The Dark Side of Solar 

Experienced Contractor Says City's "Solarize Portland" Program Hurts Business

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[Editor's Note: Andrew Koyaanisqatsi's generous bid in our annual charity auction won him the following "Glowing Review in the Mercury." Thanks, Andrew! Now go ahead—speak your mind!]

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.

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