Find the best solar companies in the Bay Area
If you live in the Bay area, you probably have several neighbors who have gone solar and have been approached by door-to-door solar sales people ready to sell you a system today. Here's a guide to Bay area solar installers and some things to look out for.
The San Francisco Bay Area is the part of California that includes not just the City of San Francisco, but nine surrounding counties: Alameda, Contra Costa, Marin, Napa, San Mateo, Santa Clara, Solano, Sonoma, and San Francisco.
The Bay area gets plenty of sunshine: the average year has only 68 days of precipitation. It’s also cooler than other regions of California, which is good for solar panels (because solar panels produce less electricity when hot).
This means that the Bay area is a naturally good location for solar. On top of that, the median income in the area is significantly higher than the national average. This is helpful because, even after incentives, a home solar system will still set you back several thousand dollars.
What is the San Francisco Bay Area?
The San Francisco Bay area covers approximately 6,900 square miles and is home to about 7 million people.
The ten largest cities in the Bay area include:
- San Jose
- San Francisco
- Santa Rosa
- Santa Clara
How much can I expect solar to cost in the Bay area?
The cost of a solar system for your home will depend on how much electricity you use and want to replace with solar power.
In California, the average home uses 532 kWh per month. The median price for solar in California is $3.80 per watt, but it varies greatly: the low range is around $3.10/watt while the high range is around $4.50/watt.
Why such a spread? One reason is that there’s a wide variety of system sizes that people deploy. If you have a really big house with large electricity usage, you might install 60 panels or more. But a small house with just a couple bedrooms might make do with only 12 panels. On per-watt basis, a large system is cheaper than a small one.
Another reason is equipment choices. Just like there are premium brand cars and appliances, solar panel components have premium and budget brands. The highest efficiency solar panels on the market (such as LG and Sunpower) come with a premium price tag, and more sophisticated inverter systems (such as Enphase microinverters) usually cost more too.
Finally, solar companies can have a pretty wide range of pricing. Counterintuitively, the largest installers often have higher pricing than smaller local companies. More about that later.
How good is the Bay Area for solar?
Like most of California, the Bay Area is great for solar. While it doesn’t get quite as much intense sun and the winter has a little more fog and precipitation compared to southern California, your solar energy generation will jump up in March and stay high until late fall:
This data behind this graph takes into account the actual climate for the Bay area, so your own solar installation, as long as you have a sunny location without any shading issues, should have similar performance.
Top solar installers in the Bay area
The California Energy Commission has collected data on every solar installation by PG&E, SCE, and SDG&E in California since 1998. That includes residential and commercial installations, and both purchased and leased systems.
Unfortunately, CEC’s data doesn’t include municipal utility companies, which means that solar homeowners whose utility is San Francisco Water Power Sewer aren’t included.
However, PG&E customers are part of the data, which is enough to give a pretty good picture of which solar installers have performed the most installations in the Bay area.
In total, CEC’s data shows that there are 64,949 PG&E customers with solar arrays in service.
Top 20 solar installers in the Bay area (all time)
Below is a list of the top 20 installers in the San Francisco Bay area by the number of installations performed since 1998. That includes residential and commercial installations, and leased systems too.
(Note that this database goes back more than two decades, so it includes company names such as SolarCity, which was acquired and is now part of Tesla Energy.)
The last column is the total number of megawatts installed by the company.
|Installer||# of Bay Area Installations||Total mW|
|Hooked On Solar||1,794||13.8|
|California Solar Systems||1,118||7.6|
|Sierra Pacific Home & Comfort||1,054||6.0|
|Energy Saving Pros||1,019||9.4|
|Magic Sun Solar||1,003||8.1|
|Leonard Roofing Inc||861||2.0|
|Citadel Roofing & Solar||797||3.0|
As you can see, SolarCity is the all-time leader in installations in the nine counties of the Bay area. The company was acquired by Telsa in 2016 and no longer exists in name, so installations since then are under Tesla Energy.
(Note that many of the installations in the City of San Francisco are excluded because these are only PG&E customers, but because many of these companies cover SF and the surrounding area, the relative rankings won’t change much due to San Francisco Water Power Sewer installations being absent.)
Another thing to note is that many of these top companies push leases and power purchase agreements on their customers - basically, the homeowner is renting their solar panels. It’s inferior for the homeowner, but is a business model that many high-growth solar companies use.
The table below excludes leased systems, and as a result the top companies are quite different.
