The Dark Side of Solar

Andrew Koyaanisqatsi has installed top-quality solar systems in Portland homes for over 20 years, building his company Solar Energy Solutions on great customer service and design. But he says a city program that's been applauded for making solar installations easy and cheap for Portlanders has crushed his business. Under Solarize Portland, neighborhood associations band together and buy solar installations in bulk from one contractor, bringing down the cost by almost 30 percent. The program has led to a huge increase in Portland installations, from 38 installations in 2008 to 553 in 2010 (with 402 of those through Solarize). But Koyaanisqatsi says that Solar Energy Solutions and companies like it have been left in the dust, unable to compete against the city's marketing dollars.

MERCURY: So how did you get started installing solar?

ANDREW KOYAANISQATSI: I was looking around for things to do in '87, and I was trying to figure out a way to make a living that was consistent with my personal and spiritual philosophy. I was actually brought up in a solar household during the Carter era, so it struck me that I should take a try at installing those. I've been scratching and clawing to make a living at it ever since.

How many projects have you done in Portland?

We've worked on thousands of houses. Ironically, one of the greatest things to help the solar industry was the Energy Trust of Oregon. But now that has changed.

What's the problem with the Energy Trust?

The idea behind the Energy Trust is great. They get a certain amount of money from ratepayers, and they distribute that money out to places like PGE to become more efficient. Unfortunately, one of their prime directives is to decrease the cost of solar installation. I understand where they're coming from because they want the ratepayers' money to go as far as it can. But, in my opinion, they are putting undue pressure on the industry to reduce their prices. We just can't afford to install at the prices the Energy Trust of Oregon is pressuring us to.

Why is Solarize Portland a problem for you?

Solarize Portland basically provides Halliburton-size contracts at Walmart prices, with city and utility money paying to promote a single contractor who installs all of the solar systems within an entire city quadrant. As a consequence, our business has slowed down substantially. It would be like the city rewarding one roofer the contract to install all the roofs for all of Southeast Portland.

But neighbors are free to opt out and choose their own contractor, right?

Yes, but the herding mentality behind this and the marketing force behind this program is huge. It's millions and millions of dollars of marketing for these few companies. They've taken the balance out of free enterprise and dumped it all on one company.

What's been the impact on your business?

2010 was a terrible year. What I can't figure out is how forward-thinking Portlanders who have banished the thought of ever shopping at WalMart and who condemn Haliburton throw all reason and ethics out the window when they sign up for Solarize Programs. Energy conservation and solar installations should be heralded in the new green economy. Instead, we have novices slamming in systems with little thought or experience at laymen's rates.

But wouldn't putting all that money into increasing solar installations benefit you in the long run as people get more educated about solar and see their neighbors installing?

In theory. But how long can a company exist with no substantial business while this theory waits to unfold? The idea is this 100th monkey thing that once you install enough solar systems, everyone will start doing it. But we haven't seen that yet. We wish the city, the Energy Trust, and, most importantly, the people of Portland would say no to Solarize Portland. Instead, call your local, friendly neighborhood solar contractor. Otherwise, why don't they just say, "Welcome to Portland. Do not open up a solar business here."

Can you transition into doing other kinds of work?

I'm a rabid environmentalist and solar is all I really want to do. I've always been able to make a living at it. That's what makes us so special. We're artisans in the industry. No one knows it better than us.

Article Screenshot: The Dark Side of Solar, How Portland's Solar Promotion Practices drive out compeition.

Selected comments from the article's original publication in the Portland Mercury:

The Portland Bureau of Planning and Sustainability offers a correction: Solarize is not a City of Portland program. Here's the history direct from our website: "Originally created by SE Uplift and a neighborhood leader in the Mt. Tabor Neighborhood Association, the first iteration of the Solarize Portland project quickly expanded to become a partnership between several SE Portland neighborhoods and the SE Uplift Neighborhood Sustainability Program. ...The City of Portland’s Bureau of Planning and Sustainability, Energy Trust of Oregon and Solar Oregon offers strategic and technical assistance to neighborhood organizations that are interested in operating a Solarize project."
Posted by BPSCommunications on January 26, 2011 at 11:52 PM ·
Solarize Portland started out as a community building project that would result in more sustainable neighborhoods. It was very successful on both counts. We had a competitive bidding process to select the contractor and chose a fantastic local company with six employees (not exactly Haliburton). We did not receive 'millions and millions' of dollars for marketing, although we did receive some to print flyers, which were distributed by volunteers from neighborhood sustainability committees.

