In 2004, Daniel Sullivan founded one of the first solar companies native to San Diego. Only 27 year of age at the time, he took a risky move by venturing out into the business world to offer clients what he knew best: electrical systems. While he was in the electrical apprenticeship program and also during his work for a local electrical firm dabbling in solar, he became inspired by photovoltaics (the use of technology to convert solar energy into electricity). San Diego receives an abundance of sunshine all year, yet at the time virtually no one was doing anything to capture it. His vision became clear: revolutionize the way his hometown generated its power by launching his own solar firm.
With only $2,500 in the bank, office space and a warehouse were luxuries. For the first year, Sullivan worked and slept in a garage shared with his old Ford Ranger and his tools. Today, the firm has 11 trucks and a 7,200-square-foot office in San Diego, and a new office in Irvine that services the Southern California Edison utility territory. He employs 50 fun-loving people.
In July 2009, Environment California published a report naming San Diego the No. 1 solar city in California and the nation, for both number of roofs and watts installed. Sullivan was asked to join Mayor Jerry Sanders at his press conference announcing this monumental achievement for that region. In 2010, Sullivan Solar Power was named in the Top 10 Fastest Growing Businesses by San Diego Business Journal and the Top 50 for the Fastest Growing Energy Firms in the U.S. by Inc. Magazine.
After only seven years, this small local startup company has grown to be a Southern California premier solar power turnkey solution provider. Sullivan Solar Power has designed and installed systems for multiple cities and counties throughout the California, with millions of watts installed and hundreds of satisfied residential, municipal and commercial clients. The firm is expected to close out the 2011 year with more than $16 million in sales. Sullivan’s work ethic combined with his acute eye for like-minded solar fanatics make for a powerful combination of office, design and field staff that keep his vision alive.
Q: What are the benefits of solar power?
A: The benefits are numerous. It’s good for the homeowner, the economy and the environment. (See sidebar for specifics.)
Q: What can a person expect in terms of reliability and amount of power 24/7?
A: 99% of all solar power systems that we install are grid-tied. So rather than having a battery-back up system to store the energy, which can be very costly, your solar power system is tied into the service panel and your electric meter. The grid is reliable and works extremely well with a solar power system. So, during the day when your solar power system is producing energy, it is powering your household appliances, or if you have none on, it is feeding electricity into the grid and going to power the nearest demand load. Then, at night, when you have all your appliances on, you are pulling electricity from the grid.
Q: Explain what net metering means.
A: Once you go solar, you go onto an annual billing cycle that is called net metering. This is one year from your system turn-on date. You will receive a statement each month from SoCal Edison telling you how much you’ve produced vs. how much you have consumed and it will explain your debts and or credits to the grid. At the end of your system’s turn-on date year, you will receive a summary statement that gives you your “net consumption” where you will either owe the utility money or they will owe you in the form of a credit. A legislative bill recently passed that allows independent energy producers to be paid out for excess energy generated at a wholesale amount. Because this financial incentive will not be large, it is still very important that your system is sized according to your needs so that you are able to make the fastest return on your investment. There is no “money maker” to oversizing your solar power system.
Q: What are new trends in solar power?
A: For financing a solar power system, a Power Purchase Agreement (PPA) is becoming more prominent these days for both commercial and residential applications. A PPA is when there is little to no upfront cost for the solar power system and instead of purchasing the system, the property owner makes a low monthly payment for the power the system produces. We offer a PPA through a premier partner, that allows Newport and Laguna Beach residents to go solar for $0 upfront.
Q: What are the drawbacks of solar power?
A: There really aren’t any. It’s a safe and reliable investment, supports our national economy while strengthening national security and is good for the environment. There are no moving parts and there is virtually no maintenance, aside from a spray down with a hose every three months for cleaning. Systems today are much more aesthetically pleasing than they were five years ago, and a properly designed solar power system by a reputable company will blend seamlessly with the roofline of the home.
