Gary Gerber, Sun Light and Power: Page 2 of 3
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SP: Sun Light & Power is relatively unique in that it offers both PV and solar water heating (SWH) system design and installation. How have you structured your business to offer services related to these two very different technologies?
GG: We started the business based on solar water heating—it was 1976, after all. I have always maintained a SWH focus in the business, even though the PV side has now greatly outstripped the SWH side in volume. They are really two very different businesses, and, frankly, it is far harder to sustain profitability on the SWH side. We have historically kept the two sides almost completely separate, with different salespeople, project managers and installers. However, recently we reached a scale and expertise that allows us to integrate the two sides. With key solar thermal [ST] support people, we now employ a single team of salespeople and project managers for both sides of the business.
SP: Approximately what percentage of Sun Light & Power’s revenue currently comes from solar thermal? How has this ratio changed over the years?
GG: Prior to 2000, virtually all of our solar business was in solar thermal— and after the mid-1980s, a lot of that work was maintenance and repairs. As PV began to rapidly grow in 2001, the percentage of ST was gradually reduced. The number has been sitting at between 5% and 10% over the last 5 years. However, in 2011, thanks to the new California solar thermal rebate program [CSI-T], we expect about 20% of our sales to come from ST, mostly in commercial work.
SP: What is your opinion of the success of the CSI-T program to date?
GG: As I would expect from any new program, adoption rates for CSI-T started out slowly, especially on the residential side. Statewide there have been only 266 residential applications filed in the first 16 months of the program, valued at $330,000 in rebates. I think there are several reasons for this: There aren’t enough qualified installers yet to grow the program at the rate it needs to grow; the promised PR and marketing campaign has yet to materialize; and, frankly, the rebate levels aren’t strong enough to entice new installers to jump into the solar thermal business or to entice customers to buy. At CALSEIA, we are about to recommend that the California Public Utilities Commission increase the rebate levels significantly in the short term, to give the program a stronger kick-start. We have a good example of how well that worked for the original PV program, when in May 2001 PV rebates went from $3.00 per W to $4.50 per W and the results were impressive. Though it started 5 months later than the residential program, the commercial side of CSI-T is far stronger, based to a large degree on Sun Light & Power activity. We have been responsible for 40% of the $1.3 million commercial rebate money applied for to date.
SP: Sun Light & Power recently commissioned the largest commercial system utilizing module-level optimization products in the US at Clif Bar & Company’s facility (see Projects, this issue). What are some of the other interesting projects that Sun Light & Power has recently completed?
GG: So many of our projects are interesting to me! For example, we built a nice 50 kW system for the Presidio Trust in San Francisco, using an all-woman team—all the way from the salesperson to the engineer to the project manager and to the entire crew. We also built a 900 kW system on 24 separate buildings over a 2-year period for an affordable housing project in Richmond, California, which at the time was (and may still be) the largest affordable housing PV system in the country. For this type of system, our biggest challenge is to maintain a high level of service and quality with the dozens of affordable housing developers that we regularly deal with. When you build multiple projects for the same customer, all it takes is one slip-up to sully the relationship. We value those relationships and put a lot of energy into keeping those customers happy.
SP: Since July 2008, you have held a position on Tigo Energy’s board of advisors. What drove your decision to serve this role with this particular company?
GG: When Tigo founders Sam Arditi and Ron Hadar first came to meet with me more than 3 years ago, I was pretty skeptical of their claims, and I told them so. However, they came with some convincing arguments and solid research, and they asked me to help them gather data to prove or disprove their theories. I decided to work with them to instrument one of our projects. Once I saw the data, I became convinced that there really was an opportunity to significantly improve PV system efficiency. I remember thinking at that point: “This could be one of those rare game changers that come by once in a lifetime,” and I decided that I wanted to be part of that. I also liked their approach of minimizing the complexity—and potential failure rate—of the equipment that would by necessity be in the harsh rooftop environment. This roof environment has always been a big concern of mine with microinverters. With Tigo, the really exciting part for me was that I saw immediately that I could contribute to improving their product, based on my years of industry experience, and that Sam and Ron were listening and acting on my suggestions with amazing alacrity. I pushed to create the name “Maximizer” for their product instead of a nondescript acronym. I suggested adding the PV-safe feature. I made suggestions on making the product and the web portal user-friendly—and they acted. They eventually offered to make me an official advisor to their board, and it has been a great relationship.