One of the biggest changes for solar came nearly a decade ago, when Congress created the 30 percent Investment Tax Credit for the technology in a sweeping 2005 energy bill. That was the moment when Wall Street investors started taking solar seriously, eventually bringing billions in tax equity into the industry.
It was around that time when well-pressed suits became the prominent fashion at solar conferences, taking over the ponytails and Carhartt jeans that had previously reigned.
Aaron Lubowitz was one of those investment bankers who represented the new face (and clothing) of solar. As a managing director at Morgan Stanley, he had built the firm's tax equity business and saw great promise in the solar industry. His team helped structure funds to get leasing options started, becoming one of SolarCity's largest early-stage tax equity backers.
Over the years, Morgan Stanley has invested hundreds of millions of dollars in various funds to support U.S. rooftop solar projects. The solar market has changed so dramatically since that early SolarCity investment that the bank is now warning of an economic "tipping point" that will enable electricity customers with PV and batteries to leave the grid entirely.
Today, having moved on from Morgan Stanley and his own successful advisory firm, Lubowitz has taken on a new job in the hopes of creating a tipping point in an industry closely related to solar: small wind.
In April, Lubowitz became the chief operating officer of United Wind, a Brooklyn, New York-based company founded in 2013 to bring third-party financing to distributed wind projects.
"Investors are generally positive about this market. They’ve seen the story play out in solar, and they're willing to listen," said Lubowitz.
United Wind was created through the merger of Talco Electronics, a small wind distributor, and Wind Analytics, a site-assessment firm that received R&D support from NYSERDA. It was co-founded by Tal Mamo, the former director of the Distributed Wind Energy Association, and Russell Tencer, the founder of Wind Analytics. (A few SolarCity founders have also invested in the company.)
The company's mission is to recreate the success of third-party financing in solar. United Wind has developed a twenty-year lease that it says will save customers 15 percent to 20 percent on their monthly electricity costs. By using its proprietary site analysis tool and leveraging relationships with installers through the Talco distribution business, the company microtargets projects and takes care of all the permitting and installation when a customer signs a contract.
Although this practice is now routine in solar, it's brand new to the small wind industry. The only other company to put together a similar offering is Urban Green Energy, a vertical-axis wind producer that closed a $20 million fund for servicing telecom operations.
Along with leading United Wind's operations, Lubowitz's job will be to build tax equity funds to support leases for wind projects under 100 kilowatts in size. It has supply agreements for 10-kilowatt turbines from Bergey Windpower and 50-kilowatt turbines from Endurance Wind Power.
Last September, United Wind raised $25 million in tax equity from GSG Energy Finance to support small wind leases in New York, with plans to expand into Oregon, Massachusetts and Maryland. It was the first-ever fund of its kind. The company said it plans to raise up to $100 million next year, and already has between $10 million and $20 million lined up from other investors.
The process is a big change from the days when Lubowitz was structuring deals to support thousands of rooftop solar systems at Morgan Stanley. So far this year, United Wind has financed 60 projects on farms and large properties in upstate New York, and will likely get 100 completed in the state before the end of December.
The company's wind lease is roughly six times the size of a solar lease or solar power purchase agreement, so securing 100 projects is worth much more than it sounds. But it's still a tiny portion of the amount invested in third-party solar services over the years.
"The biggest challenge actually isn't competition with alternatives in project financing like solar -- it's just bringing the market up to speed," said Lubowitz.
Will small wind ever reach its potential? Listen to the Energy Gang episode below, featuring small-wind pioneer Andy Kruse, for a look at the ups and downs of the market.
In 2013, the U.S. installed 4,741 megawatts of solar PV systems, with the majority of rooftop installations financed by third parties. The distributed wind industry installed only 30.4 megawatts last year, according to the Department of Energy. And only 18 percent of those installations were for truly "small" wind projects under 100 kilowatts -- virtually none of which were financed by third parties.
So why is small wind so far behind solar PV?
Small wind didn't get its 30 percent Investment Tax Credit until 2008, during the worst of the financial crisis. Although the technology qualified for cash grants created by the Recovery Act, interest from large banks wasn't built up like it already had been with solar.
The lack of financing infrastructure was a consequence of the inherent limitations of small wind. Because the technology is so much more constrained -- it requires large, open areas with high wind speeds and enough space to accommodate 90-foot towers -- installation rates are far lower than those of solar.
"It’s going to take more time than solar due to the fact that you can’t just put it everywhere," said Lubowitz. "But we feel very strongly that there's a big opportunity in distributed wind."
Cost is still very much an issue as well. According to DOE, the weighted average installed cost of a new small wind turbine in the U.S. was $6.90 per watt last year. By comparison, the average cost of a residential PV system in 2013 was $4.72 per watt.
Creating more centralized deal flow like United Wind is doing could help drop costs. But the technology also needs to improve on the manufacturing side.
In July, the Energy Department and the National Renewable Energy Laboratory awarded $1.27 million to four U.S. companies looking to improve the economics of distributed wind.
One of those companies, Maine-based Pika Energy, is also looking to solar for some inspiration.
Ben Polito, Pika Energy's co-founder, is an MIT graduate who was on the founding team of 1366 Technologies, a company developing a faster manufacturing technique for drop-in silicon wafers.
"As [1366 co-founder] Ely Sachs always pointed out, dramatic cost reductions in PV have been about manufacturing innovation, not revolutions in new technology," said Polito.
With $700,000 from the feds, Pika is looking to tweak its process for manufacturing nacelles and related components, as well as to build a bigger turbine.
This is Pika's second award from the DOE's Competitive Improvement Project. Last year, the company received funds from DOE to modify an injection molding process, which dropped the cost of its blades by 80 percent. That process is now fully in place for Pika's 1.6-kilowatt model, which is manufactured in Maine.
"I think we’re at the beginning of a similar cost reduction curve in the small wind space that we saw in solar," said Polito.
Pika is still a small company with only four years of track record and a couple dozen turbines operating today. That's not much compared to leading U.S. small wind producer Bergey, which has been around for decades. But Polito's co-founder Joshua Kaufman, a fellow MIT graduate, was the chief electrical engineer at Southwest Windpower, another leading producer of small wind turbines that was acquired last year.
Drawing on experience in both small wind and solar, Kaufman designed a 380-volt DC microgrid, called REbus, for pairing the technologies and opening up new siting opportunities. The company has also designed a 3-kilowatt grid-tied inverter. Using the system, the majority of Pika's projects are actually hybrid systems paired with solar PV.
"We can go a quarter-mile or more between the turbine and the home electrical connection with 12-gauge wire and see less than 3 percent energy loss," said Polito, explaining Kaufman's design. "When you have that kind of transmission efficiency, you can think about small wind in a different context."
Pika's plan to rework the manufacturing process while simultaneously developing its own microgrid for hybrid projects is certainly bold. That kind of bravado got a lot of companies in trouble in the solar industry. But those still standing have also helped dramatically lower the cost of solar and turn it into a mainstream technology.
Perhaps that's what has been missing in the small wind market.