These top 10 lists are a little peculiar sometimes because one might conclude that they are objective. However, while they can appear to be that way, they are usually more subjective, based in assessments conducted by particular websites or publications. Depending on which criteria are used, their results might not be what you need or want. So, in order to determine which solar installer might work for you, it could be helpful to compare lists of top solar panel installers.
To that end, let’s look at a list (from GTM Research) which placed SolarCity, Vivint Solar, Sungevity, Sunrun, and Verengo Solar in the top five. According to this source, they made the top five because they installed the largest percentages of rooftop solar power systems — half or more of all solar panels in the US for the year 2014.
SolarCity had 34% of installations, Vivint Solar had 13%, Sungevity with 3%, Sunrun with 2%, and Verengo Solar with the same as Sunrun.
A 2015 list showed a similar split but some notable changes:
- SolarCity 34.1%
- Vivint Solar 11.6%
- Sunrun 2.6%
- NRG Home Solar 2%
- Sungevity 1.9%
However, SolarCity has a leasing- and PPA-focused model. With leases and (power purchase agreements) PPAs, SolarCity owns the solar power systems, and the homeowners get some portion of the electricity. If you want to own our home solar power system, they also can make arrangements for that, but it is a small part of the company’s business and apparently not the most attractive option for home solar loans. Also, SolarCity’s prices are reportedly much higher than the competition’s.
Vivint Solar has a similar service, but they just offer PPAs where they own the home solar power system, and the homeowner agrees to pay for electricity generated by it and a certain rate for a specified period of time.
The reason that SolarCity and Vivint have installed so many more solar panels is that their services typically have low or no upfront costs. This kind of service is much cheaper initially compared with the cost of installing a home solar power system that a homeowner will own and maintain. It is only reasonable that cost-constrained homeowners who are trying solar power for the first time might want to choose a system that is very low or no upfront cost, rather than paying over $10,000 or more for their own home solar system, or applying for a loan for one.
So, yes, SolarCity and Vivint are top installers of solar panels, but they own those systems once they have been installed. The technology is the same, but the relationship with the homeowner is different. Also, if you own your own home solar power system, you have control over it and you actually could make money in the long-term. So, the fact that SolarCity and Vivint have installed far more solar panels than their competitors might make them see far and away the best, but one of the reasons they are so far ahead is the greater affordability of leasing or PPAs—not necessarily because they are superior installers or offer a much better product. Their installations and products may (or may not) be very good, but that’s not really the point.
SolarCity and Vivint Solar have also seemingly had more effective marketing and financing arrangements.
The installers lower on the list may offer the same quality of installation and products, but they may have been less popular because they don’t offering leasing or PPA. Alternatively, they may be focused on smaller markets.
This consideration is something to keep in mind when researching solar power options for you home. In other words, popularity may sway some people’s decision-making in a direction that isn’t beneficial.
Leasing might appeal to many, but when you lease, you typically don’t own the system, and you generally give away some of the potential financial benefit. If you are energy-conscious and own your system you might generate more electricity than you consume, which you could sell back to the utility, if net metering is available where you live. Also, if you own your own home solar system, you will probably be eligible to receive some incentives, so the net price of that system will be reduced for you.
Of course, it matters very much that you understand the difference between owning your own home solar power system, leasing, and signing a power purchase agreement.
Solar Power World’s Top 10
Solar Power World published its own top 10 residential solar contractors (installers) list and includes some that GTM research did not. Check out the top 10:
2. Vivint Solar
4. RGS Energy (Real Goods Solar)
5. Solar Universe
6. Bland Solar & Air
7. Amergy Solar
8. Smart Energy Solar
9. KDH Solar
10. Direct Solar Energy
1. SolarCity is located in San Mateo, California, and has about 10,000 employees. It installs solar power systems, but the homeowners often don’t own them — they lease them (or buy the electricity from them) from SolarCity, presumably for a lower price than they’d buy electricity from the grid. It makes sense that SolarCity is a leader, because its customers have very little in upfront costs and the company had a lot of financial support to grow quickly and establish strong relationships with bankers & financiers. This company is well known for its association with Elon Musk, chairman of the company and cousin to founders & CEO + CTO Lyndon Rive & Peter Rive. SolarCity operates in: Arizona, California, Colorado, Connecticut, Delaware, Hawaii, Maryland, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, Nevada, New Hampshire, New Jersey, New Mexico, New York, Oregon, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, Texas, Vermont, and Washington DC.
