magic: Copperfield Research Cites RoS on SolarCity

Two years ago we published a piece as part of a three-part series analyzing CSI data in SCE’s territory where we operate.  To this day it remains one of our most popular posts ever, with over 11,000 views.  A year later we repeated the analysis with that year’s data - and that post was also very popular, easily becoming our most viewed post of the year.  In both of those posts, SolarCity - and its curious practices with long delays in building systems and unusual system pricing - was featured prominently.  We didn’t plan it that way - indeed the title of the posts, Outliers and Oddities, reflects how these were stories that simply fell out of the data.

Still, as any blogger can tell you, blogging can be a lonely business and it is often hard to know that anyone is really paying attention.

But yesterday changed that.

Copperfield Research

Copperfield Research

Yesterday we were informed of a report about SolarCity done by the firm Copperfield Research appearing on the investment site, Seeking Alpha.  That 30-page report, titled SolarCity (SCTY) - The Emperor(’s cousins) Have No Clothes - uses multiple charts and graphes from our analyses to support their conclusion that SolarCity is seriously overvalued in the market and that “The bottom line is investors have been hypnotically drawn to SolarCity, like moths to a flame, dangerously ignoring the house of cards on which the story appear to be built.” Ouch.

Indeed, the report has three full pages devoted to our analyses - here’s a sampling of their take:

Run on Sun Founder and CEO Jim Jenal performed a rigorous third party study examining many of the solar installers and developers. IT SHOULD BE MANDATORY READING FOR ANY SOLARCITY SHAREHOLDER OR DEFENSIVE ANALYST. One emphasis for Jenal’s study was his concern that solar developers had been violating a critical segment of the Solar Energy Industry Association’s Solar Bill of Rights. Bullet #8 of the Bill of Rights states, “Americans have the right to - and should expect - the highest ethical treatment from the solar industry.” Jenal believed that there were certain “situations that don’t live up to that Right.” His exposé spent significant time scrutinizing SolarCity’s cost metrics…

Jenal’s comprehensive analysis concludes that this prospective over-reporting of FMV [fair market value] appears to have been occurring consistently dating back to 2008, with the SolarCity tax fraud [their words, not ours] (if FMV was misrepresented) potentially costing tax payers many-millions of dollars!!!

But alas, again due to the sensational analysis by Jenal…

(Emphasis in the original.)

And on it goes (you get the picture).

As we noted at the outset, we didn’t set out to write an “exposé” of SolarCity.  Rather, we were simply trying to understand the market in which we operate and in the course of doing so we stumbled upon the oddities that we reported.  But it is certainly gratifying to see that others have found value in what we published.

Now if we could only get someone to pay attention to what is going on in Glendale

12/12/12

  12:46:00 pm, by Jim Jenal - Founder & CEO   , 1768 words  
Categories: All About Solar Power, AB 811/PACE/LACEP Funding, Feed-in Tariff, Westridge PAC Project, 2012

Top 10 Posts of 2012

MistletoeYear-end is often a time for retrospection, and few things are more popular this time of year then Top 10 Lists (unless it is kissing under the Mistletoe - to which we say, feel free to combine both!).  We decided to look back over our dozens of posts this year and highlight the 10 most popular based on our viewership data.

Each of these posts was viewed more than fifteen hundred times - which leaves us both humbled and very thankful indeed.

So here they are, our Top 10 Posts for 2012 (click on a title to read the post in full)…

#10 - SolarCity Files for IPO

One of the big stories of the year has been the on-again, off-again, on-again story of SolarCity’s proposed Initial Public Offering.  While cleantech IPOs have not been a very pretty site, there was much buzz about the SolarCity IPO as being a potential bellwether for a change in “green” fortunes.  SolarCity’s original confidential filing with the SEC coincided with a remarkable repricing of their systems as recorded in the CSI data:

Oddity - SolarCity's dramatic price reduction

By the time the IPO was publicly revealed in October, it was clear that one of the major risk factors facing potential investors was how the U.S. Treasury would treat the question of how SolarCity had valued its systems for purpose of claiming federal tax dollars.  A question, which we would note, still remains to be fully answered but the preliminary indications are not good for SolarCity and its existing investors.  For example, SolarCity revealed that for a limited number of systems, Treasury had reduced the allowable price per Watt from $6.87 to $6.00 for California systems and from $6.20 to $5.00 for Arizona - reductions of 12.6% and 19.3% respectively.  When applied to the $341 million SolarCity says it has claimed so far, that could be a $43 million haircut.

