Strength in Numbers
By Alex Mulcahy
On a tree-lined street in West Mount Airy, solar panel installer Thomas Glenn confesses to a less than green past.
“I was a litter bug,” Glenn, who was born and raised in Kensington, says. “I’d get a bag of chips, throw the wrapper on the ground, get some Kandy Kakes, throw those on the ground. I wouldn’t care. But then when you work for PowerCorps, you gotta pick all that trash up. You really don’t want to litter after that because you see what it’s doing to all the creeks, streams, sewer inlets, and you realize the damage it’s [doing].”
Katrell Holmes, another solar panel installer on the team, seconds that. “I curse people out [who are littering] now,” he says with a laugh. “I know what people are going through in PowerCorps right now. It’s hot outside and they’re cleaning up in the heat, and I’ve been through it.”
Both now work for the Olde Kensington-based Solar States, Glenn for two years and Holmes for four. Prior to their jobs in the solar industry, they each worked for the aforementioned PowerCorps, a program started by the Mayor’s Office of Civic Engagement when Mayor Nutter was in office. It was designed primarily to give job training to people who are reentering society after incarceration. While with PowerCorps, both Glenn and Holmes worked on green stormwater infrastructure projects, which involves creating natural solutions, such as gardens and swales, to keep stormwater from overflowing in our sewers. It also involved picking up a lot of trash.
Glenn says that he greatly prefers his work as a solar panel installer. “When I was doing GSI work, it was mostly just maintaining already pre-built GSI systems. I didn’t really feel like I was doing as much for the environment as I do now doing solar. Right now I’m building something, constructing something, and I get to see what’s going on with each system, so I can see what I’m actually doing. The program that we use, it brings out an equivalent of how many trees you’ve planted, how many lightbulbs you’ve powered, how many gallons of water you’ve saved. Being able to see that and know that you built that, your team did that work, it makes you feel better about yourself than just maintaining a garden that you never get to see function.”
Holmes agrees, but says that he likes the work for other reasons, too. “I’m an adrenaline junkie. I like climbing up ladders, looking down and doing all the crazy stuff. I was a climber as a kid. I’d climb trees, anything that was elevated.”
On this day, they scaled a Victorian townhouse to install a 3-kilowatt array, one of the many installations the city has seen in an unprecedented growth in solar.
It’s been a long road for solar, and it started earlier than you might think. In 1883, American inventor Charles Fritts created the world’s first rooftop solar array in New York, but it wasn’t until the energy crisis of the 1970s that solar was seen as a potential solution to our energy needs. Since then, solar has undergone many ups and downs—what is known within the industry as “the solar coaster”—both nationally and regionally. Right now, it seems to be ascending. According to the National Solar Foundation, the national solar workforce increased by 168 percent in the past seven years, from about 93,000 jobs in 2010 to over 250,000 jobs in 2017. Philadelphia was the fifth fastest-growing market in the country. With rapidly dropping component prices, shorter return on investment times, a more cooperative utility company and an ingenious city program called Solarize, solar might finally be finding stability.
How Solarize works
Launched here in 2017 by the Philadelphia Energy Authority (PEA), Solarize is a new program to our city, but the concept in the solar market has been around for close to a decade. Solarize harnesses the power of group buying, and consumers get a better deal. When you buy solar, the costs are two-fold. First, there are the components and panels, and secondly, the labor to do the installation. The PEA first negotiated with suppliers based on the volume they anticipated, and the approved installers then had access to that preferred pricing.
A critical piece of the puzzle is that, in this case, the city has vetted the solar providers, which instills a level of confidence that consumers might not otherwise have.
In Philadelphia, three installers have been approved for the program: Kiss Electrical of Levittown, Moore Energy of Southampton, and Solar States of Olde Kensington.
Finally, the city also helps to market the program and keeps a steady stream of customers in the pipeline.
The process is relatively simple. Customers sign up at solarizephilly.org, and then the PEA sends a questionnaire asking basic questions about your home and your PECO bill. PEA then calls to answer any questions and to confirm information before assigning one of the three approved solar providers. A free assessment and project proposal from the installer assesses the property and prepares for a solar installation proposal for the home. After sending their proposal, the installer performs a site evaluation and takes additional roof measurements. If everything looks good to the customer at that point, the contract is signed and then the solar provider begins the interconnection and permit applications for the project with PECO and the Department of Licenses & Inspections.
The simplified and streamlined offering has resonated in the Philly market. “We were thrilled by the response we got,” says Emily Schapira, the executive director at PEA. “We had 2,200 people express interest in the program. We ran the first phase in 2017, from July to October, and we exceeded our goals. Initially we had aimed to have 50 people sign contracts for solar in phase one as we were getting it off the ground. We ended up with 186 contracts. We saw that there was a lot of interest, pent up interest, in solar in the city of Philadelphia.”
Philadelphia has added a new wrinkle to the Solarize concept. Since it has been such a boon for contractors, the city is collecting from them a fee for each installation. This money is being used to help finance a program designed to make solar affordable for middle- to low-income households. The pilot program will include 45 houses, but the plan is to accommodate as many as 1,000.
“We found with the first phase that we were reaching well-off households who were able to pay for the installation with cash,” Schapira continues. For qualified customers who don’t have cash on hand but have paid their PECO bill on time and in full for the last 12 months, solar panels will be installed with no money down, and the city will lease solar panels for a 15-year term.
