Centrica buys Astrum Solar in US

North American electricity retailer Direct Energy, owned by the UK’s Centrica, has acquired fast-growing US residential PV installer Astrum Solar for $54m, as money continues to pour into the downstream US solar sector – including from European energy giants.

Founded in 2008, Maryland-based Astrum is a significant player in the northeastern US residential PV market, and has a presence in California, having installed about 4,000 PV systems in total.

Direct Energy, acquired by Centrica in 2000, boasts more than 6 million residential power customers across North America, including in 46 US states and 10 Canadian provinces.

The acquisition follows E.ON’s investment in Astrum rival Sungevity this spring.

Unlike with E.ON’s investment in Sungevity, however, there is no immediate indication that Direct Energy’s acquisition is geared towards expanding Astrum into Europe.

Shortly after E.ON made its investment, Sungevity announced plans to push more heavily into the Netherlands with the help of E.ON’s Benelux subsidiary.

Despite its ownership by Centrica, Houston-based Direct Energy does not operate in Europe.

“Direct Energy will look to leverage Astrum Solar’s expertise in residential solar power installation to its residential customers, accelerating customer growth across the United States,” explains Direct Energy president Scott Boose.

The acquisition continues the trend of traditional electricity retailers pushing into distributed PV, a relationship once viewed solely as antagonistic – and one still fraught with many complications.

Earlier this year NRG Energy acquired New Jersey-based Roof Diagnostics Solar (since renamed NRG Home Solar). Other related deals include Edison International’s acquisition of SoCore Energy and GDF Suez’s investment in OneRoof Energy, another Maryland-based rooftop installer.

Direct Energy chief executive Badar Khan says the deal is aimed at “using new technology and innovation to help our customers gain greater control over their energy use”.

Centrica, considered one of the UK's "Big Six" energy utilities, and owner of British Gas, is a significant owner of renewables assets in the UK, particularly in offshore wind, with stakes in a handful of major operational and development-stage projects.

Centrica has made clear its intention to slow its investment in UK renewables, in part due to perceived political instability.

However, Centrica has continued to invest in UK solar assets through British Gas, in part alongside its arrangement with Bluefield Partners.