As of this writing, SolarCity is now saying it will go forward with a revised offering at $8/share - down nearly 43% from the midpoint of its earlier proposed range of $13-15.  Stay tuned, this story is far from over.

#9 - Q: What is more popular than Solar? A: Nothing!

In an election year it was not surprising that some echoes of that contest found their way into the posts for this blog.  One interesting point was the survey data about the popularity of solar among voters.  Didn’t really matter what your party affiliation, solar beat out all other forms of energy - heck, solar was more popular than chocolate!

Chart of favorable-unfavorable ratings for different energy types

Not that you could guess that based on some of the press coverage of the industry which seemed to have only ever heard of one solar company - Solyndra!

But voters’ belief in solar included putting taxpayer money behind it.  A full 64% of all voters - and an even more impressive 67% of the much courted “swing voters” - supported tax subsidies and other financial incentives for solar.  (By contrast, only 8% of all voters supported continuing subsidies for the coal industry.)

#8 - Non-Residential PACE Rebounds - at Least in LA County

One of the most written about topics on this blog has been the struggle to bring PACE financing to reality.  PACE - an acronym for Property Assessed Clean Energy - is a program that allows a property owner to finance a solar project by annual property tax payments.  PACE was all set to go in the residential market when Fanny and Freddy balked in the aftermath of the 2008 mortgage bubble crash.

But there is good news as the program has been revived for commercial property owners in LA County (and some surrounding counties as well).  The county launched a website and interested potential clients can learn more about the program there.  We are looking forward to doing our first PACE project in 2013.

#7 - CPUC Provides Progress on Net Metering

Most residential and commercial solar systems make use of net metering - that is, the method by which a solar customer gets credit for excess energy produced by their system during peak output versus the amount of energy actually purchased off the grid.  Those numbers are “netted out” and the customer pays if they are a net consumer and is given a payment (tiny though it may be) if they are a net producer.  Good deal all around, yes?

Well, not so much, apparently, if you are a utility.  Utilities in the state, particularly PG&E, have been trying to severely limit the number of solar power systems subject to net metering.  But in an important victory for the solar industry, last June the California Public Utilities Commission ruled that PG&E’s proposed way of measuring that cap was incorrect and in so doing, substantially increased the number of systems that California residents and businesses will be able to install.

The utilities did get something in return, however, a study to be performed this coming year to assess the costs and benefits of “various levels of [net metering] implementation."  This will be a very important study and it may well have far reaching impacts on the growth of solar in California.  Needless to say, the solar industry will need to be heavily involved in monitoring this process as it is certain that the utilities and their lobbyists will be pushing hard to get a result in their favor.

#6 - Power to the People - Support SB 843!

Community solar

One of the frustrations of running a solar company is that there are potential clients out there for whom their own solar power system simply cannot work.  Their roof might be all wrong, or the shading from surrounding trees simply cannot be overcome.  Or they might be renters, or a commercial business with a relatively small, weak, roof that doesn’t match their load.  Whatever the case, but way more often than we like, we simply have to say no.

Community Solar - the goal of SB 843 - could go a long way toward solving that problem.  Under a Community Solar program, a system developer could sell shares in the output of the system to any customer of the utility where the project is located.  Those customers could purchase just the amount that they needed, unconstrained by the happenstance of roofs, or landlords, or loads.  The system provides its power directly to the grid, and the utility bills the customers based on their share of the energy produced (much like the “green energy” that some utilities now allow their customers to purchase).

Up against the end of the legislative session and facing still opposition from the utilities and their allies in the legislature, SB 843 died in September.

