As Kermit the Frog so famously lamented, ‘It’s not easy being green,’ and it truly is not easy. However, it is possible – where there is political will and a company with a vision such as Sullivan Solar Power, headquartered in San Diego. That city has gone even further than the state and is committed to one hundred percent clean energy by 2035, ten years ahead of the State of California’s goal of 2045 as set out in Senate Bill 100, signed in 2018.
Sullivan Solar Power specializes in designing and installing solar power systems for residential, commercial, and municipal operations and has long been passionate about public education and policy matters. We wanted to learn more, so we spoke with Sullivan’s Director of Community Affairs Tara Kelly Hammond and its Founder, Chief Executive Officer, and President Daniel Sullivan.
“I founded the company in 2004, shortly after the birth of my son,” Sullivan told us. “California had just experienced an energy crisis, and the United States was invading Iraq over oil, and I wanted to be part of the solution to create a brighter future for my son. I created Sullivan Solar Power to fundamentally change the way the world generates electricity, to rid it of fossil fuel consumption.”
Fifteen years later, nine thousand satisfied customers have placed their trust in the company to deliver clean energy. Customers are located not only in San Diego, where company headquarters are located but throughout Southern California, with satellite offices in Irvine and Riverside to serve Orange County and the Inland Empire. “While we have a Southern California footprint, our impact on solar policy and as a leader has had a profound effect across California, the leader in solar in America,” he said.
“Our tagline is to lead the solar energy revolution, and this is what we are doing. When I started, over fifteen years ago, there were fewer than one hundred solar power systems on SDG&E’s grid,” he said. San Diego Gas & Electric (SDG&E) is the company’s local utility. “Today, there are over 155,975 solar power systems locally. Selling solar in 2004 was tough. I had to prove to turn each person I met into a solar advocate who would help share my vision. I committed to offering the highest quality products, the best warranties, a true production guarantee, and thorough training, which would result in the highest quality solar power systems.”
Offering only the highest quality products means obtaining them from American companies that have been in business for as long as their warranty. “We also want to ensure the companies we work with don’t have investors who are supporting fossil fuels, which is counterproductive to our mission; we do not purchase solar panels made in China, and we do not align ourselves with just one type of solar panel. This helps us remain competitive and offer clients custom solutions, depending on their energy needs, their roof space, and their budget.”
The company’s employees are only electricians from the local union of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers. In 2014, Sullivan Solar Power became the third company in North America to obtain the North American Board of Certified Energy Practitioners (NABCEP) accreditation. For this, employees had to go through further training and company processes and ethics were analyzed, something of which Sullivan says he is very proud.
“I only want the best electricians working on our solar and storage projects. We are installing a mini power plant on someone’s roof, and I believe state-licensed electricians are the experts that are qualified to be installing these systems. Our same union electricians that do our high-profile commercial jobs, like our solar project for Petco Park, (home of the San Diego Padres,) are also doing our residential solar power systems installations.”
Other high-profile commercial projects include installations at the Port of San Diego and the University of California at San Diego and Irvine.
“I also was the first to offer solar monitoring on each system and a production guarantee. We pay you if your solar power system doesn’t produce as expected. This complete package gives our customers peace of mind and turns them into solar disciples who want to help our community declare energy independence.”
While marketing is integral to any company’s viability, the fact that over half of Sullivan Solar Power’s business comes from customer referrals frees time to work on education, government policy, and ethical issues. These are all integral to realizing California’s goal of achieving total clean energy by 2045 and San Diego’s even more ambitious goal of 2035.
“Our goal since day one has been to create solar advocates,” says Sullivan. “We know that this industry needs to advance if we want a future that is habitable, equitable and safe. For us, it is not about gaining customers. Even if a person does not go solar with us, we want them to be educated on the potential solar power has to provide us with environmental benefits, economic and political independence. The more people are educated, the more the word spreads. This is why we are so invested in education and combating all the myths and miseducation around solar. We are directly combating bad industry tactics and misinformation put out but the fossil fuel industry. We want the public to get the facts.”