2. Vivint Solar is located in Lehi, Utah, and it has a similar kind of service provided by SolarCity, except that it typically uses power purchase agreements (which SolarCity sometimes uses) instead of leasing. Also, it goes door to door to get customers, and its larger parent company sells various other home products, like alarm systems. Vivint has about 3,200 employees and has installed 228 MW of solar panels. Vivint Solar currently operates in: Arizona, California, Connecticut, Hawaii, Maryland, Massachusetts, New Jersey, New Mexico, New York, Pennsylvania, South Carolina, Utah, and Washington DC.
3. Sunnova is located in Houston, TX. This company offers the ability for a homeowner to own his or her own system, sign a power purchase agreement, or get a solar lease. Sunnova operates in Arizona, California, Colorado, Connecticut, Delaware, Hawaii, Indiana, Louisiana, Maryland, Massachusetts, Missouri, New Jersey, New Mexico, New York, Oregon, and Pennsylvania.
4. RGS Energy (Real Solar Goods) is located in Louisville, Colorado. It offers solar leases, service agreements, and home solar systems for purchase. It operates in California, Colorado, Connecticut, Hawaii, Maryland, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, New Jersey, New York, Rhode Island, and Vermont.
5. Solar Universe is located in Livermore, California. It offers $0-down solar financing when installing home solar systems, or fully prepaid solar contracts. It operates in Arizona, California, Hawaii, Louisiana, Maryland, Massachusetts, Nevada, New Jersey, New York, Oregon, Pennsylvania, and Puerto Rico.
6. Bland Solar & Air is based in Bakersfield, California. It installs solar power systems, but has expertise with air conditioning as well. It recommends using the nonprofit Educational Employees Credit Union for financing (getting a loan) if one isn’t able to or doesn’t want to self-finance the project. “Educational Employees Credit Union offers a number of Energy Efficiency Loan choices, including a $0 down payment option,” the company writes.
7. Amergy Energy is a New Jersey–based company. It installs, finances, and leases solar power systems for homes, businesses, and nonprofit organizations. It operates in California, Massachusetts, New Jersey, and New York.
8. Smart Energy Solar is located in Corona, California. It has installed thousands of solar systems, including solar PV, solar hot water heaters, and solar pool heating.
9. KDH Solar is located in New Orleans, Louisiana. It installs both residential and commercial systems.
10. Direct Energy Solar is located in Annapolis, Junction. It is focused on residential solar power systems.
Another consideration when choosing a solar power installer is what role they play in your community. Some consumers like to support local businesses and others don’t care. Some also like to support local people they know or their family or friends have some connection with, because the business transaction is more personal in nature. Others don’t care about the personal side, and only want affordability and quality service.
Yet another point to reflect on is whether or not a top 10 list means much to you, because it might hit some of the generic points, but ultimately your decision is your own, and you need to have some sense that it is the right decision, not merely the result of having found some information. If your local solar panel installer is not on any top 10 lists, they may still be very effective and you would determine that by researching them carefully. You can see from the GTM Research ranking above that about 50% of the solar power installed on rooftops is installed by a company with less than 2% market share.
Also, some people don’t even choose a solar panel installer, because they have a DIY mentality and they install their own solar panel systems. These people are currently in the minority, but that may change over time if installing systems becomes easy enough.
We are still in the infancy of solar power in the US, with just over 1% of our total electricity generated by it. Things will change as it grows, including the “technical” knowledge of everyday people.