The good news is that the bill is slated to be reintroduced next year.

#5 - Westridge Project Grabs Pasadena Weekly’s Green Issue Front Page!

Jim Jenal, Run on Sun Founder, poses beside the 52.3kW solar power installation at Westridge School for GirlsWe’d be lying if we didn’t admit that our favorite project this year - at least in terms of coverage on this blog - was our install at the Westridge School for Girls here in Pasadena.  Seven different articles chronicled that project from our initial selection, to a series of step-by-step construction stories, to reporting on the accolades that the project garnered for both Westridge and Run on Sun.

Micro-inverter manufacturer Enphase Energy featured the project as one of their Projects of the Week, the City of Pasadena cited the project in selecting Westridge for a Green City award, and Pasadena Weekly put the project on the cover of their annual “Green Issue."  Some great PR for a great project with a great client.  We look forward to doing it again with the folks at Westridge real soon.

#4 - LADWP Updates FiT Status

FiT price decline over timeLADWP continues its slow march to rolling out a FiT and our #4 post detailed the latest status update from DWP.  Alas, we still haven’t seen data from the demonstration project released and as near as we can tell, the “standard” contracts for those approved projects are still being finalized long past the October-November timeline that was announced with this update.

Will this program roll-out in January as scheduled?  Seems unlikely, but stay tuned!

#3 - Vote Yes on 39

Voters in California put their votes where the polls said they would be - supporting Proposition 39 that would greatly increase funding for energy efficiency and green energy projects with 60% of the vote.

Amidst rumors of possible legal challenges, the fight over, and potential implementation of, Prop 39 will be one of the big solar stories in 2013.

#2 - Centex Clouds Solar Tile Repairs

Mega-home builder Centex of the Pulte Group has a problem with some of its highly-touted “solar homes” - the homeowners cannot use their solar power systems because of faulty roofing tiles that threaten to catch on fire.  The manufacturer has gone out of business and while Centex has said that they will pay for repairs, they are asking homeowners to sign a pernicious release that could leave them exposed if there are problems with the repair down the road.

Centex logo

After we originally wrote about the problem, we were contacted by one of the homeowners asking for our help.  We got Centex to admit that they might conceivably waive the release requirement but apparently only if the homeowner is willing/able to push back - hard.  Frankly, we think that Centex should just step up and do the right thing - but if they are unwilling to do so, we sure would like to see the authorities provide whatever extra encouragement is needed.

Despite only being published a short time, this story jumped to be our second most popular post of the year and it would make our year to be able to report that this ultimately has a happy ending.  We’re still waiting.

And Our #1 Post of the Year:
Outliers & Oddities: State of SoCal Solar 2012 - Part 3

Once again, our most popular post for the year was our annual examination of the Outliers and Oddities as determined by analyzing the CSI data for the first half of the year.  Since it was published on September 6th, it has racked up more than 4,000 views!

Of all that we reported on in this very lengthy (2795 words - yikes!) post, perhaps the most troubling was what we documented with this graph:

Years of delay

This graph shows how the extraordinary delays in installing systems by industry-giant SolarCity is retarding the progress of the industry in meeting consumer needs and in protecting the environment.   Word to the wise, bigger isn’t necessarily better and “free” may not be all that it is cracked up to be!

Looking Ahead…

That’s our recap on the year - our best year ever.  We are really excited for 2013 as the economy continues to improve and we finally have the uncertainty of the past twelve months behind us, we are expecting great things from the year ahead.  And, of course, you can continue to expect our mostly informed, somewhat irreverent take on all things solar.  Thanks for your support and encouragement - especially you, Vick!

Happy Holidays!

