Clouds gather in rooftop solar's biggest U.S. market

Wed Oct 26, 2016 6:21am EDT
 
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By Nichola Groom

SAN DIEGO (Reuters) - For years, the quiet, winding streets of the Scripps Ranch neighborhood have been pure gold for solar installers.

Thanks to its high power prices, hot summers and large homes to cool, a greater share of Scripps Ranch residents have embraced solar power than anywhere else in California, itself the nation's solar energy leader.

The rooftops of some 2,000 homes - 26 percent - are fitted with panels in Scripps Ranch, according to an analysis of state and utility solar installation numbers and U.S. Census Bureau housing data by the non-profit Center for Sustainable Energy and the environmental news web site EcoWatch.

The growth has been rapid. In July of 2014, San Diego installer Sullivan Solar put up its first solar system on Scripps Ranch’s Pinecastle Street, celebrating with a block party. The pizza and wine paid off: Sullivan installed systems on 11 of 48 homes on the street.

“If you can afford the upfront, it’s a no brainer,” said Caroline Coats, a nearby resident who hired Sullivan to install a solar system four years ago.

As much as Scripps Ranch symbolizes rooftop solar's success, it also illustrates the challenges facing the industry today. After rising 64 percent in the first half of the year in Scripps Ranch, installations tumbled 50 percent in July and August combined, according to utility data. Across California, growth also has slowed this year, and, in the third quarter, installations dropped year over year.

Industry watchers say many factors are at play, including shrinking incentives, wariness of future government actions and consumer fatigue with marketing tactics. Also, many of the most likely buyers - affluent, environmentally inclined homeowners in sunny places – already have rooftop systems, making winning new customers harder and costlier.

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Solar installers from Baker Electric place solar panels on the roof of a residential home in Scripps Ranch, San Diego, California, U.S. October 14, 2016.  Picture taken October 14, 2016.      REUTERS/Mike Blake