What Happened When I Bought a House With Solar Panels

Lynn Jurich, Sunrun’s CEO since 2015, is a mother of two young children and a regular on 40-under-40 and most-powerful-women-in-business lists. Harvard recruited her to play volleyball and basketball. She chose Stanford instead, and after graduation took a job in private equity that required cold-calling CEOs, because she knew it would make her uncomfortable. A few years later, while at Stanford Graduate School of Business, she met fellow student Ed Fenster, who’d also been in private equity, at Blackstone Group LP, and his friend Nat Kreamer, a U.S. Navy officer who was fresh off a tour of duty in Afghanistan. The three began diving into the challenge of making solar more accessible. Fundamentally it was a math problem—“a business-model challenge and a financing challenge,” Jurich told me when we sat down at Sunrun’s San Francisco headquarters in December. She, Fenster, and Kreamer founded Sunrun in 2007.

A company called SunEdison had used the TPO model for years on commercial-scale projects, and SolarCity Corp. had beaten Sunrun to the residential market, launching in 2006 with $10 million from Elon Musk, cousin of the two brothers who founded it. For years after its founding, Sunrun watched as competitors spent wildly to gain market share and new companies crowded the field.

Residential Solar in the U.S.

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ventually, Sunrun’s patience paid off. SolarCity nearly collapsed under massive debt before getting rescued by Tesla Inc. in 2016. SunEdison, Sungevity Inc., and others declared bankruptcy. Sunrun remained focused on improving margins and making use of government incentives, while speaking the languages of both environmental righteousness and Silicon Valley disruption. By early 2018 the company was deploying more residential megawatts than any of its rivals. It’s gained market share every quarter but one since mid-2015, has 218,000 customers across 22 states, Washington, D.C., and Puerto Rico (California accounts for about half of them), and employs more than 4,000 people. Sunrun’s shares have nearly tripled in value in the past 12 months, and the company projects that its customer base will grow 30 percent in the current fiscal year.

And not so far down the road is the new mandate in California. Jurich sees this as normalizing solar, making it feel less risky for homeowners to adopt. More specifically, she told me, it will be good for companies using the TPO model. Builders won’t want to offer solar as an owned part of the home because that will inflate the sticker price. Instead, she said, buyers will finance the systems via a separate transaction—one that Sunrun is in talks with the state’s 10 biggest homebuilders to provide. Sunrun relies on TPO for 85 percent of its business.

Offering rooftop solar setups worth tens of thousands of dollars for no money down requires weaving an intricate financial web. The monthly payments in 20-year contracts provide Sunrun with future streams of cash flow, but acquiring customers, procuring hardware, and paying installers (and executives) require money today. Government incentives are key, especially the federal Investment Tax Credit, which allows owners to deduct 30 percent of the cost of a rooftop system from their federal taxes.

The structure of tax incentives in the U.S. also helps explain why it’s the only country where the TPO model has thrived. Homeowners elsewhere buy rooftop solar systems outright, and for much cheaper; Americans pay twice as much as their global peers. Australia and other countries offer substantial upfront subsidies or rebates—at one point, the Australian subsidies covered some 80 percent of the cost of a typical system. (They now cover about a third of the cost, which is falling.) In the U.S., by contrast, homeowners who buy systems outright can’t claim the credits until the next time they file their taxes, and then only if they owe the government at least as much as the value of the credit. (Currently the credit can be spread over multiple years.) That and other factors play to the strengths of Sunrun.

Sunrun finances its initial costs by taking on debt and raising capital from what are called tax equity investors. Only a few dozen companies have the appetite for tax credits and financial sophistication to be in this pool, including Google, JPMorgan Chase, and General Electric, says Joe Osha, an analyst who covers energy technology at JMP Securities LLC. They invest in Sunrun not to generate significant cash returns but to reap tax benefits: By assuming ownership of thousands of solar systems they can claim the credits and thus lower their tax bills from other economic activities. Hugh Bromley, a solar analyst at BloombergNEF, says Sunrun and its competitors offer solar, sure, but can be better understood as having created “one of the most sophisticated financial engineering industries of any sector of the U.S. economy.”

Just 1 percent of U.S. single-family homes—1.8 million—are equipped with solar, and the real estate industry’s general understanding of TPO systems remains limited. Our real estate agent, a 35-year veteran, had never encountered one. The listing agents for Jug’s property also seemed uncertain. Initially they didn’t mention the system at all. Then they told us it was owned by Sunrun and that if we didn’t want to assume the lease they’d remove it. Then, apparently because they’d learned the full cost of that, they backtracked.

