- Construction of a solar photovoltaic (PV) system;
- Ownership and maintenance of a solar system; and
- Financing of a system.
Some companies build systems but do not have the capability of financing them. Others build them, retain ownership and maintain them. Others finance them and then transfer title to a third party.
In this article we discuss the best solar developers in each category. As we will see some companies excel in a single category while others may be strong in more than one category.
Note that the solar industry is a young one, having emerged in less than ten years from a handful of life style businesses that catered to consumers driven by environmental and not economic considerations. As the price of solar panels dropped over the past five years and the price per kilowatt of solar electricity approached parity with electric utility prices in some parts of the country, some businesses ramped up.
Choosing the best companies in any industry is difficult. In the solar industry it is compounded by the fact that some companies excel in some categories of note but not others. Two categories in particular are important:
- Geographical. Some of the best solar companies are regional whereas others are national, working in several states where solar energy makes economic sense.
- Customer Segment. Some companies focus on commercial work whereas others are strong in residential and small business markets.
In this article we identify the best solar companies and attempt to highlight their strengths (and sometimes weaknesses) as well as their geographic and customer focus.
Note that this article does not include a number of companies like OneRoof that are marketing companies and not solar developers. Companies like these get paid by solar developers and solar contractors for leads. These companies frequently use direct marketing techniques such as the internet, telemarketing and door-to-door sales to drive solar system interest and then pass “warm” leads to other companies for a fee.
Best integrated solar system builders and developers. Several companies have carved out national reputations for financing, developing and maintaining solar systems. Many of these companies use the third party financing model discussed in other articles: What Is Tax Equity Financing? and As Shakespeare Might Have Said, To Buy or Lease: That is the Question. Please note the companies listed below are in no particular order.
- SunEdison (SUNE). SunEdison is probably the largest US developer of solar systems. Historically its focus has been commercial. In 2015 it announced plans to purchase the assets of Vivint Solar, the second largest residential installer of solar panels responsible for a third of all residential projects in the United States the prior year. In addition to developing large scale (and now small) solar PV projects, SunEdison also manufactures PV panels (through its affiliate SunEdison Semiconductor). At the end of 2014 SunEdison had installed close to 1,000 solar systems with a capacity of 2.35 gigawatts. This is enough power to supply over 250,000 homes. Many of SunEdison’s projects were financed through third party tax equity; SunEdison itself introduced the Purchase Price Agreement (PPA) model for tax equity finance solar projects in 2007.
- SunPower (SPWR). Like SunEdison, SunPower not only develops solar projects but also manufactures solar panels. SunPower has pioneered many innovative products including some of the most efficient panels (over 23%), the first 25-year warranty, an automated cleaning solution known as Greenbotics, and ultralight panels that have powered the Solar Impulse aircraft.
- SolarCity (SCTY). SolarCity is best known for its residential $0 down financing program but the company has also built, financed and maintained many larger municipal and commercial projects. Like Vivint, recently purchased by SunEdison, SolarCity not only finances construction but also builds and maintains the projects with its own crews. Because most of its deals (an estimated 72% in the case of residential construction) take advantage of tax equity financing and other incentives that provide 100% financing for projects, SolarCity does business in only eight states where incentives are attractive. SolarCity is responsible for almost half of all solar installations in the United States in 2014.
Best Solar Financing Companies. In addition to the integrated companies listed above, a number of companies have distinguished themselves nationally for their financing of solar systems built by others. They provide the financing solution for regional companies that often will co-brand their products and services.
- Sungevity. Like SunRun, Sungevity finances solar systems but does not build them with its own crews. Sungevity also focuses on states where incentives are rich and can supplement federal tax benefits available to third party investors. Sungevity accounted for close to 13% of all residential solar projects in 2014. Starting in California it recently expanded into New Mexico, Vermont, Missouri and North Carolina.
- >SunRun. SunRun is a major financier of solar for principally residential use. Like SolarCity they offer consumers a $0 down option that takes advantage of tax equity financing. Unlike SolarCity, SunRun does not maintain its own crews for construction and maintenance. Instead they find local or regional partners to handle construction although these companies might co-brand their products with SunRun’s name. SunRun began its business in California but has since branched out nationwide in states where, like SolarCity, it finds meaningful incentives that can supplement the tax benefits it offers to third party investors.
- Clean Energy Finance. This company started its history providing software for managing energy consumption by the residential and commercial consumer. More recently it has focused on connecting investors with solar projects. In 2015 it announced plans to merge with Kilowatt Financial to form Elevate Power. Elevate will continue to focus on bringing innovative financing solutions to solar system owners. The combined company claims to have built systems for over 50,000 customers to date.
A number of other companies have emerged in recent years and developed strength in states like California, Arizona and Colorado. But these companies have struggled with growth nationally. Examples include Verengo Solar (whose Northeast operations were purchased in 2015 by NRG) and RGS (a publicly traded company that was one of the pioneers of solar but has had problems scaling its business).
Best Solar Contractors (in addition to Integrated Developers and Finance Providers above). A number of companies have excelled at construction, mostly on a regional basis. While many have provided broader development services, these companies have not (yet?) made a name for themselves in financing or providing integrated solutions. In some cases the integrated developers will turn to them to subcontract projects for which they do not have adequate local construction crews.
Note: There are literally dozens of contractors that we could list here. We have chosen to list those that have come to our attention, sometimes in the course of bidding on RFPs Solomon Energy or its affiliates have undertaken for clients. Our apologies to the hard-working contractors we have not listed.
- REC Solar. REC was founded in 1997 in San Lui Obispo and has built close to 500 solar systems world-wide, many of them in Southern California where rates and subsidies are high. REC’s market focus is commercial.
- Tecta Solar. Tecta is a commercial roofing installer that entered the solar market a few years ago, building a number of large arrays on big box stores throughout the Northeast US. The company is based in Fort Washington and has consistently built 50-100 Megawatt of projects over the past few years.
- Trinity Solar. Trinity is a New Jersey-based HVAC company that branched out into solar when New Jersey started offering generous payments for solar renewable energy credits (SRECs) after 2004. The company has been building 75-100 Megawatt in recent years, mostly for commercial although they have also built numerous residential projects.