11/21/12

  08:55:00 am, by Jim Jenal - Founder & CEO   , 326 words  
Categories: All About Solar Power, Ranting, 2011, 2012

Run on Sun Featured at PVTech

Technology reporter Felicity Carus of the (Manchester, UK) Guardian newspaper has a new article up on PVTech that features an extended interview with Run on Sun Founder & CEO, Jim Jenal:

Felicity CarusFor all your CSI data crunching needs, let me introduce readers to Jim Jenal, the founder and Chief Executive of Run on Sun, a small Pasadena-based solar installer … Jenal was a litigation attorney for 13 years after graduating with a BA in mathematics and a masters in computer science. He may not practise the law any longer, but his inner data geek is alive and kicking, particularly when it comes to CSI data, which he has analysed extensively in his blog.

If anyone can point me in the direction of equivalent data analysis for the CSI or other programmes in California’s solar industry, I would love to hear from you.

Carus went on to discuss our results from the Outliers & Oddities posts (which looked at some of the less savory activities in the solar industry) and ended with this quote:

Jenal thinks those in the solar industry should be good citizens. “I actually think that we’re supposed to be different. I understand those who maximise their profits. I understand that it’s much of the way the world works. But I don’t think the solar industry, which is about sustainability, should operate that way. It offends me and my sense of justice.

We would also note that it violates not just our Founder’s sense of justice, but also the Solar Bill of Rights, promulgated by the Solar Energy Industry Association (SEIA), which declares: “ Americans have the right, and should expect, the highest ethical treatment from the solar industry.

We are thankful, on this Thanksgiving eve, for the overwhelming majority of honest, ethical players in the solar industry who collectively do make us “different".  But we still have an obligation to not only behave ethically ourselves, but to call out those few who aren’t.

Happy Thanksgiving, everyone!

09/06/12

  06:47:00 am, by Jim Jenal - Founder & CEO   , 2795 words  
Categories: All About Solar Power, Residential Solar, Ranting, 2012

Outliers & Oddities - State of SoCal Solar 2012 - Part 3

This is it - time to name names and find out which solar companies are the good, the bad, and - if not ugly, at least Outliers and Oddities!


In Part 1 of this series we laid out our data methodology and showed some of the general trends in the costs of solar power systems in Southern California Edison (SCE) territory for the first half of this year.  Part 2 built on that to determine Who was Hot and Who was Not - and of course, being identified as Not Hot is certain to generate a lot more consternation than the other way around!

Now in Part 3 we turn our attention to some curious things that we have found in the data: Outliers who are charging way beyond any reasonable amount compared to their peers, or taking interminably long to complete projects, and Oddities - curious trends that defy easy explanations but raise questions about the State of Solar in Southern California.

Outliers

Last year when we analyzed this data, we discovered that there was one company that really stood out for being a bad actor when it came to over-charging on solar power systems.  That company was Galkos Construction, coming in at a staggering $13.32/Watt compared to an average of $8.91/Watt, nearly 50% above the average.  (We also noted that HelioPower, Inc. was the lowest in our analysis, coming in at just $6.56/Watt or 27% below the average.)  What will we discover in this year’s data?

First a reminder of how this analysis works.  Our focus is on systems in the residential market segment since that is the bulk of sales and also where consumers are at greater risk of being pressured into a high-priced sale.  (If you are installing a 500kW solar farm and you don’t do your homework, we have somewhat less sympathy for your plight.)  Moreover, since the residential segment in the CSI data is limited to systems between 1 and 10kW, there is not as much size difference to skew the pricing data.  We excluded systems that were “delisted” so only completed or pending projects are counted.  We included, as we did last year, both cash sales and leased systems (although that data has gotten more interesting as we will see later) to capture as many data points as possible. That subset of our data accounts for 8,977 systems with an average system price of $7.23/Watt (CSI Rating).

Finally, since we really only wanted to look at the behavior of the biggest players, we limited our analysis to only those companies with over 500kW of residential projects in the data.  As a result, no company had fewer than 80 projects on our list, and the largest had nearly 1,800!  These are big players indeed, and they should be able to demand tremendous pricing for their components - but do they pass those savings on to their customers?  When we apply this restriction to the data, our sample size is reduced to 6,095 systems (68%) with an average system price of $7.38/Watt - roughly 2% higher than the overall average!  Here are our results:

Outliers - 2012The bulk of our companies here, 9 out of 15, come in below the overall average for this group.  And once again, our friends over at HelioPower came in with the lowest system price at just $5.85/Watt.  Nicely done, for the second year in a row!  (Full disclosure - while none of our projects were in SCE territory during this period, our system price for the first half of 2012 was just $5.33/Watt.)

