Gloucester Township is getting the gift of increased ratables and economic growth this holiday season, as national solar energy company SolarCity opened the doors of its new operations center in Blackwood earlier this month.
“They’re moving into the industrial park off of Lower Landing Road. So that’s good for the landlord, good for those who are getting jobs and good for the township as it continues to increase our ratables, which is something that we’re looking to do,” said Gloucester Township Mayor David Mayer.
For SolarCity, a national company that operates in 14 states, the Gloucester Township location will allow them to capitalize on a solar energy market that is becoming increasingly more accessible to middle class homeowners.
“From our experience, [SolarCity] being in New Jersey for about 18 months, we have really just seen our sales in the southern part of the state really accelerate to the point where it was justified to get an operations center set up now in Blackwood,” said Leon Keshishian, SolarCity’s regional vice president on the East Coast
Despite a recent decline in market value for solar renewable energy certificates, or SRECs — something Keshishian partly attributed to the rapid influx of solar technology in New Jersey, a leading state in the renewable energy market, in recent years — a shift in the way solar systems are purchased and managed is creating a rapid expansion into middle class homes.
Previously, Keshishian said, homeowners seeking the financial and environmental benefits of solar energy would have to shell out $20,000 to $30,000 upfront and collect the return on their investment over 5 to 10 years.
Those homeowners maintain control of their energy credit values — using their own energy and selling excess back to the energy companies — and can save significantly on energy costs, but that also makes them responsible for maintenance and puts them at the mercy of the SREC market. There’s also no guarantee of when the energy savings each month will eventually pay for the tens of thousands in initial costs.
“For the average person that’s a hard thing to swallow. They don’t have the ability to wait for that payback,” Keshishian said. SolarCity follows a completely different model.
“What we do is install the systems for free and the homeowner just pays for the power produced off the system,” he said.
To qualify for the program, he said homeowners need to have a solid roof with good solar access, a roof face that faces southeast to southwest without trees blocking the sun and good credit.
“It’s the same basic principal of getting a loan,” he said.
While high up-front costs with more significant monthly savings might be an attractive option for high-income homeowners, a program that allows residents a more modest savings of $50 to $100 a month and assumes the burden of initial costs and long-term maintenance is perfect for the middle class market, Keshishian said.
“We find a higher acceptance rates in areas where you have that middle class, and South Jersey is filled with that,” he said.
And according to a recent study from the Center for American Progress, it’s middle class homeowners who increasingly make up the bulk of new solar system installations. Data collected from New Jersey’s Clean Energy Program show that nearly 80 percent of new solar installations are in areas with median household incomes of just $40,000 to $90,000.
Combine that with the fact homeownership is much more accessible for middle class families in South Jersey than anywhere else in the state — according to a recent survey by real estate company Trulia — and it was a no-brainer for Solar City to open up in Gloucester Township.
“You have people who have good economic dynamics, good credit scores and are attracted by savings,” Keshishian said. “That combination of things made it a very attractive place to us.”
The new location also allows them quick access to major roadways, a crucial part of the company’s plan to expand its reach into the South Jersey marketplace.
“Our goal is to have a warehouse set up ideally within 30 to 45 minutes of where our customers are,” he said. “Being in Blackwood right off the [Atlantic City] Expressway, we can service areas of Cherry Hill, Mt. Laurel, Egg Harbor and down to Vineland.”
Quicker transportation and streamlining of installations also means they can drive the cost of going solar lower and lower, he said.
“We’re still able to do very high quality work in less than half the time, which bodes well to the future of solar in New Jersey,” Keshishian said. “We can drop our costs, even in the face of SRECs declining and things of that nature, and be able to drive a long-term businesses that’s viable.”
With aims to stick around for the long haul, Keshishian said they’ve already hired 20 new employees to work out of the operations center, with aims to possibly hire 15 more. The positions range from engineers and surveyors to salespeople and installers, and they’re eager to provide comprehensive training to workers with no experience in solar installations.
By hiring people with experience in carpentry, electrical and construction instead, they’re able to train to Solar City standards and ensure the work is done correct and consistently, Keshishian said. They’ve already hired five recent graduates of Pennco Tech’s Blackwood facility.
“We’ve had to literally create our own in-house university,” he said. “We hire people with some trade-oriented backgrounds … who are obviously excited by getting into this new industry.”
And so is Gloucester Township, Mayor Mayer said.
“They’re taking up more empty space, and filling those empty spaces with new jobs,” Mayer said. “And that’s good for everyone.”
For more information about available positions at SolarCity, visit www.solarcitycareers.com