The World's #1 Renewable Energy Network for News, Information, and Companies.
Untitled Document

How Residential Solar as a Service Began

The residential solar lease may bring successful companies like SolarCity, SunRun and Sungevity to mind. But do you remember when a company called Citizenre was the poster child of the sector? You may not. The company didn't last very long.

Citizenre was a multi-level marketing company (or pyramid, depending on your preference) formed in 2006 with a goal of providing competitive solar leases in 40 states. The company's founders set about creating an army of “Ecopreneurs” – most with little to no experience in solar – who would generate leads, install solar PV systems and send money from lease payments up the chain of command.

In addition to the bold claims that they could provide competitive solar leases in 40 states, Citizenre executives said the company was going to build a 500-MW manufacturing facility and become vertically integrated. At the time in early 2007, that would have been the biggest manufacturing plant in the world.

As is quite obvious today, the company never materialized the $650 million it claimed to be raising from investors, never built a manufacturing facility and never installed a single solar system. Here's how one former Ecopreneur, who declined to be named, described the Citizenre's activity in an email:

“Essentially, it was a clever way to use 1300+ 'independent reps' to collect market research for a business plan that never got funded because no credible investor would ever invest $500+ million in a startup with such a weak team with minimal credentials.”

Some people in the industry called Citizenre fraudulent. That's probably too harsh, given that sales reps and executives never took any money from potential customers. But the company did offer the perfect case study on how to create a business destined for failure: Make grandiose claims with nothing to back them up; recruit inexperienced workers and pump them full of false hope; and most notably, structure the company around a stigmatized and ripe-for-abuse business model, multi-level marketing.

But Citizenre did have one very prescient component to its business model: The solar lease.

Since the company fell off the map, the residential solar-as-a-service sector has taken off with astonishing speed. In late 2006 when Citizenre was getting lambasted by a skeptical solar industry, other companies were quietly building businesses in the space. The two biggest players – SolarCity and SunRun – have collectively completed over 14,000 installations and are now operating in nine states.

So what made these companies so successful? They didn't try to do everything at once.

Like in any good business, says SunRun co-founder and CEO Ed Fenster, you have to take small steps toward a larger goal.

“Everything is easier if you bite off a manageable amount, particularly if you're trying something new,” says Fenster.

In 2007, SunRun started offering solar leases and power purchase agreements to homeowners in California. When the California-wide model proved successful, the company expanded incrementally into other states the following year. Instead of trying to be everywhere at once (à la Citizenre), SunRun moved market by market where the economics made sense.

“You have to test it, get the bugs out and really demonstrate its success before you roll it out,” says Fenster.

An early "bug" was the perception that there was a hidden catch to the service, says Fenster. The distrust in the market caused by Citizenre's grandiose claims initially impacted the company.

“One of the barriers we had to overcome as we launched the business was a perspective that maybe our business was too good to be true,” says Fenster.

But when SunRun actually raised money, formed partnerships and began installing systems, the questions quickly went away. The company has since installed more than 6,000 systems in Arizona, California, Colorado, Hawaii, Massachusetts, New Jersey and Pennsylvania.

The other market leader, SolarCity, grew in a similar way. With $9 million in venture capital from Tesla Founder Elon Musk, the founders originally set out in 2007 to broker group buys of solar systems and reduce the up-front cost for homeowners. The company quickly realized that solar services would be a more popular option and created a lease product for Californians in 2008.

After the leasing and power purchase agreement products were released, SolarCity's business mushroomed beyond California. To date, the company has added 750 employees and installed more than 8,000 systems in Arizona, Colorado, Oregon and Texas. The company has also expanded rapidly into commercial installations, with more than half of business now in that sector.

Lyndon Rive, SolarCity's co-founder and CEO, describes the success of the business the same way Ed Fenster does:

“It's all about taking baby steps. There's nothing wrong with having a big idea as long as you have incremental steps toward achieving it.”

This incremental approach has enabled residential solar-services pioneers to expand well beyond their original ideas: SolarCity is no longer just a solar company – it provides energy efficiency services, installs electric vehicle chargers and is working with Tesla and UC Berkeley to develop storage technologies for renewable electricity; and SunRun is now offering solar services in Home Depot stores while also creating partnerships with housing developers to pre-install solar on new homes.

The industry is finally realizing a residential solar-services market that Citizenre founders (and many others, like Fenster and Rive) imagined. But Citizenre got laughed off the stage because it didn't have anything close to a realistic business plan.

SolarCity's Rive says that the days are gone when a company with no experience and unrealistic goals can create such a stir.

“Customers and business owners can see through the fake promises. As any industry matures you eventually get the recognized brands,” says Rive.

To hear interviews with Lyndon Rive and Ed Fenster about the evolution of solar services, listen to our podcast linked above.

Untitled Document


Solar Beats Gas in Colorado

Christopher Martin, Bloomberg SunEdison Inc., the biggest clean-energy developer, began construction on a Colorado solar farm that will be the larg...

Listen Up: Solar Advice from Pat Redgate at Ameco Solar

The Energy Show on Renewable Energy World Technologies, companies and business models in the solar industry come and go. But even in the relatively new solar i...

Six Observations about the US Solar Industry Mid-2015

Paula Mints In the U.S. mid-2015, deployment of solar technologies into all applications is at a pivotal point with several facto...

Indian Solar Market Ready to Takeoff

Renewable Energy World Editors Mercom Capital Group, a global clean energy communications and research firm, released its quarterly update on the In...


Array Technologies’ DuraTrack HZ v3 Continues to (R)evolutionize at SPI

Array Technologies, Inc. (ATI) prepares to showcase its recently launched tracking syst...

Appalachian's Energy Center assists counties with landfill gas to energy projects

The Appalachian Energy Center at Appalachian State University recently completed a proj...

Early Bird Registration Deadline for GRC Annual Meeting is This Week

The deadline for early-bird rates for registration for the biggest annual geothermal ev...

Redesigned Video Gallery

Hydropower news and information, and interesting promotional announcements are now avai...


Transitioning to Net-Zero Living

Judith and Jeffrey adore living in Belfast, Maine – a quaint harbor town of Belfast, Maine. They previously res...

The True Cost of Electric Vehicles in Australia

In order to avoid increased congestion, further greenhouse warming and lessen Australia’s reliance on imported ...

The Coming Multi-trillion Dollar Energy Investment Drive

In coming years, a multi-trillion dollar low-emission energy investment drive will get underway. Three catalysts wil...

The Perfect Elevator Pitch

The elevator pitch is a concise statement that grabs attention and communicates value, ideally leading to a next step...


I am a reporter with, a blog published by the Center for American Progress. I am former editor and producer for, where I contributed stories and hosted the Inside Renewable Energy Podcast. Keep in to...


Volume 18, Issue 4


To register for our free
e-Newsletters, subscribe today:


Tweet the Editors! @jennrunyon



International Energy and Sustainability Conference 2015

The fourth International Energy and Sustainability Conference will be he...

Intersolar South America 2015

Exhibition and Conference: September 1-3, 2015 Intersolar South America ...

Intersolar North America 2016

Exhibition: July 12 - 14, 2016; Conference: July 11 - 13, 2016 Intersola...


Be Like The Personal Trainer

Most people think sales is all about forming strong relationships with p...

7 Tips For Capturing Attention

When you’re giving a presentation or pitching a sale, you’re...

A Mind Trick For Call Reluctance

The more you think of yourself as the connection between a product or se...


Renewable Energy: Subscribe Now

Solar Energy: Subscribe Now

Wind Energy: Subscribe Now

Geothermal Energy: Subscribe Now

Bioenergy: Subscribe Now