“It will be, essentially, instead of buying their power from PECO, they’ll be buying their power from their rooftop solar array,” says Schapira. “We’re doing that by setting up a third party that will own those solar systems on the 45 houses, and the lease payments that are coming in will be paying back the financing we got out to pay for the upfront cost of those installations. It avoids them having to lay out any money up front, which I think is really exciting. And we’re setting it up so that homeowners are paying 20 percent less than they were before.”
To scale it up, additional investing will be required, but Laura Rigell, solar manager at the PEA is confident it will work.
“There is a company in Louisiana and Connecticut (PosiGen), and they’ve served over 10,000 customers now with a similar lease that we’re modeling here, and they’ve had less than half a percent default rate. So we’re feeling quite confident that while the lower-income population is perceived as risky, it’s not really risky, especially if you’re reducing their household expenses like we are doing.”
The effect on the solar business
Joe Kiss, the owner of Kiss Electrical, became a master electrician after serving in the Army, and he has been in business for the past 18 years. In 2005, while completing the 10 hours on code upgrades required for his New Jersey master electrician’s license, he took a class on solar.
“Then I had the bug,” Kiss says. “I thought it was really neat how we could generate our own electricity, not have to buy it the traditional way with the monopoly and everything. I thought it was a neat way to go green, understanding what’s going on and where I thought the future was going. So I got passionate about it.”
Kiss has been involved in solar for over a decade now, so his business has experienced the ups and downs that have marked this industry. One of the biggest ups was in 2009, when the Pennsylvania Sunshine Solar Program dispersed $100 million in rebates for small-scale installations. But it was, according to Kiss, a mixed bag.
“It was nice because it was able to get the solar industry on the map here in PA, and other companies came, carpetbaggers came in and tried to start companies. Everyone tried running around starting a solar company. That was a negative. The positive was we got a lot of green energy out of the Sunshine [Solar] Program, a lot of that money went to good stuff. A lot of those systems are still up and running today.”
He sees Solarize as something capable of jumpstarting growth without the bust that follows when the rebates go away, because it’s about the power of group buying. Solarize’s biggest long term contribution in Philadelphia may be that it normalizes getting solar in the city with the utility company and licenses and inspections.
“The Solarize program has really helped in relationships with the city and the utility company and...the install,” Kiss says. “Philadelphia especially was a very tough city to do solar in. There’s a lot of red tape in Philadelphia, and the program really does help streamline some stuff.”
Kiss is bullish about the prospects for solar because he’s seen how much the technology has improved in the past 10 years.
“The efficiency of panels, the size of panels, the price of everything has gone down. When I started selling solar, we were at $8 to $9 a watt. Now we’re at, or under, $3 a watt for installing.”
“Our philosophy is that we’re not here to sell you solar; we’re showing you a financial package and solar’s the vehicle.”
The next big advancement for the industry, Kiss says, will be the improvement of solar batteries, designed to store the energy solar panels produce.
“The West Coast is starting to come along pretty quickly [with batteries]. They’re paying double what we pay for electric rates, so it’s a really nice product on the West Coast. As batteries get cheaper and more efficient like the rest of our products have in solar, that’s where we’ll see the next big jump and where you [will be able to] eliminate yourself from the grid.”
The Solarize experience
In some ways, it’s no surprise that a sustainability enthusiast like West Philadelphia resident Gary LaNoce signed up for the Solarize program. After completing his undergraduate program at Penn State in energy, business and finance, he accepted a job at Drexel University in the billing and financial aid office. While there, he earned his master’s in environmental science.
After completing his degree, he was able to land a position as a data analytics manager at the Chestnut Hill-based Clean Markets, a clean energy marketing firm with a focus on promoting utility and state energy-efficiency programs across the mid-Atlantic region.
Though the decision to get solar certainly aligns with his ethics, he needed to make sure that the decision made financial sense.
“Moore Energy did a great job of providing [me with] an energy savings report,” says LaNoce. The documents are straightforward, but there’s a lot to digest. It’s necessary for the installers to conservatively project what the cost of electricity will be in the future, as well as the incremental loss in efficiency that occurs over the life of a solar panel. If you are financing the expense, it’s important to factor the interest on the loan as well.
The conclusion for LaNoce’s household? His break-even point is around 10 years, and over 25 years, he would be up $11,930. For LaNoce, the decision was a no-brainer.
And, beyond the savings, he’s enjoying the thrill of owning some cool, new sustainable technology. “I’m proud to show it off for sure, and the inverter is pretty impressive. You can look at the production right on the face of it, it displays it for you. People understand it when you hit the face to light up and it says you’ve generated 900 kilowatts per hour during the time of your system.” But then he quickly adds, “Not everybody has a great sense of how much energy a kilowatt per hour is, but the fact that it’s 900 kilowatts per hour just sounds impressive to people!”
The inverter’s dashboard also supplies other information, like how many carbon emissions saved by using the array (LaNoce is at 651 kilograms) and what the equivalent in trees planted is (36.1).
“So it’s cool,” LaNoce says. “You get an environmental sense of the impact that you’re having, and you get a financial sense of how you’re making ends meet.”