Solar Empowerment

Gary Gerber, CEO, and founder of Sun Light and Power in Berkeley, California has been working in the renewable energy field for more than 30 years. “I am a general contractor involved in sustainability, and I have been traveling down the road of green construction for over ten years, with a keen interest in the bigger picture of energy,” says Gerber.

He successfully steered his solar design and installation company through the lean years when the country all but abandoned solar energy to the more recent second solar boomtimes. Sun Light and Power (SLP) is at once a pioneer and expert in the field of solar design and installation and has amassed an impressive portfolio of over six hundred installations throughout the Bay Area and is an industry leader in solar thermal and solar electric design and installation.

Renewable Energy in the United States

Gerber remembers the precise moment when he realized how important it is to preserve the world’s vital resources. He was at UC Berkeley where he was studying energy and heat transfer. “We had a guest speaker come in and talk about the different forms of energy being used throughout the world, and he said there is about enough coal for 200 years and enough oil for 50 or maybe 100 years. When you think about these things in geological terms and even human terms, it is a blink of an eye,” says Gerber.  

For Gerber and others like him, solar and wind power stood out as the only energy technologies that had any real future. SLP offers the latest technological advancements in solar electricity, solar hot water, and radiant heating, with half of their business coming from residential projects and the other half from commercial.

In many cases those customers find us through word of mouth, explains Gerber. “We make a real effort to develop relationships with repeat customers— building professionals such as architects, builders, roofers, and housing developers. West Coast Green was also a huge success for us, and we do well at other targeted home shows too.”
While skyrocketing energy prices have encouraged people to turn to solar energy, Gerber finds people are looking at the bigger picture, not just their pocketbooks. “I do find that global warming is on the minds of almost all of my clientele.  They recognize there is a problem and they want to be part of the solution,” says Gerber. He also sees a stronger interest in solar energy in California, especially Northern California, compared to other regions of the country. Statistics confirm this is indeed the hotbed of solar energy. In the last eighteen months California has seen a massive influx of venture capital money; in the first half of 2006 $1.6 billion dollars were invested in ”clean tech” companies compared to $1.4 billion in all of 2005.

Energy Efficiency is a Critical Component

The current solar renaissance is due in part to the passage in 2006 of the largest solar program to date—the California Solar Initiative (CSI).
The 10-year, multi-billion dollar program seeks to install 3,000MW of rooftop solar systems by 2017. However, CSI’s new rebate program has more restrictive rules than the old one, Gerber points out, and rebates are lower than they were before, making selling harder. “What is going on now is that the CSI requires energy audits from everyone who wants to apply for a rebate, and I believe this will move the industry in the right direction in energy efficiency,” says Gerber, whose initial approach includes working with the network of raters from Build It Green for home energy performance measurements.

While most solar companies do not offer any additional services beyond solar installations, energy efficiency contracting is already an emerging part of the SLP business model, and Gerber expects this area to grow. He plans to bring what he calls “Total Energy Solutions” to his clientele. These solutions will include reducing the most obvious inefficiencies in a home and recommending the solutions that have the best paybacks as part of a package. “The best approach is to reduce your demand first, before you start spending much money on a solar system to satisfy a demand that is too high, to begin with,” he says.
For new homes to qualify for the CSI PV rebate, they must exceed Title 24 energy efficiency standards by 15%. “Solar hot water is another one of the best and easiest ways to take your home above and beyond Title 24,” says Gerber. While the financial backing and enthusiasm for the CSI are strong, overall there is less certainty in the rebate program from a sales and promotion perspective. “It is going to be a robust and growing industry, but it is a much more challenging industry today than it was even a month ago to sell systems in,” he says.

Three Strikes for Solar Energy Rebates

In preparation for the CSI taking effect, SLP has hired an additional rebate assistant for their full-time contract manager, Sarah Diaz. “Keeping on top of rebate issues for your company, if you are not big enough to have a dedicated person in that role already, is going to be difficult and make it harder to avoid getting strikes,” Diaz says. Any sign of fraud or incompetence in installing systems and applying for rebates counts as a strike against the installing company, and three strikes mean that the company is locked out of rebate applications, according to Gerber. Even though the majority of companies designing and installing solar systems have done a high-quality job, there are always a few, as in any industry, which hasn't.

However, these new requirements can even affect the good players, according to Gerber, who sees routine inspections as the solution for shutting down people defrauding the system, and the way to identify errors made by legitimate businesses. “There is a big difference between intentional fraud and the occasional goof, and you do not want to penalize the company that has every intention of getting it right but goofs once in awhile,” says Gerber. Any one strike expires after a year for businesses that install 200 or more systems per year.

SLP, a company with an excellent reputation for quality, installed nearly 200 systems last year. The one thing about high volume businesses, Gerber worries, is that any company that does enough business might eventually pick up a few strikes just by the law of averages. Somebody could make a mistake on the job site or fill in the wrong number on a form, and then the company would be stuck with a strike. The bottom line is that if a company is excluded from this program for one year, then they are effectively out of solar business in California. Work remains to figure out how to make this new requirement practical for all solar installers. The CPUC has created a Solar Forum and will hold regular meetings between the CPUC and all interested parties to hammer out these issues over the lifetime of the program.
Solar Panel Growing Pains

Rebates and fraud consequences are not the only changes—even the old familiar design tools are taking on new forms. In the past SLP solar designers have used PVWatts, an online performance calculator for grid-connected PV systems, says Gerber. Going forward, anyone wanting a rebate on solar energy in California will have to use the CSI Expected Performance Based Buydown Calculator. It is a standardized design tool because the rebate has to be applied consistently to all systems now, explains Gerber.
Looking ahead Gerber likes the fact that the 10-year guaranteed lifespan of the CSI incentive program will encourage more solar manufacturers to jump into the game. This is good news for California’s solar industry and economy although solar companies still have to learn to navigate through uncharted territory.  “I think what is going to happen with the solar industry is we are going to need to get more knowledgeable and effective with our energy efficiency,” he says. That is a good thing. With Gerber at the helm, Sun Light and Power will no doubt continue to be a leader in solar energy systems.

SLP employees are also passionate about the company’s overall environmental commitment to promoting renewable energy sources. “Many of our installers volunteer their time with Grid Alternatives doing one or two systems a month. These are weekend installations of free solar systems throughout the Bay Area, installing systems for Habitat for Humanity as well as other low-income housing providers,” says Gerber. Their company motto: “Changing the world one roof at a time.”  

About Tracy Pfiffner:

Tracy Pfiffner is a content marketing strategist and former member of United States Green Building. Her articles on sustainable building, products, and technologies have appeared in nationally recognized trade and consumer publications. This article originally appeared in Home Energy Magazine.

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