True Outliers: Future Energy, American Solar Direct and Galkos Construction (Again!)

While down significantly from the stratospheric heights of last year, three companies continue to soar past the $10/Watt threshold: Future Energy Corporation, American Solar Direct, and just like last year, Galkos Construction, Inc.  Each of these companies is $3/Watt above the average for the residential market segment.  To what can we attribute these crazy prices?  Future Energy and Galkos use Enphase micro-inverters (but so do we, and our prices are approximately 1/2 of theirs) and in any event, American Solar Direct uses SMA exclusively, so inverter price is not driving these costs.  What about panel choices?  No insight there, either: Future Energy uses SunPower, but American Solar Direct uses REC and Galkos uses Sharp (and each uses that brand over 90% of the time).  And they each bought a lot of panels: Future Energy bought 3,091, American Solar Direct bought 6,329 and Galkos bought 7,759.  Surely that much purchasing power can demand tremendous cost reductions to these companies.  Equipment choices are simply not driving these prices.

Cost Caps?

The CSI program has talked about cost caps for a long time, and in the latest published CSI Handbook (from December 2011) we find this provision:

3.4.5 Limitations on Installed Cost

One of the goals of the CSI program is to support a reduction in PV system costs over time as defined by:

Total Project Cost ($)CEC-AC (Watts) = $/Watt

It is the intent of this program to make steps towards this goal. Projects applying and installing PV systems through this program should have their installed cost fall within a reasonable limit. The current average system cost of PV systems ranges from $7.36 to $8.41 per CEC-AC watt, fully installed. To ensure that the integrity of the program is maintained, the Program Administrators may require documentation for why system costs exceed the lower of either of the following:

  • $10.26/Watt; and/or
  • One standard deviations above the average cost per watt of all projects reaching Pending Payment Status within the last 12 months, whichever is less. (NOTE: As of 8/31/2011, the defined reasonable limit was $10.26 CEC-AC watt, but this value changes as costs decrease. The current limit is available at www.CaliforniaSolarStatistics.ca.gov)

Now this cost calculation is somewhere between the number we are using (which includes the design factor) and the nameplate cost (which is what solar companies typically report because it is the lowest and it also masks differences in equipment value).  What would happen if we were to re-jigger our cost values for our three Outliers to present their system costs as defined by the CSI Handbook’s Cost Cap section?  Here are the results:

Cost caps impact?

What do you know about that?  Future Energy’s average price is exactly at the limit stated in the CSI Handbook to avoid scrutiny by the Program Administrator!  What a coincidence!  To be sure, all three of these companies exceeded the $10.26 threshold: Future Energy (99 out of 171 times, 58%), American Solar Direct (68 out of 291, 23%), and Galkos (170 out of 482, 35%).

What to make of that?  For one thing, it shows that Cost Caps work - despite being dollars above the average cost of their peers, they each managed to at least have their average value remain under the cap.  For another, perhaps it would be useful if CSI published those companies that routinely exceed the Cost Cap in a given period?  If nothing else, it would help put consumers on notice in ways that they presently are not (unless, of course, they are reading this blog).

We would love to hear from Future Energy, American Solar Direct or Galkos, and we will be happy to print their explanations for these prices unedited, and in full.  (Of course, those responses are subject to further analysis.)

Not So Fast

Another type of outlier is the large solar company who signs a contract and then disappears for months on end while the customer waits, and waits, and waits (cue the Casablanca soundtrack).  For our same set of big time players, we decided to rank order them by the average time to go from the first filing of a rebate reservation request to the first completion date.  While there are lots of reasons for any one project to get delayed, for companies like these that install such a huge percentage of all systems, you would expect to see quick and efficient operations that deliver quality systems in short order.  Here is what we found:

Days to install - CSI/SCE 1H2012

(Wow - Do-it-Yourself’ers take the longest to get their systems built - who would have guessed?  Yet another reason why solar is not a DIY project!)