There were 150 solar installations outside of Solarize Portland projects in 2010, as opposed to 38 in 2008. While it may be difficult for companies to compete with the low prices of Solarize, clearly some companies were still able to attract business. Even more so than in previous years.

It is inappropriate to point fingers at the people who participated in Solarize Portland for contributing to the sustainability of their community by taking advantage of affordable, and quality, solar options. They did not throw all 'ethics and reason out the window' by participating. They made a responsible decision to improve their community.
Posted by SE Uplift Sustainability on January 27, 2011 at 12:02 PM ·
As a independant contractor who works in the solar industry, for companies including Solar Energy Solutions, I want to see the industry grow and foster competition. Will this happen if only a few companies install 402 systems(70%), while dozens of other companies try to make ends meat on the remaining 151 systems(30%)? Seems to me it would be good use to utilize the Solarize program to foster the growth of a greater number of companies, unless one likes not having much of a choice in the future. So, on that point, I fully agree with Andrew. It seems people responding are caught up in his passionate wording, instead of hearing his point. Solarize Portland has definitely been a vehicle for helping groups of people to go solar in Portland who wouldn't have been able to, but how is it beginning to affect the solar industry itself to grow?

Solarize Portland has had a tremendous affect on the industry as a whole outside of itself. There has been a state wide decrease in tax credits and incentives, partially to deal with the decreased cost of the Solarize projects, and account for solarize clients who could end up reclaiming more than was spent. So now if you are not a Solarize installer in Portland, or are working in a town where it's much harder to form a large purchasing group, and therefore your install cost is higher, the sale has become harder to quantify for a potential customer.

All in all, Solarize Portland has good intent and has helped many consumers to use solar, but it is also hurting portions of the industry to grow along with it. I have personally dealt with potential customers who didn't understand that contractors outside of Solarize Portland could install solar for them and still receive the same incentives and tax credits. Due to the amazing publicity of the program, residential consumers are seemingly less aware that they actually have choice. There is definitely no fault with consumers wanting solar to be an affordable choice, but I think, in an effort to continue to grow the solar industry, ETO and Solarize Portland could take time to consider how Solarize Portland's growth is affecting the industry as a whole.
Posted by Rick Z on January 31, 2011 at 1:46 PM
It is unfortunate that the people commenting are much more willing to trust what the Energy Trust of Oregon wants you to believe then taking time to look at the facts. I know it is a lot easier to go with the mob mentality but sometime you have to deal with the fact that the Energy Trust isn't out for the consumers best interest. Like Walmart, the savings has to come for somewhere and unfortunately the savings made by Solarize Portland is coming from small businesses. Personal attacks on Mr. Koyaanisqatsi shows to me how scared people are that they may not look as noble as they liked to think they are.
Posted by janebg on February 19, 2011 at 4:13 PM
I don't believe that it was the intent of the people that put together the Solarize Portland program to put small solar electric contractors out of business. It is difficult to foresee all the effect of programs that were implemented with all good intentions. But please don't ignore the devasting blow this program is having on contractors that have invested their lives and financial resources into this green industry over the past decade and gotten us to the point were at today.
Solarize Portland provides a monopoly to a bid winning contractor with large enough financial backing to do entire quadtants of the city, than the city and ETO helps the winning contractor with large amounts of free advertising. That's not a level playing field.
Posted by ses on March 3, 2011 at 9:10 AM
Andrew Koyaanisqatsi is passionate about solar energy and has given his professional energy to it for 20 years. He is an honest, caring, and loving human being who shows all of those attributes in how he treats others in business and in friendship and in how he treats Mother Earth. The attacks in these comments do not fit the man. The move by the city to pick one solar company to advertise by using city money has hurt not only Andrew, but many other solar companies trying to help the city become able to use solar power. Andrew cares deeply that there is justice in this for all of the business owners and the home owners. He does not want to see a monopoly cutting anyone out. He is a bigger spirited man than anyone commenting here can know or judge. He just wants to continue being able to give effectively as he has been for years. For him, it is not so much the money as to be involved in what is right and to not lose that ability by the city selecting only one company to advertise.
Posted by HopeTas on March 17, 2011 at 11:00 PM
The only shortfall I have heard about for Solarized Portland is not enough trained people to do the installations that are now in demand due to the program. I have always been interested in the solar and wind energy and this seems to be the time to get in on the virtual "ground floor". I even stumbled across a solar training class that will be in Portland next month. I found the information here: After enrolling in the class, I am now trying to find out everything about Portland and Solar and incentives to prepare for the class.
Posted by suzyjax on August 23, 2011 at 2:14 PM