One myth that Hammond says should be dispelled is that the federal tax credit for the installation of solar power systems, now at thirty percent for both commercial and residential systems, is going to end this year, causing some companies to pressure clients into buying immediately. But that is not true, she says. In 2020 it will be reduced to ten percent for commercial properties and twenty-six percent for residential, but it is not being removed, and that is a misconception both she and Sullivan hope to clear up.
As director of community affairs, Hammond gets involved with public education programs through monthly solar seminars, block parties where neighbors can meet with a homeowner who has had the system installed, ‘lunch and learns,’ and quarterly, county-wide events. At such events, all of the manufacturing, financing, and non-profit partners such as the Sierra Club and the Climate Action Campaign come together to give consumers information so they can decide what is best for them.
“We visit schools throughout Southern California,” she said, “doing solar presentations and lessons, and we’ve worked with kids from kindergarten through high school as well as university engineering students. Educating future leaders about clean energy and getting kids excited about careers in solar is important and fulfilling. We also sponsor the annual Junior Solar Sprint race where middle school students build solar-powered model cars and get excited about clean energy.”
Sullivan says community choice energy is a primary focus. Community choice energy (CCE) is known by a variety of names and is a method of energy buying in which the customers combine their purchasing power to be able to have more influence in controlling price and whether their utility supplies energy from alternative energy sources.
“What it does is it breaks up one of the longest-standing monopolies in our society: energy. Up until now, Californians did not have a choice on where they purchased energy from or who they purchased it from. It was a classic monopoly model. Now, CCEs provide customers with a choice in addition to the for-profit, investor-owned utility model, offering an option that is not-for-profit, more affordable, with a higher amount of renewable energy, and all revenue reinvested into supporting local clean energy initiatives.”
He says that there are currently nineteen operational CCAs in California, covering 160 cities with twenty-five percent of the state’s residents. An estimated eighty percent of Californians will be getting their energy from a CCE program by the mid-2020s.
As a tireless advocate for clean energy, Sullivan Solar Power representatives have regularly attended council meetings and hearings at municipal and state levels. “You’re always the only company here advocating for solar power,” Sullivan said that the company is often told,
“We have taken the lead on various attacks from our investor-owned utilities on solar, helping beat these attacks to protect our clients’ investments as well as the future of the solar industry,” Hammond said. “We also worked with Assemblywoman Lorena Gonzalez on a solar consumer protection bill, and now all of the components on a mandatory solar contract cover page are things that we already had in our contract. So, we set the standards whether it’s for policy or whether it’s rebate programs. We’ve elevated the competition if you will.”
Sullivan says that Assembly Member Todd Gloria, a co-author of Senate Bill 100 and former San Diego mayor, said California would not have committed to complete clean energy if San Diego had not passed such a bill of its own, “something we advocated for. This is just one example of work we have done behind the scenes to allow our region to be a clean energy leader.”
Sullivan Solar Power has earned many awards, including being the only energy company on the San Diego Business Journal’s and INC 5000’s fastest-growing companies lists every year since 2010. Sullivan has been named three times as CEO of the year by Ernst & Young and the San Diego Business Journal, while Hammond recently was announced a winner of their 40 Leaders Under 40 award and is a finalist for a 2019 Celebrating Women award. Despite this, the company is not resting on its laurels.
As it moves toward the 2035 goal of total clean energy in San Diego, Sullivan Solar Power has been a national leader in developing energy storage systems. A popular product the company offers is the LG Chem residential energy storage unit, which Sullivan says is “the highest rated battery on the market, used in tens of thousands of Chevy Bolts and Volts across the U.S.”
Initially, energy storage was used to help consumers get an additional return on their investment, through ‘load shifting,’ Sullivan says. Through load shifting, utilities charge more for energy in the evening, and energy storage allows customers to store their solar power produced during the day and use it in the evening to avoid a higher charge.
But storage also offers backup power during blackouts. “Due to the devastating fires in California in the past couple of years, the utilities have alerted ratepayers that they may have to turn off power if it’s hot, windy, or dry. We anticipate more homeowners wanting storage as back-up power and look forward to continuing to be a leader in both the solar and the storage market.”