After a streak of strong growth years, the residentialsolarmarket hit a wall this year.
The final tally isn’t in yet, but the list of casualties in 2017 speaks volumes: American Solar Direct, OneRoof Energy, NRG Home Solar, Direct Energy Solar’s residential business, SolarCity (sunk into Tesla) and Sungevity.
That last one, Sungevity, capped a 10-year run with an acrimonious bankruptcy in March. At the time, the company’s leadership refrained from commenting. Until now.
Founder and CEO Andrew Birch is finally speaking publicly for the first time.
Birch opened up at an October installment of Watt It Takes, a speaker series produced by Oakland cleantech incubator Powerhouse and Greentech Media. We’re releasing the podcast and takeaways from an extended interview.
The Scottish investment banker-turned-entrepreneur has spent the last five months soul-searching. He’s also been on a global solar power listening tour of sorts — focusing on why residential solar costs are so high compared to other countries that have fewer permitting and bureaucratic hurdles.
At the Watt It Takes event, Birch narrated how Sungevity transformed from the dubiously named internetsolar.com into a top installer that deployed 25,000 systems across multiple continents. The startup was the first to use satellite imagery to design and sell systems online, saving money by avoiding multiple truck rolls to close a deal.
But the company burned through money in order to keep up with the rooftop-solar arms race. By 2016, Sungevity hoped to turn itself into a digital origination platform, using its considerable investment in solar software to help other companies sell and install solar. Building that “asset-light” platform required even more upfront capital, and the company never managed to secure a major investment to fund the idea.
As money ran out, a life-preserving $200 million infusion via reverse merger fell through at the close of 2016. There was no Plan B. The leadership found a buyer in the form of private equity firm Northern Pacific Group, which reconstituted the company as Solar Spectrum. Engie purchased the European operation.
The story doesn’t end there: In August, NPG resurrected the Sungevity brand to organize a growing portfolio of solar companies. The European branch had accounted for 30 percent of sales in 2016; now it’s as big as Sungevity was last year, Birch said.
Here is the advice he offered from this turbulent experience.