Sunnova CEO John Berger doesn’t want any special government help to build his solar business. He just wants fair access to the electricity market. And at the moment, utility companies–highly regulated and highly protected–are standing in his way.
“Utilities are being monopolies, and essentially government agencies, not companies,” he says.
It’s this sort of straight-talking self-reliance that’s endeared Berger to Fox News, who calls him an “ideal spokesperson for the solar industry.”
“We’re not a big believer in subsidies for everything,” the Texan says. “That’s a different opinion from some people, and in general one that Fox News is in line with.”
“We’re seeing the price structure come down at a pretty rapid rate in residential solar. We want to get the subsidies out of the way on the utilities’ side. We want a level playing field, consumer choice, and fair competition.”
Berger thinks renewing the main federal tax credit last year was a mistake and that the solar industry no longer needs it. (While that may be more true for large companies like Sunnova, it would more likely hurt its smaller competitors and consolidate the market.)
He would have concentrated on state regulations of net metering–the fees utilities pay for excess energy produced on home panels–and charges utilities want to make for solar customers to use the grid. Berger says some charge is reasonable–the utilities have to maintain the grid, after all. But not the $25, $50, or even $100 a month utilities have been proposing.
“If you’re swinging on the systems, there should be a reasonable fee for that. [The utilities] paid for the poles and wires years ago, but they still should have a nominal fee–$5, $8. Anything past that is anticompetitive behavior.”
Berger compares utility and solar companies to the old landline giants, like AT&T, and cellphone networks. AT&T initially tried to resist cellphones (for example, by repeatedly referring to their brain cancer risks). Utilities are now trying to freeze solar by making solar more expensive. And consumers will be denied access to the cellphone-sized benefits solar could allow.
Sunnova claims to have the fourth most customers in the U.S. residential market. It offers both a lease and fixed-rate solar-as-service product through third-party contractors. It provides ongoing maintenance and sees a gap in the crowded residential market by providing superior customer service (though some of the review sites I looked at didn’t seem too sunny). It recently raised $300 million, bringing its fundraising to date to $900 million.
Berger sees a fundamental shift afoot, from a centralized utility-centric energy system, to one that’s more open and competitive. He sees Sunnova as a full-blown power company, providing energy management and full billing services. In deregulated markets like New Jersey, it could team up with grid suppliers to bundle solar and traditional electricity, covering all bases.
He’s still trying to persuade some people about solar in his home-town, though: “What folks in Houston miss is this is a technology not unlike what shale gas and tight sands oil was,” he says.