Solar installers blast city-endorsed buying program

ccampbell@newsobserver.comJanuary 14, 2014 

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Solar Solutions of Cary installers Brad Almond, left, and Heidi Clarke move a new solar panel to rooftop racks on the Freedom House Recovery Center in Chapel Hill.

2012 FILE PHOTO BY HARRY LYNCH — hlynch@newsobserver.com Buy Photo

RALEIGH Local solar installers want the city council to withdraw its support for a nonprofit-led program intended to give homeowners a better deal on solar panels.

Last fall, the council agreed to endorse the N.C. Solar Center’s Solarize Raleigh program. Funded in part by $15,000 in federal grant money, the program brings together homeowners to get a bulk rate on solar panel installation. The goal is to encourage residential solar arrays by bringing down the cost.

But several local solar firms are crying foul, saying the program will create unfair competition by subsidizing whichever company the agency selects.

“It threatens the current fair free marketplace that we have in the solar industry,” said Dan Lezama of Sun Dollar Energy.

Steve Assaid of Rebark Enterprises says he thinks consumers will lose the range of solar choices currently available if the program directs them to a single firm. “Even though the concept is great, the idea of having a single vendor to supply this is going to hurt the other integrators in this area and the end user,” he said. “They simply get a one-size-fits-all program.”

Solar Center director Steve Kalland said he doesn’t think the program will harm solar installers because the publicity will increase demand for solar energy. He said that’s happening with a similar program in Asheville.

Solarize Raleigh aims to get 100 households signed up for a solar installation, a buying pool that’s cut costs by 25 percent in other cities.

“The net result of these programs is that the market gets larger for everybody because of the increased awareness,” he said.

Solar Center officials also hope that multiple companies can get the contract for the program, which will soon issue a request for proposals. “We really want to emphasize that installers can team together and work together in creating a bid and creating a unified customer experience,” said project manager Jim Kennerly.

But Jason Epstein of Baker Renewable Energy said competitors aren’t likely to team up and share a contract. “You cannot ask us to set aside our competitive business model for the sake of (the program),” he said.

After hearing the complaints last week, the council referred the matter to its technology and communications committee, which was already planning to review ways to market the program. The upcoming meeting will now look at the Solarize Raleigh program as a whole.

Campbell: 919-829-4802; Twitter: @RaleighReporter

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