SolarCity takes aim at utility-scale PV market

SolarCity, the dominant US installer of rooftop PV and nascent module manufacturer, intends to further diversify by building and owning utility-scale solar projects, chief executive Lyndon Rive says.

Most of the utility-scale solar arrays the California-based company builds will be 20MW or smaller. But SolarCity won’t shy away from mega-projects of 100MW or more if the conditions are right, Rive says.

Earlier this month SolarCity unveiled a landmark 20-year PPA with a Hawaiian utility to supply ‘dispatchable’ solar power from a ground-mount project with an integrated battery-storage system on the island of Kaua’i.

That project, expected to enter construction by next spring, may be just the beginning of SolarCity’s push into the utility-scale market.

Such a push would put it into direct competition with players like First Solar and Canadian Solar, which have extensive experience building large PV projects in addition to their large module manufacturing businesses, while opening another competitive front with SunEdison and SunPower.

“We’re building utility scale right now” and intend to continue doing so, Rive said Friday at a SolarCity event in New York City.

“We haven’t been awarded any projects yet in the 100MW range – most of the plants we’re looking at are probably more in the 20MW [and below] range,” he said.

SolarCity “won’t say no if there’s an opportunity for [something larger scale],” he said. “But that’s not the primary focus.”

“Mostly the focus is going to be creating utility-scale, but building closer to local substations and adding storage systems.”

While the scope of SolarCity’s ambitions for the utility-scale PV market are not yet clear, even a modest push into the sector represents a significant strategic shift for the company.

At the centre of SolarCity’s business today is helping customers – homeowners, mostly – work around their utilities, selling them power through long-term solar leases and PPAs at prices below the retail rate.

Yet in embracing the utility-scale market, SolarCity would presumably turn to utilities and other large off-takers as customers.