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Organic Consumers Association

Explosive Growth for State's Surviving Solar Firms

For related articles and more information, please visit OCA's Organic Transitions page.

To many Americans, one word still sums up the solar industry - Solyndra.

The Fremont company's high-profile bankruptcy in 2011 cast a pall over solar power in the public's eye, creating an image of failed startups and wasted investments.

Yet many California and Bay Area companies are in a period of explosive growth. Companies such as SolarCity, Sungevity, SunPower and Sunrun are installing panels at a heady pace, and adding jobs along the way.

Their expansion has been fueled by the same phenomenon that doomed Solyndra - a worldwide plunge in the price of solar cells. While many manufacturers have struggled to stay afloat, companies that design and install solar systems for homes, businesses or utilities have seen their sales rise.

"They're not just survivors - they're strong survivors," said Lyndon Rive, chief executive officer of SolarCity in San Mateo. "And it's not just us. It's the industry. ... The notion that it's a failure is so outrageous."

The number of solar installations - both large and small-scale - is booming. In 2013, the United States added enough new photovoltaic panels to generate a maximum of 4.2 gigawatts of electricity, roughly the output of four nuclear reactors. Over the past five years, the number of residential installations has grown at an average annual rate of 70 percent, according to the NPD Solarbuzz market information firm.

Frugal customers

Financing innovations that allow homeowners to lease solar panels rather than buy them outright have attracted customers more concerned about their pocketbooks than cutting fossil fuel use and fighting climate change.

"The demand today is coming from the fact that someone can put solar on their house and save money," said Paul Nahi, CEO of Enphase Energy, a Petaluma company that makes microinverters for solar arrays. "It is true that they may also be saving the planet. But that's not their main consideration."

Public perception of the industry hasn't been completely wrong.

Five or six years ago, Silicon Valley teemed with startups trying to perfect new ways to make solar cells or build solar power plants. But after China flooded the market with cheap silicon cells, driving down panel prices 75 percent since 2008, casualties mounted.

Companies such as Nanosolar, Optisolar, Senergen and SolFocus either filed for bankruptcy, sold themselves to competitors at fire-sale prices or faded into obscurity. The failures were expensive. That was particularly true with Solyndra, which burned through $1.1 billion in private capital and $528 million in government loans before it imploded.

But a few manufacturers survived. And the companies that finance or install solar systems began to boom.    


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