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Outliers & Oddities - State of SoCal Solar 2013 - Part 3

08/07/13

  07:23:00 am, by Jim Jenal - Founder & CEO   , 1940 words  
Categories: Ranting, 2013

Outliers & Oddities - State of SoCal Solar 2013 - Part 3

Ok, listen up - you know who you are, you Outliers and Oddities - but now it is time for everyone else to learn your deep, dark secrets as we name names and tell all - at least all that can be told from the CSI data!  Grab your popcorn and let’s dive in, shall we?  (If you overlooked Part 1 of this series you might want to check it out to recall our Methodology.)

Outliers

In looking at Outliers we focus on the Residential market since there is greater potential for consumers in that space to be exploited.  After all, if you are building a 500 kW commercial project and you don’t do your homework, well, shame on you.  But folks in the Residential space are more likely to be exposed to high-pressure sales tactics and other forms of abuse.

Another reason for looking at Residential systems is that the size range is very narrow: from 1 kW to 10 kW.  That limits the amount of cost variance you would expect to find (and we found) if you were looking at larger systems.  So the data here consists of Residential projects, both purchased and leased, but excluding MASH and delisted projects.  This subset of the larger overall data set consists of 454 companies, 13,619 projects with a total capacity of 75.8 MW and an average cost of $5.84/W.

(Full disclosure, projects by Run on Sun came in at $4.78/W - proving that sometimes you can save money when you go with the best! But I digress…)

Companies in this subset varied between having just one project in the data (152 companies appear only once) to SolarCity which has a whopping 2,326 projects.

To make any meaningful comparisons we have limited the companies in this analysis to just the very largest players.  Whereas last year we made that cut at 500 kW installed or more, today that filter still includes too many companies to readily compare, so this year we set the bar at an even 1 MW.  Even at that threshold, we still have 15 companies on this list. Surely companies that large can afford to pass along their savings to their customers, right?

Here’s what we found:

Installers by cost - 1H2013Reducing our sample size in this way brought the number of projects down to 8,555 (62.8% of the total), total installed capacity to 45.6 MW (60.2%) and average cost down to $5.82/W.  This last point is news since in the past, the average cost for the largest group was actually greater than the overall average.  Not this year.

The next thing to notice is that SolarCity - the largest player in this field with 28.9% more projects than their closest competitor, Verengo - now is right smack on average at $5.82/W.  It would appear that at least for CSI purposes, their cost data is no longer an outlier (though it may still be Odd - more on that later).  However, their smaller competitor Verengo (at least as measured in this data) once again beat them on price.

On the low end of the scale, Petersen-Dean has snagged the crown from two-time low cost leader HelioPower - and they did it by far, being the only company to show a price below $5/W.  Nicely done!

True Outliers Strike Again

Which leaves us with the high end.  The first thing to note here is that the industry seems to have cleaned up its act a bit from what we had found last year and the year before.  According to the data, the highest price charged has dropped from $13.32 in 2011 (49% above the 2011 average of $8.91) to $10.50 in 2012 (45% above the average of $7.23) to our present $7.50 (29% above our average today of $5.82).  So the data has really flattened out and our extremes just aren’t as extreme any more.

And yet, if relatively tiny Run on Sun, with no economy of scale going for it, can bring our projects in at $4.78/W, what is the possible justification for charging, on average, and over hundreds of installs, a price that is more than 50% higher than ours?

CSI’s cost cap as of today is $7.10/W for the Residential program.  That means that two companies, GCI Solar and American Solar Direct, are averaging costs that exceed the CSI cap.  American Solar Direct is huge - they have 675 projects in the data (ranking them third) accounting for a capacity of 2.6 MW (ranking them fourth).  And yet with all of that size - more than twice as many projects as cost leader Petersen-Dean - they are still $1.29 above the average!

And what can we say of GCI Solar?  That is the DBA of Killion Energy, Inc. which happens to be located at 15261 Connector Lane in Huntington Beach.  But somehow that DBA seemed awfully familiar.  And guess what, adjacent to 15261 Connector Lane is 15262 Pipeline Lane which is the home of perennial outlier, Galkos Construction.  Could these be one and the same, just with a subtle name change?  In the end, it doesn’t really matter - bottom line, $7.50/W is just too much for a large company to be charging.

Caveat emptor.

Not So Fast

Solar companies can also be outliers in ways other than cost - most notoriously, how long do they take to complete their projects.  To take a look at that, we limited our data to Residential projects that also showed a First Completed Date in the data.  We then averaged the number of days to complete projects as measured by the difference between the First Completed Date and the First New Reservation Request Date.  Needless to say, that yields a smaller number of projects, so we lowered our threshold to 500 kW  installed for inclusion on our list.  Our new “time-to-complete” list includes seventeen companies, 4,865 projects and an installed capacity of 25.9 MW.  Surely these folks must have their operational act together, right?

Here’s what we found:

Not so fast - average install time for major installers 1H2013The first thing we note is that, depressingly, the amount of time that it takes on average to get a project completed has gone up - from 157 days last year to 166 days now (a 5.7% increase).  We are getting bigger, but as a whole, we are getting slower - not a trend designed to please consumers.