Top 20 solar installers in the Bay area since 2020 (excluding leases)
This is a list of the top residential solar installers that have installed purchased systems in the Bay area since January 1, 2020. Unlike the table above that included all systems, here’s what’s excluded from this table:
- Only residential systems
- No leased systems
- No battery systems (which throw off the pricing data)
- Installation completed January 1, 2020 or later
|Installer||# of Bay area Installations since 2020 (non-leased)||Average $/watt|
|Hooked On Solar||227||$4.34|
|Gold Rush Energy||157||$3.61|
|Citadel Roofing & Solar||140||$3.04|
|Magic Sun Solar||139||$3.55|
|Westhaven Solar Inc||123||$4.51|
|California Solar Systems||100||$4.11|
|West Coast Solar||83||$3.70|
|Sierra Pacific Home & Comfort||61||$4.88|
|Energy Saving Pros||61||$4.42|
|Synergy Home Improvements||53||$3.89|
|Aztec Solar Inc||52||$3.19|
The table also includes the average price-per-watt that the company charged to their customers, before incentives. (For this calculation it’s AC watts of the system, which is the final power output of the system, after in the inverter.)
Some companies avoid working in San Francisco
One important note is that many local installers won’t work in the City of San Francisco. Speaking with installers in The Solar Nerd network, they say it’s more difficult and expensive to work in the city, and therefore avoid taking those projects.
However, this isn’t going to change the top 20 lists in this article very much because it’s mostly some smaller, local firms that don’t work in the city. The bigger installers, like Sunrun, will do installations in San Francisco.
What does solar cost in the San Francisco Bay Area?
The average price-per-watt of solar in California is $3.80. (This means that if you installed a 6 kW system, on average it would cost $22,800.) As you can see in the table above, the price-per-watt varies considerably between installers.
Going with the largest installers doesn’t mean getting the lowest price.
Even though theoretically their scale and purchasing power should mean their prices would be the best, the largest companies often cost more.
One, the companies may be raising their prices on purchased systems to make leases more attractive. Leases mean predictable, long term revenue and are more lucrative than their installation business.
The other is that these high-growth companies spend a lot of money on operations and marketing in an effort to grab as much market share as possible.
One more reason is that companies like Sunrun often do not use their own installation crews, but outsource to local companies. This is one way they’re able to cover so much territory. For the customer, the disadvantage is that the company that Sunrun outsources to has their own expenses and needs to maintain their own profit margins. With Sunrun’s own profit margins added on top, the price you get from one of these big national companies may no longer be very cheap.
I’m using Sunrun as an example, but there are many other big national companies that also use subcontractors such as Vivint Solar (which is now actually owned by Sunrun) and Sunnova.
For this reason, you’re often better off working with local installers directly.
Premium solar is often more expensive per watt, but not always
SunPower, the top installer in this list, comes in at a fairly pricy $4.48/watt. One thing to know about SunPower in particular is that you can either buy a SunPower system directly from SunPower, or you can work with a company in their dealer network.
The $4.48/watt price is for installations from SunPower Corporation, but SunPower dealers may actually offer you a better deal.
Solar industry bankruptcies shows that size and experience aren’t everything
While you might think that it’s a safer choice to choose one of the large national companies to do your home solar installation, the history of bankruptcies in the solar industry shows that’s not necessarily the case. For example, some large solar installers that did a lot of business in California that have gone bankrkupt include Sungevity, Verengo Solar, Suncrest Solar, and Momentum Solar.
For the reasons mentioned earlier, the largest solar installers often seem to have high overhead, and sometimes that high overhead turns into a big debt burden for a company that eventually leads to bankruptcy. It can happen even to giant companies such as PetersenDean, which filed for chapter 11 bankruptcy in 2020.
To be clear, you can find many small solar installers around the country that have gone out of business. It’s a competitive industry, and with thousands of contractors fighting over your business, not every company will survive. Barnard Electric, one of the companies listed above, went out of business recently.
It’s a risk even today. For example Sunrun - the largest residential solar installer in the country - lost $173 million in 2020 and has had negative free cash flow the past four years. It also had quite a bit of debt.
Is Sunrun carrying too much risk? I’m not a financial expert so I can’t say, but I will tell you that in contrast there are many smaller companies around California that focus on building sustainable businesses. Instead of trying to make their companies as large as possible, they instead focus on basics: high workmanship quality, good customer service, and small marketing expenses. Many of the installers in the Solar Nerd network rely primarily on referrals and spend relatively little on sales and marketing.
Which are the best solar installers in the San Francisco Bay area?
If you live in the San Franciso Bay area, you’ll find many solar installers vying for your business. You’ve probably had a lot of salespeople knocking on your door.
Those companies often aren’t the best choice. Not only are they typically more expensive, but you’ll get worse customer service, and even risk having the company go bankrupt on you, leaving you in a bind if you need warranty service on your system a few years down the road.
Instead, choose smaller companies that aren’t so fixated on rapid growth, but instead focus on building on sustainable businesses and delivering good customer service.
The Solar Nerd network screens out the largest national companies and instead finds high quality solar installers that have a good track record but aren’t so growth-focused that they lose sight of customer service. To get connected with these installers for your home solar project, use the link below.