Now isn’t this interesting - Future Energy has the shortest time to install of all of these companies, taking roughly half the time to complete a project as its nearest competitor.  Maybe Future Energy customers are getting something for all of that extra money!  (Although a little research might reveal some cheaper, faster options…)

The average - which most of these companies cluster closely around - is still in excess of five months, far longer than most solar customers expect to wait.  But two companies - Petersen-Dean and SolarCity - have delays in excess of 7 months!  Perhaps being a huge company, like SolarCity, makes it harder to be responsive, but what is Petersen-Dean’s excuse?  They have 257 systems in this sample (compared to the 1,108 for SolarCity), not that many more than the 171 of our speediest company, Future Energy, and nowhere near the number of systems for Verengo which is actually doing better than the overall average at a delay of 134 days.

This got us to thinking - if we take the average number of days to complete as our benchmark, some companies will be working better and some worse than that average.  In other words, some companies are insuring that solar systems are installed faster, whereas others are, sadly, causing systems to be installed slower.  What is their cumulative impact?

To measure that, we came up with a new metric which we have dubbed the cumulative System-Years of Delay, or SYD (see Notes at end), which is the product of the total number of systems attributed to a company times the difference between the overall average time to complete and the time for this company, divided by 365. Companies that install faster than average under this metric will have a positive value, slower companies will be negative - thus the goal will be to have the largest value possible.  Think of this as whether a company is propelling the overall solar industry forward, or dragging it backward.  Here are our results (companies clustered around the average have been deleted for clarity):

Years of delayThis is a startling result - the two giants of the industry, Verengo and SolarCity, are at opposite ends of this scale!  Verengo, which has 1,791 systems in this subset, averaged 134 days to complete a project, 23 days better than the average for our major players.  Thus, it is propelling the installation of solar forward since it handles so many systems faster than average.  (Future Energy is way faster still, but has a small impact by comparison because it only installs a tiny fraction of the systems Verengo is handling.)  To be sure, Verengo’s 134 days is nothing to brag about, but in this crowd of relative slow-pokes, Verengo is clearly leading the way.

So what can we say about SolarCity?  Well, first, they are really slow - taking on average nearly two months (55 days) more than the overall average (of five months) to get a system installed.  (As with the fastest company comparison, Petersen-Dean takes substantially longer than SolarCity - 73 days worse than average compared to 55 - but they account for far fewer systems - 257 versus 1,108.)  But more importantly, SolarCity’s delays become a real setback for the overall industry given the large number of systems for which they are responsible.

Look at it this way: SolarCity, just in this tiny slice of data, representing just a fraction of their overall industry impact, is responsible for the installation of 1,108 systems representing a total capacity of 5.5 MW of residential solar.  Assuming an average of 5 solar hours per day, for every day that SolarCity delays installing these systems, 27.5 MWh of energy is not being produced.  Factoring in their 55 day delay beyond the average of their peers means that 1.5 GWh of energy was not produced, and instead, 498 additional tons of greenhouse gases were emitted (see Notes at end). SolarCity’s delays are bad for the solar industry, and bad for the environment.

Oddities

Which brings us to the Oddities section of this post.  One year ago we stirred a bit of controversy by observing that SolarCity’s system prices for leased systems were far higher than what they reported for cash sales.  We thought this was odd because there was no similar discrepancy in the data for the other large player in the leasing space, Verengo.  So naturally, we needed to revisit that analysis this year and see if that trend was continuing.

Our analysis last year tried to focus on the most recent projects in the data, and so restricted the data set to just include “pending” systems, eliminating those that were installed or delisted.  Last year, SolarCity charged $10.06/Watt for its 468 leased systems compared to Verengo which only charged $7.63/Watt for its 482 leased systems.