But some companies have improved significantly - most dramatically, SolarCity, going from 212 days last year to just 157 now - a 26% improvement, and comfortably below the overall average.  Verengo, which actually has more completed projects in this data than does SolarCity, also improved from 134 days last year to 122 this year.  One surprise - GCI Solar, our most expensive installer, was also the fastest of any of these companies to complete a project, taking just 115 days on average.

And then there is Elite Electric.  Frankly we have no idea what is going on here but 320 days, on average, to complete a project is just plain crazy.

Last year we derived a somewhat novel metric for looking more closely at the impact of delay times in the overall industry.  We called it System-Years of Delay, or SYD, which is the product of the total number of systems installed by a company times their difference in average days to install compared to the overall average, divided by 365.  Thus companies that do better than average end up with a positive number, scaled by their impact on the industry in terms of the number of systems they installed, whereas laggards get a negative number, similarly scaled.  We see this as an indication of whether a company is propelling the industry forward, or dragging it backward.

Here are our results for the data from this year (some companies that are grouped around the average are omitted for clarity):

System-Years of Delay 2013As it did last year, Verengo continues to pull the industry forward and by a wider margin this year than before (172 compared to 111).  Last year’s laggard, SolarCity, is now moving things in the right direction.  But Sungevity continues to impede progress as do Burke Electric and Elite Electric.

Looking at this another way, assume that a system will produce, on average, 5 kWh/day for every 1 kW installed.  Then the delay caused by these laggard companies ends up having real environmental impacts since we are missing out on their energy production for every day that they are completed beyond the overall average.  Collectively, that amounts to more than 3 GWh of clean energy that were not produced and an additional 997 tons of CO2 emitted into the atmosphere.

Oddities

Which brings us to the Oddities section of this post.

In the past two years we found something really odd in how SolarCity was pricing its systems, at least as it was reported in CSI data.  We had noted back in 2011 that SolarCity’s price for its leased systems was far, far beyond the price it was citing for purchased systems, and far beyond what its competitor, Verengo was reporting.  Then last year we discovered that the two competitors were now charging exactly the same thing for leased systems and that meant that SolarCity’s price had plummeted in just a short time.  Going back and looking at all projects across the state resulted in this, rather startling graph:

SolarCity's prices over timeSo now that SolarCity’s IPO has come and gone, what are they - and Verengo - charging for leased systems?  (We are excluding sold systems because they are really a de minimus share of either company’s business.) Here’s the cost data for installed, Residential projects, along with linear trend lines:

Installed costs plus trend - solarcity vs verengo - 1h2013Interestingly, at the beginning of the year, SolarCity was actually reporting a lower cost than was Verengo.  But as the year has gone on, SolarCity’s cost has crept upward - not by a lot, but the trend upward is clear.  In contrast, Verengo’s costs have come down and their trend is equally clear.

Once again, Verengo follows a trajectory that mirrors the rest of the industry, while SolarCity pursues a course uniquely its own.  Perhaps that is no longer odd, but to be expected.

PsomasFMG Rules the Delist

Finally, we return to the strange case of that Ruler of the Delist - PsomasFMG.

In Part 1 we wrote about delisted projects. One company, PsomasFMG, LLC, had an astounding 79% of all of its projects end up being cancelled and thus ended up being “Delisted".  That’s 33 projects with a total capacity of 8.6 MW - or more than 260 kW apiece.  We thought that this was odd indeed and decided to look a little more closely at what was going on here.  (H/T Imogen!)

Of the 33 delisted projects, all of their rebate applications were submitted in a four day window between January 25 and 29, 2013.  All but one of those projects were submitted under rebate step 8b; the last one, on the 29th, missed the cutoff and fell to step 9b (it was later withdrawn). The 32 projects submitted under the higher rebate rate were apparently for Government entities in the cities of Pomona (29) and Diamond Bar (3).  (We have searched for news accounts announcing those projects but so far have turned up nothing.)

All 32 of these projects submitted under rebate step 8b were cancelled by SCE for failure to pay the CSI-mandated application fee by the due date.  Under the CSI Guidelines, non-residential projects that are larger than 10 kW are required to pay an application fee, based on the size of the project, to secure their rebate reservation (see section 4.4.1.1).  Thus, to secure rebate reservations for these 32 projects that PsomasFMG submitted, they or their customers would have had to pony up $250,000 within 30 days of submitting the initial application.  The rebate reservations at issue here were worth nearly $3.9 million - which sounds like a pretty good investment: pay out $250,000 to secure $3.9 million.  But it never happened, and the applications were all cancelled.

So while we know why the applications became delisted - failure to pay the rebate application fee by the deadline - we still do not know why the company was submitting so many applications in such a narrow window of time that all ended up being cancelled.  Odd indeed.

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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.
Run on Sun also offers solar consulting services, working with consumers, utilities, and municipalities to help them make solar power affordable and reliable.

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