Amid growing competition, companies that install solar panels are increasingly looking to sell batteries and offer their customers the option to own their own solar system.
Those are some of the chief takeaways from a new survey, released Wednesday, of hundreds of solar installers conducted by solar data company EnergySage.
At the same time, the report suggests that solar installers gained confidence in the solar market in 2016, compared to 2015, despite worries over changing policies under President Donald Trump and difficult public markets.
Out of a survey of 360 solar installers, conducted within the 12 months of 2016, energy storage emerged as the most popular new item that companies plan to start offering in 2017. About 60 percent of solar installers already offered energy storage in 2016, and another 16 percent plan to offer energy storage this year. “No other new product or service was nearly as popular,” states the report.
That’s not too surprising, given the expected growth in batteries to be used to store energy for the power grid and buildings. As companies like Tesla, Panasonic, Samsung and LG Chem lower the costs of making lithium-ion batteries, a crop of companies has emerged to install these low-cost batteries, pair them with solar panels, or sell energy storage-as-a-service with no-money-down deals.
According to GTM Research, there will be an estimated 478 megawatts of energy storage capacity installed in the U.S. in 2017, including in utility, commercial and residential projects. That’s up from an estimated 260 megawatts installed in 2016.
While batteries are a newer option for solar installers, companies continued to see the ongoing trend of customers opting for financing options where the customer owns the solar systems. Solar installers said that the use of solar leases and power-purchase agreements decreased in 2016, while the amount of equipment-backed loans increased in 2016. Solar companies also reported the lowest levels of satisfaction with solar leasing options last year.
Overall, solar installers say they face growing competition as more solar companies offer products, and potential customers are increasingly shopping around, getting more quotes from more companies. That means that acquiring solar customers appeared to become more difficult for companies in 2016 compared to 2015. Close to half of the companies surveyed said they directly compete with 20 or more other companies.
Low prices emerged as a concern for solar customers for the first time in the annual EnergySage survey last year, “reflecting the rise of the price-conscious consumer,” according to the report. However, solar installers say that the top way to differentiate their products is to sell high-quality installations.
There’s still some debate about whether the solar installer industry will grow or shrink, as well as whether it will converge around big national brands or local companies. Over half of the survey respondents said that the number of installers will still grow, while 40 percent said as the industry evolves there will be fewer. Fifty-four percent said local installers will gain market share, while 46 percent expect that big solar installers will win out.