Installing residential solar and storage in Silicon Valley

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pv magazine checked in with Barry Cinnamon, a Silicon Valley solar installer with a 20-year track record, and let him pontificate on solar and storage. (Cinnamon is also a storied solar entrepreneur, podcaster and annoyingly competent writer.)

Cinnamon Energy Systems started in 2001 with the founding of Akeena Solar, a solar installer with thousands of customers in California, New Jersey and New York in the earlier days of home solar ownership. There were adventures with Westinghouse and racking systems.

The name change to Cinnamon Energy Systems heralded the importance of energy storage in the residential power portfolio.

pv magazine: As a recent returnee to the solar industry, I asked Cinnamon what had been going on in the last two years other than ITC and tariff struggles. (interview edited for clarity)

Barry Cinnamon: That’s not going to change. It’s the solar coaster.

When I look back over almost 20 years of doing this, and 20 years before that in the thermal business — we managed to deal with the things that you can expect, but it’s the black swan events, like changes in administration or tariffs that kind of hit you.

As we start doing commercial business, we look at this industry as being analogous to the HVAC industry 50 years ago — it’s going to evolve towards a maintenance industry. It’s new equipment and maintenance, that’s what we’re doing here.

pv magazine: The residential solar industry in the U.S. is on a growth spurt. What does that translate to in your business? Is utility reliability pushing people to storage?

Barry Cinnamon: To a certain degree, what’s driving some of the growth over the last quarter has been storage backup power and PG&E.
I kind of compliment PG&E because they’re our best marketing department when it comes to battery storage. Now the challenge is there’s a very limited number of battery storage systems that are going to meet the reliability threshold.

One change is in the learning curve, if you look at the product innovation curve, we’re past the early adopters, we’re into the majority, people are saying, “I’ve seen my neighbors put solar on and I’m finally going to do it.”

pv magazine: What’s unique to Silicon Valley for a solar installer?

Barry Cinnamon: What’s becoming a challenge surprisingly is not the panel prices, I mean those are going to come down again, but kind of every cost of doing business for us has gone up. The biggest challenge, here in Silicon Valley, finding really well trained, qualified, solar and electricians. And we train them, but you’ve got to pay them a lot of money and that means we’ve got to raise our prices.

The tariffs on aluminum and steel on any imports have meant that the domestic equipment has gone up, so the racking has gone up. The tariffs on electronics means that the inverters, optimizers and microinverters have kind of gone up. And the cost of living keeps going up.

pv magazine: In an article you wrote for GTM, you suggested energy storage would best focus on serving critical loads. Home owners shouldn’t expect to be powering two beer fridges in the garage, their swimming pool heater, the lights and everything else in their home?

Barry Cinnamon: They can power the beer fridges because those use little motors, but they can’t power the pool pump; they can’t power the air conditioner; they can’t power their electric stove. If they do, the power draw of those units is going to be so high that the inverter will simply not start up.

That’s the surge issue — the inverters can handle 25 or 30 amps but when you fire up a motor, it’s going to pull 50 amps initially and then the inverter says, “That’s too much. I’m going to shut down.”

The second issue is just the amount of energy you have in your battery. In order to get the SGIP rebates, you’re supposed to cycle that battery almost every day. The power goes out in the evening when the battery might be down to 20% or 30% and if you have a 10 kwh battery that’s two or three kilowatt hours of energy, that’s going to get you through to the next morning based on your critical loads. But if you run your heating system or your air conditioner, anything big, run your pool pumps, it’s going to be gone.

In general, I’m very encouraged by the growth of the market and by PG&E’s marketing efforts for storage and downright incompetence when it comes to a reliable grid.

(Part two of the interview will publish on Monday.)