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SolarCity enters isle market with intent to employ dozens

By Andrew Gomes

LAST UPDATED: 1:43 a.m. HST, Jul 11, 2011

Hawaii has attracted its second major mainland solar system provider in two years, broadening options for consumers and businesses interested in tapping the sun’s energy for electrical generation without upfront costs.

San Mateo, Calif.-based SolarCity announced today that it will expand into the local market, and said it plans to hire 55 to 65 employees to round out an existing startup staff of 35.

The company laid the groundwork by assuming customers and hiring key staff of Sun Energy Solutions, a Hawaii company started in late 2008 by Pete Cooper.

Cooper now leads SolarCity’s business in Hawaii, and said the transition was easy and is expected to dramatically expand development of photovoltaic solar systems statewide.

SolarCity is initially offering service to residential customers on Oahu and to commercial customers on Oahu, Maui, Hawaii island, Kauai and Lanai.

Cooper said the company has hundreds of residential jobs in the pipeline this year, and more than a thousand next year.

SolarCity’s move follows the arrival last year of San Francisco-based SunRun Inc. They join many smaller local firms installing photovoltaic solar systems for residential and commercial users trying to avoid or reduce high and sometimes volatile electricity bills.

Like SunRun, SolarCity’s main business model is based on installing photovoltaic, or PV, systems at no cost and charging customers for use of the company-owned systems at a long-term fixed rate.

SolarCity claims homeowners can shave 15 to 25 percent off their power bills, depending on the exposure of a home to the sun.

“SolarCity is making it simple for Oahu homeowners to switch to clean power for less than they pay for electricity from the power company,” Cooper said.

Prior to SunRun’s entry last year, so-called solar power purchase agreements had been available in Hawaii only on a commercial scale.

One difference between SolarCity and SunRun is that SolarCity employs its own installers to provide a single source for a system’s design, installation, service and financing. SunRun partners with local PV installers Sunetric and RevoluSun.

Both SolarCity and SunRun are big players in the national PV industry.

SolarCity, established in 2006, operates in 11 states plus Washington, D.C. The company said it has about 14,000 customers. SolarCity has raised nearly $1.3 billion in financing, including a $280 million deal backed by Google announced last month.

SunRun, established in 2007, operates in eight states. The company said it has about 11,000 customers and provided solar systems for 1 out of 8 families who installed systems last year. SunRun has raised about $685 million in project financing.

Susan Wise, a SunRun spokeswoman, said Hawaii and other states have more demand than supply for PV systems. “There is a lot of market share to be had,” she said. “There are so many homes that need solar.”

Upfront costs are often a barrier for many homeowners interested in solar, despite federal and state tax incentives. Prices for PV systems vary depending on size, but one large enough to power a typical Hawaii home using 600 kilowatt-hours per month of electricity could cost $15,000 or more after state and federal tax credits.

The Legislature has tried but failed in the last two years to create a government-sponsored program for financing PV systems for residential customers.

One version of the state initiative would have allowed homeowners to acquire loans tied to state bonds to pay for PV systems, and pay back the loans through assessments on property tax bills.

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