Q: Will solar panels become smaller?
A: They are currently 3′ x 5′. Many panels (or modules) strung together create an array (a long strip of panels that blend together aesthetically) to build your solar power “system.” Size is dictated by need by market demand. The average home needs only about 500 square feet. Your question is related to the efficiency of the technology, which is a really common inquiry. Silicon modules were made commercially viable in 1954 and had efficiencies of 6% – 56 years later, we are seeing efficiencies of 20% (averaging an increase of 0.25% per year). Silicon solar cells have a theoretical maximum efficiency of about 25%. Using historical trends, we will see maximum efficiency in about 20 more years. It is not in your best interest to wait for the “next big thing” because by the time it comes around, your system will have already paid for itself long ago.
Q: How exactly does solar power work? Trace the journey from sun beam to something powered in the home.
A: Solar power begins with the sun. The sun consumes hydrogen in nuclear fusion reactions and radiates energy. Solar photovoltaic (PV) modules made up of individual cells convert the energy into electricity, in the form of Direct Current (or DC electricity) and sends it to the inverter. The inverter converts the DC power to Alternating Current (or AC electricity), which is what all of your household appliances run on. (This is the basic short principle of how it works.) The electric meter measures electrical energy produced by the solar power system. Electrical energy is measured in kilowatt-hours (kWh). This then routes to the electric service panel, where the electricity generated by the solar PV system is routed to the building.
Q: Explain the process for installing solar power in an existing home vs. building a new home with solar.
A: The majority of installations that happen today are retrofits to existing buildings. Installation is fairly straightforward in that most roofs are able to handle the additional weight of the solar modules and most electrical service panels can handle the electrical output of the system. The installation itself involves installing structural connections to the roof to secure the modules to the home. All connections to the roof are sealed with a high grade sealant and existing roof warranties are kept in tact. New construction provides more opportunities to design the system to optimize the installation for both aesthetics and system performance. Anytime a homeowner is doing a major remodel or building a new home, if they do not incorporate solar power into the design of the home, they have missed an excellent opportunity to build the home of the future. Another consideration is that there are more substantial rebates available to people who build new homes with solar than those who install them after the fact.
Q: What are some of the style options available?
A: 1) Roof mounted system – Panels. This is the most efficient and costs the most.
2) BIT Building Integrated Photovoltaic. This uses PHIN-FILM technology. It is most commonly applied on a metal roof or when somebody has a lot of roof space. This costs less but is less efficient. Solar tiles act as an adhesive on metal roofs.
3) Solar Tracking Systems – Panels on trackers follow the sun throughout the day. These are more efficient and more costly. This isn’t commonly installed, unless you have a lot of land. Solar tracking systems are located on the ground.
Q: Are their any homes in Newport or Laguna Beach that rely 100% on solar and are no longer on the grid?
A: Yes, there are homes that are 100% energy independent by providing all of their energy needs in both cities. It is commonly referred to as “off-the-grid,” which is a misnomer. It’s more appropriately labeled a “net-zero” home, in that the homeowner’s system is feeding energy all day into the grid and then using those energy credits at night.
Q: What are some Important terms to know or questions to ask when wanting to know if solar is right for you?
A: For most people, if you are spending $150 or more per month on electricity, solar is right for you. However there are other things to consider..
• Do you have enough roof space or real estate to accommodate the amount of solar that you need? Most homes need about 500 square feet.
• Which way does your roof face? Do you have a south, west or east facing roof space? We will not install a solar power system that faces north because of the huge production loss.
• Are there obstacles nearby that will shade the array, such as trees or taller buildings?
• Is the roof 10 years old or newer? If not, it may be time to replace it with the installation.
• Can the system be installed in such a manner to be aesthetically pleasing and not disturb your surrounding community members?
• What incentives, rebates and credits are available to you now vs. later?
