Helped by falling installation and hardware costs, the country’s largest solar power provider is venturing into Pittsburgh, a market defined until now mostly by homegrown companies.
SolarCity, based in California, has begun sales this week to customers of Duquesne Light Co. The company also plans to open an operations center and build a staff of more than 75 employees, almost all of whom will be locally hired, said Leon Keshishian, regional vice president for SolarCity’s East Coast operations.
SolarCity’s decision to add Pittsburgh to its territory — which includes cities and towns in 19 states — comes as solar power is cheaper than ever. Costs of the panels, inverters and other parts have dropped dramatically in recent years, and installations that once took days can be completed in hours.
The company also has achieved its own significant savings through scaling up operations since its founding in 2006, Mr. Keshishian said. He attributed that growth largely to SolarCity’s solar leasing program, which allows customers to avoid large upfront costs and see the savings immediately.
Under the program, customers repay installation costs over 20 to 30 years. Monthly payments are based on how much electricity the system is producing and the price per kilowatt-hour of solar energy.
Put another way, the monthly utility bill is replaced by paybacks to Solar City.
Customers with solar would be relieved of the various costs included in a utility bill, including fuel that generates the power and maintenance costs of the grid.
Additionally, because SolarCity doesn’t get paid unless the panels are generating the promised amount of power, there’s an incentive for the company to closely monitor the performance of every panel and provide immediate assistance should anything break.
The Walmart of solar?
The foray into Pittsburgh by the big brand name bearing the star power of its chairman Elon Musk signals a disruption in a fledgling solar market that has been painstakingly cultivated over the years by local installers.
According to Duquesne Light, which covers portions of Allegheny and Beaver counties, nearly 300 customers have rooftop solar — a tiny slice of the utility’s base of 500,000 customers.
“I feel much the way the local stores felt when Walmart moved in,” said Joe Morinville, president of Energy Independent Solutions, a Robinson solar company.
On one hand, it’s a testament to the success of local solar companies that Pittsburgh’s market has caught the eye of a large corporation, he said.
On the other, “It would be a shame if we were driven out of business by the ‘Walmart’ of the solar industry.”
At EIS Solar, he said, “We buy local steel, wire, concrete, fasteners, use local engineers, buy local vehicles and our profits stay local,” he said. “We intend to keep building the highest quality, best value solar arrays in Pittsburgh long into the future.”
Sharon Pillar, president of the Solar Unified Network of Western Pennsylvania, is one of the leaders of Solarize Allegheny, a campaign funded by The Heinz Endowments that’s entering its second year promoting solar by holding neighborhood events and friendly competitions.
Ms. Pillar estimated 60 to 70 installations were completed in Allegheny County in 2015, compared with just a couple of dozen in 2014.
SolarCity should help further convince residents here that solar is a viable option — and she’s optimistic it won’t jeopardize grassroots efforts that have steadily gained momentum.
“I do think our local solar companies worked really hard to build the market here,” she said. “I think there’s room for both. ... We have not even tapped into the potential to do solar energy here.”
SolarCity, which began taking orders from residents today, expects to begin installations before the end of summer. It has narrowed sites for its operations center to a half dozen, which Mr. Keshishian toured last week.
Daniel Moore: firstname.lastname@example.org, 412-263-2743 and Twitter @PGdanielmoore.