A Bold Renewables Policy Lures Leading Solar Leasers to Maryland

The state's 20% renewable portfolio standard and various tax incentives have attracted three of the country's top solar leasing firms this year

Credit: CoCreatr, flickr

Maryland's ambitious renewables goal and booming solar market have lured its third solar leasing firm this year, putting the state on track to substantially boost the rate of installations for rooftop systems.

SunRun, a San Francisco solar provider that owns, maintains and insures solar arrays and sells the electricity to homeowners, announced last week that it was teaming up with two Maryland installers to offer its services in the state for the first time.

The company can expect competition from other California firms eager to tap a promising new market.

SunRun's announcement came just weeks after Oakland-based Sungevity said it would move into Maryland as part of an East Coast expansion that includes Delaware, Massachusetts, New Jersey and New York.

In January, SunRun's closest competitor, San Mateo, Calif.-based SolarCity, acquired Clean Currents of Silver Spring to serve as its operations center for Maryland and the District of Columbia. SolarCity also offers residential solar systems for sale and lease through Home Depot stores in Maryland and D.C., plus four other states.

"That is a testament to the impact that the industry has had in the state," Ian Hines, a spokesperson for the Maryland Energy Administration, said of the leading solar companies' recent moves.

Hines said that his office was excited about the solar leasing model because it could allow more residents to purchase solar power from rooftop panels without paying tens of thousands of dollars in upfront equipment costs.

"We didn't particularly target [leasing] as a way to grow solar in Maryland, but that has been an organic outgrowth of the other successful policies that we've put in place," he said.

Those policies have helped to ramp up Maryland's solar capacity by nearly 20,000 percent — from 100 kilowatts in 2006 to more than 20 megawatts today. Solar jobs in that five-year frame are expected to jump from 900 positions to 1,200 at the end of this year.

In June, the Solar Energy Industries Association (SEIA) formally recognized Maryland's solar growth, deeming it a national industry leader.

The state's solar push is driven largely by its renewable portfolio standard (RPS), which requires that 20 percent of its energy come from clean resources by 2022. Two percent of that total must come from solar electricity and water heating systems.

Maryland has offered various incentives to increase solar installations and multiply the number of solar renewable energy credits (SRECs) that state utilities can purchase to satisfy the RPS.

Project Sunburst, for example, offers grants of $1,000 per kilowatt to state and local government agencies and community colleges to help offset the cost of installing rooftop panels.

Hines said that since 2010, Sunburst has awarded more than $9.3 million in federal stimulus funds to nearly 9.5 megawatts of solar projects — enough to power 1,000 homes — and spurred $36 million in private investment while creating 80 jobs.

The state is also expected to issue 2,000 of its $500-per-kilowatt clean energy grants this year for systems under 20 kilowatts in size. That's five times the amount issued in fiscal year 2009, Hines said.

Massive utility rate hikes as high as 86 percent in parts of the state have also helped boost sales of solar power, which can cost 10 to 15 percent less than electricity from fossil fuel plants.

Maryland's "power rates, subsidies and sunlight make it a place where we can offer a good customer value proposition," SunRun CEO Edward Fenster told SolveClimate News.

The four-year-old solar provider has 11,00 customers across nine states, giving it the largest share of the nation's residential market for solar providers. Last year, SunRun provided one out of every eight solar installations nationwide, he said.

Fenster credited the Treasury's 1603 Cash Grant Program with giving his business part of the capital it needed to expand.

The cash grants cover 30 percent of the cost of a renewable energy project, in lieu of a 30 percent investment tax credit that runs through 2016. Only projects built by the end of 2011 can qualify, unless Congress renews the program later this year.

"With the 1603 program, you get the combined benefit of better customer pricing and ultimately a solar industry that achieves grid parity more quickly," Fenster said.

How Will SunRun Work?

In Maryland, SunRun's partners Greenspring Energy and Standard Solar will conduct assessments of a household's typical energy usage and solar potential, and then design and install a solar system for the homeowner.

SunRun will then issue a custom financial proposal based on that household's budget, local utility rates and other factors. Customers can either pay a low upfront cost on solar installations and buy the solar electricity on a monthly basis, or pay for the installation in advance below the purchase price and lock in a cheaper, 20-year electricity plan.

Paul Wittemann, Greenspring's president and CEO, said he expects the SunRun partnership to boost his firm's business in Maryland by 75 to 100 percent within the first few years.

Greenspring and SunRun have already teamed up in Pennsylvania, helping the solar installer to grow by 50 percent in the first eight months of the partnership there, he said.

"It really opens up solar to almost every homeowner," Wittemann said of SunRun's solar leasing program.

He noted that Greenspring has steadily grown since he created the one-man enterprise in mid-2007. The company, which also offers energy efficiency services, now has 51 employees at its offices in Baltimore plus Redding, Pa., and Charlotte, N.C.

"We were really the first major [solar] company in Baltimore, and now in Baltimore alone there are 30 to 40 different companies that can go out and install solar panels," he said.

"We're only one of a lot of companies that have grown."

Maryland's Secret: Stability

Scott Wiater, president of Standard Solar, attributed Maryland's surge in solar power to legislative stability at the State House.

"I think it has given everybody comfort that [solar] is going to be around for a while," he said.

"Instability, whether it is more favorable or less favorable to solar, is still change, and it is hard to build a business plan around an ever-changing rulebook."

Wiater said that Standard Solar has enjoyed more than half of the market share in residential solar installations in Maryland, Virginia and D.C. for the last several years. The solar provider also operates in Delaware, Pennsylvania and West Virginia.

Standard Solar and SunRun already partnered in Pennsylvania earlier this month, which, along with the firms' work in Maryland, will open up a new customer base for solar installations, he said.

Solar leasing "is an offering that may be attractive to a whole new audience of people that may have been sitting on the fence ... or to somebody who may not have a lot of liquidity or cash upfront," Wiater said.

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