• How will you pay for the system? Cash, loan or a Power Purchase Agreement where you simply buy the energy from the system?
• Will you be adding any electrical loads in the future, such as an electric car? Will you be getting a boat and plugging it into your dock? Then you will want to inform your installer of these things.
• A competent, experienced solar design-build firm will be able to meet a homeowner who is considering going solar and address all questions and concerns for the homeowner in about 30-45 minutes.
Q: Anything else you’d like to share?
A: A crucially important component of purchasing a solar power system is the incentives that are available. In addition to monthly electric bill savings, here are a few.
• California Solar Initiative (CSI) State Rebate – CSI will pay for approximately 20% of the installation cost. In the SoCal Edison territory, the state rebate is $1.10/Watt. This can be taken in an upfront rebate, in that it comes right off your contract price. The rebate program was set up in a manner to drop as more capacity is installed. The rebate will continue to drop until the funds are exhausted completely. (In SDG&E and PG&E utility territories, it is down to $0.35/Watt).
• Federal Tax Credit – The Federal Tax Credit will cover 30% of the out-of-pocket cost. This is a 1-to-1 credit against tax liability. This can be carried over as many years as you would like until it is fully exhausted. With these two incentives, 50% of your solar power system is paid for. There is also a special offer for Newport Beach residents through our company.
• Newport Beach Solar Program – Launched May 15, 2011, this program has been created to try and build a strong solar community. We are offering residents cash-back incentives, up to 10% of the contract price, on top of the State rebate and Federal Tax Credit for all Newport Beach, Balboa and Corona del Mar properties. It has been created to build a critical mass; the more people who sign up, the greater the cash incentives will be.
According to Daniel Sullivan, here are some of the benefits of Solar Power.
• Supports the national economy. The technology was created here in the U.S. in 1954 by Bell Laboratories. The potential for creating new jobs is huge with the deployment for renewable energy. While we are seeing an all-time low employment in the construction industry, the clean tech industry has been growing in a declining economy.
• Reduces foreign fossil fuel use. We are currently using limited finite resources as our primary source of energy. As such, our depleting energy sources will continue to cost us more and more, both financially and environmentally. There is a declining availability of cheap, finite sources of fuel. Unstable rogue nations control most of the world’s energy supply. There is a misconception that we have an irreconcilable energy shortage, when in fact, the sun casts enough energy on the Earth’s surface in just one minute to provide the entire world with electricity for an entire year.
• No emissions. As our country grows more environmentally conscious, many homeowners are driven by their environmental footprint and providing us with clean, renewable energy. The sun isn’t going to stop shining; we have free energy falling from the sky each and every day.
• Creates a sustainable future. I actually started our company right after my son was born, and was inspired to leave him with more. Going solar is doing our part to provide our children’s children with the quality of life we all wish for them to have.
• Increase property value. There was actually a recent study completed by NREL (National Renewable Energy Laboratory) that solar homes sell 20% faster and for 17% more than non-solar homes (www.cleantechnica.com). There is a Property Tax Exclusion for solar so that this does not affect the taxes paid on the property.
• A safe and reliable investment, especially in today’s market. The average residential solar power system is paying itself off in six to eight years. The panels are under manufacturers warranty for 20-25 years, with an even longer lifespan. So essentially, you are going solar to have 20 plus years of free electricity.
• Reduce or eliminate an electric bill. Say goodbye to paying your SoCal Edison electric bill!
• Hedge against utility rate increases. According to the Department of Energy, the national average rate increase over the last 35 years is six percent. The cost of electricity is not going down anytime soon, so your savings continue to grow over time after going solar.
Editor’s Note: Other helpful solar power resources:
• www.gosolarcaliforna.ca.gov which provides information on the California Solar Initiative, a state rebate program and a trigger tracker on where the current rebate for each utility territory is listed.
• www.Votesolar.org – which informs people about initiatives that are occurring throughout the country, and allows people to take action.