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Solar 2.0: A Talk With Sungevity CEO Andrew Birch (Exclusive)

andrew_birchJust before finishing up our new home, moving in, and having a little girl make our family of two a family of three, I had the opportunity to get on a call with Sungevity co-founder and CEO Andrew Birch about Sungevity (of course), solar power in general, and Sungevity’s competitors. Finally, after all of those (happy) obstructions above, below are my takeaway points from that interesting conversation with Andrew (pictured on the right).

Solar Leasing vs Solar Ownership Through Loans

I think my first question was about an expected coming trend away from solar leasing and PPAs toward greater solar ownership (especially through loans). Some companies, like Mosaic and SunPower, have been eager to discuss this shift, while others that focus primarily on solar leasing and PPAs have stayed away from it. Sungevity was a solar leasing pioneer, so I was curious what Andrew’s take on this trend would be.

He said, “Yes, I definitely think that’s going to be the trend.” He also noted that Sungevity was agnostic to the financing model used for homeowners interested in going solar. Sungevity lets owners choose between a lease or a loan and doesn’t steer customers in any particular direction (as some companies do).

Andrew noted that it’s largely lower solar costs driving that. However, I also asked about his take on banks “warming up” to solar, and he agreed that things are getting much better on that side of things.

“Customer loans are getting relatively efficient.” Up till now, they have been quite inefficient with customers’ time. My understanding is that many banks haven’t been eager to provide loans for solar power installations and that terms haven’t been great either, but Andrew didn’t go into those matters.

Customer Service Is Key

One of Sungevity’s key competitive advantages is its iQuote system, which provides a solar power quote using satellite technology quickly and remotely. It also provides customers with dedicated project managers so that they don’t have to go through any automated customer support or deal with different people (who need to be caught up on their project) every time they call or email.

Expanding into Europe, Sungevity just recently partnered with energy giant E.ON and also acquired Zonline. Asking Andrew about the latter, he noted that the key driver for doing so was Zonline’s exceptional online customer service.

Sungevity isn’t involved at all in the manufacturing of solar technology, so it is not tied to any specific technology or module brand. To sum all of this up, Andrew said that it is a “customer-focused company that provides choice.”

Should Sungevity Have Done Things More Like SolarCity?

SolarCity commanded 26% of the residential solar market in 2013, three times more than #2 Vivint Solar and several times more than Sungevity. I asked Andrew if, in retrospect, he sees things Sungevity could have done to get closer to the scale SolarCity is at.

Andrew had a clever and important response: “Nobody has a large market share.” Solar isn’t even providing 1% of US electricity yet, so 24% of less than 1% is minuscule compared to where solar is expected to grow.

Continuing on, Andrew said: “We think we have the most scalable model.”

In other words, the game isn’t over yet — it’s just getting started.

Sungevity Expanding Into Other Countries

Many of the top residential solar companies in the US are still staying within the US — actually, they don’t even cover the whole country. Sungevity, on the other hand, has been quickly moving into other markets. It is already in Australia, where there are currently 1.3 million solar systems for the 23 million people living there. As feed-in tariffs for solar are dropped in different Australian states, solar will continue to grow there anyway Andrew noted, because the solar cost curve (down) is opposite the utility electricity price curve (up).

As noted above, Sungevity is also moving into Europe. Andrew noted that a recent study of 11 European countries found that 8 of the countries are already at grid parity. “But very few people are aware of that,” Andrew noted. (Of course, that’s something we here at CleanTechnica are well aware of, and partly why we’re in the business we’re in!)

All in all, Sungevity’s take is that we’re headed into “Solar 2.0” — and don’t expect for this phase to be less exciting than the first one.

If you have any more questions for Andrew or the Sungevity team, let us know! I’m sure they’ll respond either at length in a guest post or in the comments below.

Image Credit: Sungevity

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