Aided by a local attorney and my father-in-law, a retired contract attorney, I drafted a letter to Jug’s trust accusing the listing agents of failing to deliver title to the property free of any third-party claims as the agents had said they could. I threatened legal action. It was a last-ditch effort that none of us expected to work. Then it did.

On March 1, a representative for Jug’s trust emailed Sunrun saying it would purchase the system. On March 22, we got the keys to the house and I stood beaming in the empty dining room and took a selfie. On March 30, we moved in.

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Sunrun calls our insistence that Jug’s trust buy out and remove the system “incredibly unique and rare.” It’s far more common for home sellers to transfer the lease to the buyer—Sunrun says 94 percent of customers do this—or to prepay the lease and leave the hardware on the roof for the next owner to use. I’ve been kicking myself ever since I learned about this latter option. It would have saved the estate around $12,000 and allowed us to support solar and get “free” electricity, even as Sunrun remained responsible for maintenance and repairs.

t would have been fine from Sunrun’s perspective, too. The $27,300 full buyout price is explained by the necessities of TPO accounting. The federal credits and accelerated depreciation taken by Sunrun and its tax equity investors are dependent on systems remaining in operation for five years; if a system is removed from service before then, the value claimed can be clawed back by the IRS. Sunrun’s buyout price accounted for not only the remaining 18 years of lease payments but also the lost tax credits and depreciation.

The complexities of these arrangements got me thinking about Jug. When he signed the contract with Sunrun, eight months before his death, he’d been battling cancer for years. Did he understand the implications?

Cost Breakdown

SunrunCashCash + Tax CreditLoan + Tax CreditLoanAll

Over the life of his 20-year contract with Sunrun, Jug’s payments would have totaled about $24,000, including maintenance.120years051015$20kSunrunCashCash + Tax CreditLoan + Tax CreditLoanAll

Without the 30% federal Investment Tax Credit, buying a comparable system outright would have cost Jug about $18,000, including maintenance.120years051015$20kCashSunrun* Based on an interest rate of 6.2%Source: Jug’s Sunrun contract; EnergySage; data compiled for Businessweek by the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, a division of the U.S. Energy Dept.

Jug’s saleswoman was part of a vast network of commission-based salespeople that includes both direct employees and third-party contractors. Sunrun has developed sales leads by deploying people to canvass at football games and stores (Costco is a gold mine, former salespeople tell me) and by going door-to-door and cold-calling. The basic sales pitch is savings of up to 20 percent, a hedge against unpredictable utility rates, and the emotional rewards of doing right by the environment.

On consumer review sites and in local news reports, rueful customers warn others to stay away from TPO solar offered by Sunrun and other companies. State attorneys general and politicians have fielded complaints from people who say they were sold expensive systems they can’t afford after signing contracts they didn’t understand; or are paying more now on their electricity bills, not less as promised; or are having trouble selling their homes because potential buyers are turned off, just as I was. (Customers of Sunrun and other companies must sign binding arbitration clauses, barring them from suing or joining in class actions.)

I brought this up with Jurich, who pointed to Sunrun’s A+ rating by the Better Business Bureau and said “massive edge cases” seized on by journalists don’t fairly represent the typical customer experience. She pushed back hard against the idea that her company contributes to the industry’s negative reputation. To the contrary, “I think it helps us stand out,” she said. “For any long-term success in a business like this, it’s going to be your reputation first and foremost, so the customer experience is critical. … If I wanted to do something to just make money I would have stayed in investing. I want to do something that makes a big impact.”

I spoke with eight current and former Sunrun employees, some of whom praised the sales culture and said bad behavior wasn’t condoned. Others said unethical tactics went unpunished when discovered. “When your paycheck depends on getting the yes, it’s like love and war: All is fair,” said Tank Hanna, a salesman-turned-trainer from Arizona. “It can be done correctly, but it takes a skill level and patience level and understanding that most reps don’t have and managers don’t want.” Salespeople would cherry-pick data, skim over crucial details, and prioritize speed above all, he told me. A trainer from California who listened in on hundreds of sales calls for quality control estimated that 60 percent of customers knew no more than half of what they were signing up for and 10 percent had no clue.

Potential customers often ask what will happen when they try to sell their homes. The salespeople I spoke with said they allayed such concerns by saying solar adds value by lowering carrying costs. Jurich said the same thing during our interview. For TPO systems, however, there’s no data or reputable study to back that up. The Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, a publicly funded research organization in California, has found that an owned system is an asset. TPO systems weren’t shown to provide any net gain—they’re neither assets nor liabilities. (Although, tell that to Jug’s trust.)

