Growing East Coast solar biz sees opportunity in ‘community’ solar, Pa.

According to, projects like this rooftop solar array in Philadelphia help create some of the 57,000-plus clean energy jobs in the Keystone State. (Mercury Solar Solutions photo via NREL)

According to, projects like this rooftop solar array in Philadelphia help create some of the 57,000-plus clean energy jobs in the Keystone State. (Mercury Solar Solutions photo via NREL)

Direct Energy Solar is one of the largest full-service, residential solar providers in the Eastern United States. The company has 500 employees – a number that’s expected to double in the next year.

Headquartered in Maryland, Direct Energy Solar’s employees sell and install solar arrays on rooftops in all six Mid-Atlantic states. The company also works in New England and Washington, D.C. And last year, Direct Energy Solar also became the first East Coast-based solar installer to open offices in California.

David Carpenter is Senior Manager of Inside Sales for Direct Energy Solar. Based in Norristown, Pa., Carpenter was one of the first employees at Astrum Solar, which Direct Energy, parent company of Direct Energy Solar, acquired in 2014.

Carpenter said while most of his company’s work happens outside Pennsylvania, he’s optimistic about the future of solar in the Keystone State – which has lots of room to improve on policies like its current 8-percent Renewable Portfolio Standard.

“Our new governor is committed to the renewable energy industry and to creating more jobs for Pennsylvania’s economy,” Carpenter said. “A healthy solar industry would create between 8-10,000 jobs for the state, and the necessary changes wouldn’t require a tax increase on Pennsylvania residents.”

According to, about 57,000 people already work in the state’s clean energy sector, with about one quarter of those in renewables.

Community solar

A business concept that’s been successful for Direct Energy Solar in states like Connecticut and Massachusetts is something called a “community” solar program.

These programs allow businesses like Direct Energy Solar to partner with a municipality and its citizens. By directly selling electricity to a group of local residents at prices below the market rate, this model expands solar energy’s potential customer base and boosts the overall percentage of clean, renewable, low-cost electricity a community can generate.

Already, Direct Energy Solar has installed more than 20 community solar programs on the East Coast – a number that’s expected to double in 2015. Taken together, community solar projects account for about a quarter of the company’s 5,000 installations.

Carpenter said his company is committed to continuing to expand in this space. And that means more jobs. Recently, Direct Energy Solar hired a director of community programs as well as additional community program managers.

Solar 101

Carpenter said that when it comes to developing many of its solar initiatives, local support is critical to moving projects forward. That’s why educating local residents and holding workshops is an early priority when planning how to provide solar to a community.

“We teach them Solar 101,” Carpenter said. “We answer all their questions and explain that the bulk purchase power of these programs is what allows us to sell the systems at such a low price.”

Carpenter said that as electric rates rise, community solar programs will become increasingly effective at helping more homeowners gain access to lower-cost renewable energy sources.

Bright future for solar in Pennsylvania?

Although Direct Energy Solar maintains an office in Pennsylvania, Carpenter said the local market pales in comparison to the company’s work in nearby states with more effective policies.

“There isn’t a market here,” he said of Pennsylvania. “When the incentives for solar fell away [in 2013], it meant solar wasn’t a viable investment for most homeowners in Pennsylvania.”

Carpenter said the challenges in Pennsylvania stem from a lack of state incentives, a broken SREC system, and competitively low electricity rates.

Nevertheless, every month Direct Energy Solar fields dozens of inquiries from Pennsylvania residents, and Carpenter said that given the pent-up and growing demand, he’s optimistic about solar energy’s future in Pennsylvania.

— Environmental Entrepreneurs