Sungevity, Founded by Greenpeace Activist, Tackles Climate Change as “The Amazon of Solar Electricity”

Yesterday we told you all about Recurve, a San Francisco home energy auditing and retrofitting startup whose founder argues that before energy-conscious homeowners put solar panels on the roof, they should focus on fixing what’s under it—poor insulation, leaky ducts and windows, inefficient HVAC systems, and the like. But let’s assume you’ve done all that. What’s next? Here in California, there’s an array of companies working to make it far easier and more affordable to install electricity-generating solar panels on your home.

One of the most innovative and fast-growing startups in this industry is Oakland, CA-based Sungevity, which is probably unlike any cleantech company you’ve heard of. The company doesn’t have its own installation workforce, and unlike competing firms such as SunRun, it doesn’t have “power purchase agreements” under which homeowners buy electricity from the company. What it does have is software. It’s got applications that allow technicians to peer down from the sky (via Google Earth-style satellite photos) and figure out exactly how many solar panels will fit on your roof, then generate a project estimate. It’s got applications to automate the sales process, and it’s got applications to cut through the red tape around permitting for solar installations.

In effect, Sungevity is a new low-overhead, high-efficiency middleman in a business that’s long been a cottage industry, dominated by small solar installers who have to roll a truck every time a potential customer requests an estimate. (In many of these respects, Sungevity is similar to Recurve, which, as I explained yesterday, is also using software to systematize and scale up a cottage industry—in its case, home energy retrofitting.)

Danny KennedyDanny Kennedy, Sungevity’s founder, argues that simplifying and automating the solar installation process is the only way to bring this form of renewable power to the mass market. Together with co-founders Andrew Birch and Alec Guettel and chief financial officer Charles Ferer, he’s built a business that’s collected $9 million in venture backing and is set to grow from $3 million in revenue in 2009 to nearly $30 million this year, with no end in sight. The core of the business model is the 10-year “solar lease,” an idea Ferer brought with him from former employer Solar City. In return for assigning solar tax credits and rebates to the lender—Sungevity and its financial partner US Bank, in this case—homeowners get to install solar panels for only about half of the actual cost of equipment and labor, and they can pay for the project over the course of 120 months.

Sitting down with Kennedy to talk leases and rebates and software is an unusual experience, given that his background isn’t in the energy business at all, but in environmental activism. A native of Australia, Kennedy is a 12-year veteran of Greenpeace, where he started out in the 1990s working to block oil projects in Africa and went on to run the organization’s California Clean Energy campaign. That campaign helped to bring about Governor Schwarzenegger’s $2.8 billion California Solar Initiative, under which the state is providing cash rebates of $1 to $2 per watt for solar photovoltaic installations. (A typical home installation might amount to 3 to 10 kilowatts.)

Those rebates are a big part of what’s making programs like Sungevity’s solar leases affordable, and are one of the reasons Kennedy and co-founders decided to build their business in the Bay Area. Another is the population’s openness to new ways of doing business: “If there is anywhere that’s going to be comfortable adapting to Internet commerce models [for solar installation], it’s California,” Kennedy says.

Our look at Sungevity comes in the form of an extended Q&A. In Part 1, below, Kennedy talks about Sungevity’s business model and technology, and describes how the installation process works. In Part 2, coming tomorrow, he talks about how he made the leap from Greenpeace to energy entrepreneurship, how Sungevity plans to scale up, and how the company’s work fits into global efforts to reduce carbon emissions and blunt the effects of climate change.

Xconomy: What is the mission of Sungevity?

Danny Kennedy: The big picture mission is to take solar to scale. Which I’m sure every solar entrepreneur says they want to do, but our vision is to do it in the residential market, which is ultimately the highest value market for solar electricity. Finding a scalable way to deliver solar electricity to residential customers in middle America is the best chance to make large profitable ventures, which will in turn scale the production and consumption of solar itself.

If you can capture developed-country, grid-connected markets, such as the wealthy German, Japanese, or California markets, it will drive solar production in … Next Page »

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Wade Roush is a freelance science and technology journalist and the producer and host of the podcast Soonish. Follow @soonishpodcast

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