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The Future of Solar Energy in Santa Cruz: a Q&A with Allterra Solar

The Future of Solar Energy in Santa Cruz: a Q&A with Allterra Solar
Allterra Solare team

Santa Cruz is leading the state when it comes to solar energy. We have more solar installations per capita than any other city in California. As Allterra Solar marketing director David Stearns says, “We’re doing something right.”

The Allterra Solar team has installed over 50 percent of the solar systems in Santa Cruz for the last several years. I chatted with Stearns about how the new current federal administration's tariffs on solar will affect the industry, how we can maximize our potential for solar in Santa Cruz, and Alterra’s place in the cleantech industry. Here are the highlights of our conversation.

Cat Johnson: Let’s start with the big picture. What’s the state of solar in Santa Cruz?

David Stearns: Solar continues to grow. It’s not quite as gangbusters as it was in 2015, but that’s for a good reason. 2016 was going to be the last year of the federal tax credits for solar, but, luckily, that was extended to 2022. That gives people a little more time to think about it—and, unfortunately, more time to pay more than they have to for electricity.

How are these solar tariffs we keep hearing about affecting the solar industry and the local market?

The tariffs are going to affect everyone. There are three market segments in solar: there’s the utilities scale, which are those massive installations you see outside of Las Vegas or along I-5. Those are developed by companies who sell power to PG&E and Southern California Edison, and SDG&E—the big utilities. That’s the segment that will be really impacted by the tariff.

There are tight margins in solar but, when we talk about one cent per kilowatt hour at that level, it matters much more than it does for a business where it will be the difference of five percent in terms of their payback, versus a deal happening or not at the utilities scale.

With residential, yes, we’re expecting prices to go up. But because we’ve known about the tariff for awhile, there are a lot of shipments of panels that came in before the tariff. We thought this was going to have an impact sooner, but we’re really expecting the pricing change to happen sometime this summer. There’s still time for people to get their system in before the impact of that tariff is felt. But for homeowners and business owners along the Central Coast, the tariff is still not going to be a reason to not do solar. The numbers will still look amazing.

What is Allterra working on these days?

We’re just trying to perfect our craft. We’re working to improve our customer experience, to make it as seamless as possible, and to continue to give back to the community.
One area we’re pivoting into is home battery storage. We’re the only company in the area that can sell and install the Tesla Powerwall.

For a long time, people haven’t needed batteries because PG&E and the grid would act as your battery. You buy power from yourself at a low rate because your solar is producing it when you don’t need it, then, when your system’s not working at night, you’re buying power from PG&E at a way lower rate. It’s buy-low, sell-high.

People are usually at work during the day and they’re not home, so your system is sending power to the grid during the day. PG&E is required, by law, to purchase the power from your solar system at retail rate. Whatever rate they would sell it to you at is the rate they have to buy it from you. If it’s 2 o’clock in the afternoon and they’d be selling it to you at 30 cents, but you’re not home using electricity, your system’s sending money to the grid and they’re buying it from you at 30 cents. Then at night, when you’re buying it from them, you’re buying it at 12 cents. That’s the fundamental calculation of solar.

Solar, and wind to a lesser extent, have grown so much in California that it’s shifted when the utilities need power. They now need it later in the day because there’s so much peak-time production. They need power say, from 3-9 p.m., instead of 12-6 p.m. If you can send power back to the grid from your battery at that time, then the battery really starts to make sense financially.

Are there any local solar projects you and the Allterra team are particularly excited about?

We just finished Shoppers Corner and the High Street Church. In Santa Cruz, we’ve done over half the solar for the third or fourth year in a row. We’re excited to be the go-to solar company for homeowners and business owners in Santa Cruz. We’re continuing to build on that success and make it the best customer experience possible for people on the Central Coast.

What are your thoughts on the Santa Cruz Tech scene and Allterra’s place in it?

Tech in Santa Cruz is certainly moving in a positive direction. The city is really invested in trying to attract and retain tech businesses. We consider ourselves cleantech. While we are part of the trades—we’re electricians, and electrical engineers, and sales people, and designers—solar is the cleantech industry.

Electricity is the energy type of the future. The question that remains is how the electricity that’s going to power our civilization and all our technology going to be created? We’re trying to demonstrate how it can be produced responsibly and in a cost-effective way.

What would you like to see in Santa Cruz, in regards to both tech and solar?

Santa Cruz has more solar per capita than any other city in the state. The other jurisdictions around the county are certainly doing their part by lowering permit fees, streamlining the permit process, getting permits back faster.

We have this housing crisis here. At Allterra, we do some work with Habitat for Humanity and we have information on our website about affordably building new houses with solar. We need housing but we’re trying to remind people that, when designing new buildings and housing, think about solar. Put the vent pipes on the north side, put the skylights in the restricted areas within a couple feet from the ridge so you can save some important roof space for solar. That way, we can maximize our built environment for clean energy production.

Even if you don’t want solar now, there are some things you can do design-wise to make it easier to install solar in the future. For example, I know people aesthetically really want Spanish tiles, and that’s fine. But, if you don’t care and you want to maximize solar resource potential, then do composition shingle or metal or something that lowers installation cost.

Thanks, David. Is there anything you’d like to add?

Solar is one of, if not the, cheapest forms of electricity now. People are still scared away by the cost, but it’s less expensive than what you’re currently paying with PG&E. We really encourage people to get a free evaluation and you’ll see that the numbers speak for themselves.

Santa Cruz tech companies: Join Santa Cruz Works at santacruzworks.org/membership

Cat Johnson is a writer, content strategist and storyteller focused on community, collaboration and coworking.