Insights Sunrun Case Study: Full-Cycle Quality Management
Sunrun was launched in 2007 with the mission to make home solar energy simple and affordable for American families. By partnering with manufacturers, installers, and financiers, they have grown to become one of America's largest solar service companies. They currently have 50,000 customers and have produced a total of over 344 gigawatts of solar energy since their inception. This amount of clean energy is equivalent to the elimination of 1,050 rail cars of coal or 3,200 tanker trucks of gasoline.
Almost 11,000 solar systems are installed in America every month. In many ways, the systems, technology and processes used to create solar power have advanced to a stage that makes this a relatively straightforward task. However, under the surface, there is more complexity than meets the eye. The solar industry is expanding at an unprecedented pace. Thousands of new workers require training and skills. Every home is different and needs some level of customization. Solar power converts into electricity which must be handled safely. Many of the safety and standards we expect commercial energy producers to use in their energy creation processes now must to be utilized on the roofs of our homes.
Identifying Long-Term Success
Successful residential Solar PV systems involve a number of diverse factors encompassing investors, homeowners, equipment, the labor force, code compliance, and ongoing maintenance. Sunrun has identified that the ability to ensure product quality over the entire life-cycle of PV systems is a key factor in long-term success in the residential solar market. Furthermore, attaining this high level of quality will require a commitment to continuous improvement throughout every stage of the solar process.
A Quality Solution
Sunrun has responded to this challenge by developing an industry leading full-cycle quality management process designed to ensure maximum benefit for consumers and mitigate risks. Sunrun has partnered with the Institute for Building Technology and Safety (IBTS), a national quality assurance specialist in supporting building code and safety. Together, they have developed a process that helps enforce Sunrun's high standards for installation quality across all partners and regions. Together, IBTS and Sunrun have developed a process that will help enable the long-term success of the residential solar industry.
While presiding building and electrical codes enforced by the local jurisdiction help ensure quality, they often do not specifically address the unique safety, production, quality or performance standards of the growing residential solar industry. Due to the proliferation of home solar companies (the volume of residential solar financing has doubled in the past year), this has created challenges to the long-term stability and quality of residential solar programs. Chris Sommerfeld, Field Operations Manager at Sunrun notes, "the long term success of solar in the U.S. requires that the products and installation practices we are using today will continue to meet or exceed performance expectations over the next 5, 10, 20 years and beyond. Quality is of paramount importance to our business."
Sunrun has invested in safeguarding solar customers by providing long-term quality products which continues to raise the bar for solar industry quality standards. Chris Sommerfeld adds, "The reason we are so focused on quality at Sunrun is that we are customer driven. Quality solar installations result in reduced maintenance and satisfied customers. A thorough quality assurance process is critical to keeping costs low throughout the entire project lifecycle".
An effective home solar installation is dependent on quality and Sunrun's quality assurance process establishes and monitors a high set of standards which includes elements of both quality assurance and quality control. Since Sunrun relies on trusted partners to complete the majority of sales, installation and financing processes, this quality commitment ensures that universally accepted standards are consistently used. Since an individual solar project can involve dozens of individuals, this ensures that best practices and lessons learned are distributed amongst every team which is involved in the process.
Many solar companies engage in some type of process to ensure quality but the terms, systems and value of these methods vary widely. Sunrun has established a front-end to back-end process that monitors quality during the entire installation and usage process. This creates a continuous feedback loop that ensures that 'quality' is not something that occurs at just one point-in-time (Figure 1). The feedback loop also allows lessons learned to be used to continuously improve all solar installations amongst their 50,000 customers. Their model is noteworthy and an encouraging sign that the quality bar will be raised across the entire home solar industry. Christopher Doyle, Program Director for Solar Operations at the Institute for Building Technology and Service says, "The key to any quality management process is the continuous improvement cycle. Quality Control is performed on site through third party inspections, Quality Assurance is performed through educating the workforce on trends in deficiencies and areas of improvement." He further adds, "the two must work together for an overall Quality Management Plan."
Sunrun is using a third-party inspection and review model to evaluate and assess installation quality. The quality assurance process is a low-cost means of ensuring that the $20-$40k investment is meeting all performance expectations. Furthermore, a third-party inspection by a neutral organization ensures that results are not biased and can be used to increase investor confidence.
Doyle notes that, "The solar industry is at a crossroads in regard to its commitment to quality. Leasing and PPA products are causing the industry to grow at a record pace. We're seeing a divide amongst leasing providers in the market today. Some are clearly in it for the long haul and committed to investing in providing quality systems through a robust quality management plan. Some are simply looking for the next customer."
In an era of rapid solar expansion, this emphasis on quality and not just volume is critical. Chris Sommerfeld adds, "we want solar to make a difference for generations to come. At Sunrun we are leading the industry by example with high standards and expectations. We don't believe in sacrificing quality for volume, the two can coexist with the right program in place."
Continued Market Growth
The residential solar market will continue to grow exponentially in the months and years ahead. Sunrun's commitment to quality will help ensure that this occurs in a sustainable way. Blending components of quality assurance and quality control into a continuous learning and improvement model ensures that customers will receive long-term value for their investment. This will serve us well as we seek to improve our environmental footprint in the decades ahead.
Sunrun was launched in 2007 with the mission to make home solar energy simple and affordable for American families. By partnering with installers and financers, they have grown to become one of America's largest solar service companies. The Sunrun model has been successful because it removes the most significant barriers for homeowners who want to utilize solar energy –upfront cost(systems range anywhere from $20-40k) and thehassle of panel ownership.
To accomplish this, Sunrun enters into a service agreement with a homeowner (often referred to as a solar lease or Power Purchase Agreement [PPA]). Homeowners just pay Sunrun for the electricity the system produces at a lower rate than they're currently paying their utility. Sunrun takes care of equipment procurement, installation, insurance, monitoring and maintenance over the 20-year agreement. This model provides consumers with lower power bills, cleaner energy and advances the adoption of solar energy nationwide.
To learn more about Sunrun visit: www.sunrun.com
Download a PDF of the Sunrun Case Study.
 Sunrun (January 2014). Why choose solar? http://www.Sunrun.com/why-Sunrun/
 Sunrun (January 2014). Why choose solar? http://www.Sunrun.com/why-Sunrun/
 Lacey, Stephen (January 29, 2014). Here's why solar is approaching the mainstream. GreenTech Media. http://www.greentechmedia.com/articles/read/watch-heres-why-solar-is-approaching-the-mainstream
The Institute for Building Technology and Safety (IBTS) has been a leading provider of Investment Grade Quality Assurance services to public and private sector clients for the past 35 years. As a non-profit organization, it is our goal to provide Quality Assurance services to our private and government partners to ensure reliability, production and safety of installed systems, increase local jurisdiction and utility responsiveness, and provide overall support to enhance the renewable energy industry growth. Christopher Doyle is a Senior Manager, and lives and works in Austin, TX.
For more information about how IBTS can work with your community, please contact IBTS Solar Program Director, Chris Doyle, at firstname.lastname@example.org or 512-452-8899.