Split inside solar industry spills into the open

Source: Rod Kuckro, E&E reporter • Posted: Friday, September 9, 2016

A long-simmering rift in the U.S. solar industry has become public just days before thousands of industry participants gather in Las Vegas for the largest solar trade show in North America.

The campaign calling for a change in governance of the Solar Energy Industries Association by unhappy executives of distributed generation companies also comes at a time when the trade group is looking for a successor to the lobby’s longtime president and CEO, Rhone Resch, who left at the end of May.

SEIA’s Solar Power International runs from Monday through Sept. 15, anticipating 15,000 attendees and 600 companies that will exhibit and hold workshops and policy sessions.

The first shot was fired several days ago when clean energy entrepreneur Jigar Shah, president of San Francisco-based Generate Capital and founder of SunEdison, and Barry Cinnamon, CEO of California’s Spice Solar, teamed up to write an “urgent letter” to the solar industry and its customers.

“SEIA has not had a mandate to lead outside of D.C. In fact, it has deliberately not weighed in on important solar industry issues. This has to change,” said the letter.

Their chief concern is that the SEIA board is dominated by companies associated with utility-scale solar efforts and has therefore been unwilling to go to bat for rooftop solar companies in states such as Arizona and Florida, where installers are “in a pitched battle to preserve the stability of their local markets.”

They advocate that SEIA spend less time on “minutiae in Washington” and more time addressing issues at the state level, such as renewable portfolio standards, net metering, interconnection and ballot initiatives.

On Tuesday, SEIA responded with an open letter of its own to industry.

“In this networked policy environment old definitions — which draw distinctions based on jurisdiction or customer type served — fail us,” said Nat Kreamer, chairman of the SEIA board and president and CEO of Spruce Finance.

“Converging business models mean that companies across the solar industry have more common interests and more reasons to co-invest in policy success,” Kreamer wrote. “This is what it means to be an industry — our fortunes rise and fall together.”

One regional community solar developer operating in Virginia looked on with frustration yesterday.

“I’m really sad that this is going on,” he said, asking not to be named. “I guess [Shah] feels the situation has gotten to a point where you’ve got to shoot one across the bow in order to get people’s attention.”

The split inside the industry between rooftop solar and utility-scale solar interests has existed for a long time, he noted. “Hopefully we figure out a way to find enough common cause between the two segments of the industry to put this behind us and work on areas where we have mutual interest,” he said.

In the letter, Shah and Cinnamon asked readers to sign a petition on change.org titled “Change SEIA Board Governance to make it more Democratic.”

The letter said that SEIA “favors utility scale solar interests even though the majority of solar companies and employees in the U.S. are focused on rooftop solar.” Further, it urged local residential and commercial solar companies to tell the trade group they “want to pay more in dues to support the solar industry if they are ensured to have the same voice and influence as their utility solar brothers and sisters.”

Cinnamon, in an interview, said he and Shah had circulated a draft of the letter to SEIA members. “We didn’t want to sandbag them,” he said. “I’m a little conflicted because I am very loyal to SEIA and I want to see the whole solar industry thrive.

“But SEIA has a pay-to-play decisionmaking system that doesn’t give the DG [distributed generation] guys enough of a voice to get done what’s critical to their business,” he said.

Cinnamon said that by his count, out of 30 voting seats on the SEIA board, 20 of them represent primarily the interests of the utility-scale solar industry, naming as examples E.ON Climate & Renewables North America, First Solar Inc., Mortenson Construction, Rockwood Management Corp. LLC, Blattner Energy Inc., Swinerton Renewable Energy, sPower and NRG Energy Inc.

“When it comes to really important decisions at SEIA and when it comes to the direction that SEIA spends its money, the companies on the utility-scale side are going to vote against anything that is going to make net metering universally successful,” Cinnamon said. “They’re going to vote against efforts to get [special financing] passed or changing the rules in Florida about third-party ownership of solar systems.

“Everybody’s attitude is that we’re one big happy solar family, let’s all get along. But the flip side is the utilities are threatened by the continued expansion of net metering,” he said. “We’re all solar, but we’re competing directly for the same dollar and customer.”