One former Bay Area employee sent me a Sunrun training manual he said was current when he resigned in April 2017. It’s called “Power Play 2.0: The Guide to Successfully Sell Sunrun.” (The company confirmed its authenticity.) It instructs salespeople to sow distrust in and disdain for traditional utilities and appeal to customers’ emotions. Over 61 pages, pain is cited at least 31 times and fear at least a dozen. When reviewing a customer’s traditional utility bill, the trainee is told, “amplify the pain significantly.” Among “components of success”: “creating pain and fear.” Among the “five fatal flaws” to avoid: “failing to build pain or fear.”

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An excerpt from a Sunrun sales training manual, “Power Play 2.0: The Guide to Successfully Sell Sunrun.”

Jurich didn’t hesitate to defend the tactics when I brought them up in our interview. She called pain a “fair characterization of the experience that people have” paying their utility bills. “We are selling a substitute for traditional electricity, so you would want to demonstrate why your product is a superior product.” Spokeswoman Georgia Dempsey later followed up in an email: “‘Uncovering Pain’ is widely attributed to David Sandler, who introduced the Sandler Selling System,” she wrote. “Sandler defines Pain as ‘finding the prospect’s reason to buy and gaining a commitment to resolve any issues keeping the prospect from greater success.’ Our growing customer base is evidence of households’ desire for the superior energy service offered by home solar and batteries.”

Consumers want to go green, but above all, as Sunrun underscores in company filings, they want to save money. The company promises to produce these savings by offering initial rates that undercut the prevailing electricity costs in a given area and then increasing its rates more slowly than those for traditional electricity. This is premised on claims that traditional energy prices have “skyrocketed” in the past and predictions they’ll continue to. Sunrun works from the assumption that electricity costs will rise 3.76 percent annually. That’s more than double the average increase over the past decade nationally, according to U.S. Energy Information Administration figures. (Average consumption has also been falling, as household appliances have become more efficient.) Sunrun argues rates will rise faster in the future than in the past, in part because utilities need to spend on grid upgrades in coming years.

Regardless of what energy costs end up doing, a well-designed, fairly priced rooftop system should lower the power bill of most Americans. Buying one outright is a better deal for people with the means to do so, but that isn’t everyone. TPO solar, with its simplicity and convenience, can be alluring.

There’s one more twist in this tale. Months after all the drama had played out, I came upon a surprise.

When I originally called Sunrun, I was told that Jug’s SoCal Edison bill in the year before he went solar averaged $115 a month. That turned out not to be true. His file, a second Sunrun rep told me, indicated that it averaged $79. Remember that his solar panels were designed to meet only 85 percent of his electricity needs, making his actual total monthly outlay in the first year with solar $87. That’s $8 more than he’d been paying. When I asked Sunrun about these new figures, Dempsey, the company spokeswoman, said Jug was “a happy and satisfied customer” who “valued the peace of mind” the system provided.

I hadn’t wanted to bother Jug’s family or friends, but now I had to learn what I could about his motivations for signing up with Sunrun. I tracked down two cousins from Iowa and two close friends here in Santa Barbara to ask whether Jug had been a gray green—an older person committed to saving the planet. They all scoffed—he did things to save money. He lived by his mother’s doctrine to buy everything in cash and had the means to do so, they said. They all wondered aloud whether he’d been misled. “Why would he sign a 20-year contract when he knew he wouldn’t live that long?” said Kathy Backus, a fellow ham who met Jug through the Amateur Radio Club two decades ago and stood vigil as cancer ate away at his physical and mental well-being. “Something stinks. It smells like three-day-old fish.”

There’s more to the story, including the fact that Jug’s solar panels never worked at full efficiency. This was because of what Sunrun characterized as “severe shading” caused by the next-door neighbor’s tree. That’s right: Sunrun installed the system beneath a big old tree. This makes me again question the judgment of Jug’s salesperson. Sunrun has a production guarantee—if the system underperforms, you get a credit. In Jug’s case, $203 was credited to his account on July 17, 2017, half a year after his death.

As I write this I’m pregnant. The life Alex and I pictured the first time we walked through Jug’s house, now our house, is taking shape. And let me tell you about our electricity bill. Had we assumed Jug’s lease, we’d be paying $79 a month to Sunrun (the second escalator would have kicked in) plus at least $10 to SoCal Edison to stay on the grid, minus $7.50 for net metering. We’ve been in the house 10 months, and our average SoCal Edison bill is $30. Compared with becoming Sunrun customers, we’re saving $50 a month. We’re going to give some of that to help protect the environment.

In Category: Solar Power Products Kits

Kurt

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