Sunday, March 4, 2012

Solar Installers Increasingly Liking Connecticut

Connecticut is quickly heating into a solar hot spot.

Since the General Assembly passed energy policy reform legislation in June, companies specializing in solar panel installations have set up shop throughout the state, looking to cash in on new programs financing renewable energy.

From Seaboard Solar announcing its Danbury office in July to SolarCity opening a Wethersfield office in February, at least 10 solar installation and/or financing companies have announced their entry into Connecticut since the energy bill passed. State officials are encouraged by the renewed interest in the state, as the purpose of the legislation was to turn Connecticut into a leader in the clean energy and technology market.

“That’s a good situation,” said David Goldberg, spokesman for the Clean Energy Finance & Investment Authority, which was created by the energy bill. “The programs and policies implemented in Connecticut are sending signals across the border.”

Connecticut has a number of programs in place to fund residential and commercial solar projects, including a zero-emissions renewable energy credit, or ZREC, that pays owners of installations $350 for every megawatt of clean electricity produced. The programs are funded through a percentage of electric utility ratepayer bills.

The addition of SolarCity marks the biggest entry into Connecticut’s residential solar installation market. The California-based company leads the nation with 14 percent of the residential solar market, according to Greentech Media, more than double its closest competitor. The company has completed 18,000 solar projects since it was founded in 2006.

The company operates in 12 states and designs, installs, finances and monitors solar installations — making it a one-stop-shop provider. The company was attracted to Connecticut because of the new credit program and the state’s high price of electricity from the grid. The price of solar panels has dropped 60 percent, making it cheaper for homeowners to buy power from a solar installation than from the grid.

“Whether the rebates and the ZRECs stay where they are at or go down, the rate of electricity is so high here that we are going to stay for the long term,” said Ed Steins, SolarCity Northeast regional director.

At its Wethersfield office, SolarCity plans on hiring 12 people from Connecticut to be the company’s electricians, installers, managers, auditors and salespeople. As the company performs more installations in the state, it plans to open a warehouse for its equipment.

“We are not helicoptering in on the market,” Steins said. “We will have a lot of Connecticut employees.”

As more solar companies move into Connecticut, it is important they set up operations using Connecticut residents, said Michael Trahan, executive director of industry group Solar Connecticut, Inc. In the beginning of the programs, there will only be a limited number of projects — 600-700 on the residential side — so the companies winning those contracts need to be serious about staying in the state, he said.

“This is a ratepayer-funded program. The ratepayers deserve something out of this, and that will be a new industry,” Trahan said. “If companies want to come here and profit off a ratepayer program, they should be expected to invest in this economy.”

To be eligible for the state programs, companies need to register with CEFIA through a rigorous vetting process, which includes a review of their capabilities to properly install a system, Goldberg said. CEFIA already has 70 companies registered for solar projects.

“We are definitely seeing an uptake in the number and level of interest from outside companies,” Goldberg said.

California-based Borrego Solar Systems announced its move into Connecticut in January.

The state’s ZREC program with its required 15-year contracts with utilities makes investors more comfortable in funding projects because it is a consistent source of revenue, said Amy McDonough, project developer for Borrego.

“Whatever states have good renewable portfolio standards and solar credits is where you will see us working,” McDonough said. “We would like to do as many projects in Connecticut as we can.”

Borrego is working on a program to get more solar panels installed on the roofs of schools and other public buildings and wants to work long-term with municipalities to allow installations on landfills.

“The state has taken a huge step in moving from the old rebate program to this credit program,” McDonough said. “They are setting themselves up for some great strides.”


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