Here’s what this year’s data reveals:

Leasing - SolarCity vs Verengo

First some mundane observations: while Verengo has increased its number of pending systems from a year ago by roughly 45% (consistent with the overall growth in this data set from a year ago), SolarCity actually declined by roughly 24% and Verengo now has nearly twice the share of this segment as does SolarCity.

But of course the shocking data point is SolarCity’s cost per Watt - all the way down to $6.61, and now tied (exactly) with Verengo!  This is a remarkable development given that the overall downward trend in prices over the past year was far, far more modest than the precipitous drop reported by SolarCity.

We decided to investigate this a bit further.  In particular, if the decline in SolarCity’s pricing was simply that they were better able than most to take advantage of lower equipment prices, we would expect to see a gradual decrease over time from last year’s high to this year’s low.  To test that hypothesis, we went back to the overall data set and expanded our analysis to look at all California data (i.e., including PG&E and SDG&E data in our analysis).  In addition, because we needed to go back to 2011 data, we included completed projects (i.e., “installed” in the data) as well as pending projects.  We then aggregated them by month and calculated the month-by-month average system cost from January 2011 to June of 2012.  Here’s what the data disclosed:

Oddity - SolarCity's dramatic price reductionFor thirteen months, from January 2011 through January 2012, SolarCity’s system costs were remarkably stable - at or near $10/Watt.  But then something amazing happened and in the space of three short months, SolarCity slashed its prices from $9.74/Watt in January to just $6.60/Watt in April - a drop of more than a dollar a Watt per month!  Now our buying power is nothing compared to that of SolarCity, but we certainly didn’t see price declines anything like that!

And then we remembered something else that happened back in late Winter and early Spring (although the memory is a little fuzzy given that we haven’t heard anything more about it since).  From Bloomberg.com (April 9, 2012):

Elon Musk, who leads Tesla Motors Inc. (TSLA), said an initial public offering of SolarCity Corp. may occur this year after a review of accounting, with an IPO of Space Exploration Technologies Corp. probable in 2013.

Plans to sell shares in SolarCity, which leases rooftop solar-power systems, won’t advance until “additional clarity on the accounting” for those leases is provided by auditors and the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission, Musk said in an April 5 interview. Bloomberg reported Feb. 1 that the San Mateo, California-based company was seeking an IPO as early as last month, citing three people with knowledge of the matter.

“There is this question of how do you account for something when it’s a lease,” Musk said. “Not all of them are structured in the same way. We want to just double-check with our auditors and the SEC before we file to make sure the accounting is correct.”

Rumor has it that the SolarCity IPO may have stalled over concerns by the SEC regarding those very accounting practices.  If the need to “clarify” its accounting - specifically the manner in which it calculates the fair market value of its leased systems - is what is driving down this pricing it begs the question:  Will SolarCity voluntarily revisit the accounting for all of its previously leased systems and refund the excess federal tax credits and depreciation that it has received based on what its present conduct seems to concede was an overstated valuation?  Time will tell.


Notes

System-Years Delay

The SYD formula in full looks like this:

formula for system-years of delay

 

Where CountX is the number of systems installed by Company X, AvgInstallDays is the overall average for this group of companies (157 days) and InstallDaysX represents the average number of days to complete an installation for Company X.

 

SolarCity’s Excess GHG Emissions

Excess greenhouse gas emissions attributable to SolarCity’s delay was calculated as follows:  We used the EPA’s eGrid Calculator to estimate the GHG emissions from SCE’s energy production.  That figure comes to 659.6 lbs/MWh.  We calculated in the article that SolarCity’s delay accounted for 1.5GWh (1.512 GWh to be precise,  or 1,512 MWh) of energy not produced by those solar systems during the delay period.  That works out to 997,315 lbs of GHG or 498 tons.

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Jim Jenal is the Founder & CEO of Run on Sun, Pasadena's premier installer and integrator of top-of-the-line solar power installations.
In addition, Run on Sun offers solar consulting services, working with consumers, utilities and municipalities to help them make solar power affordable and reliable.

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