Sunrun: The complete review and consumer guide
With a presence in 23 states and 23,500 solar arrays installed in the last quarter alone, Sunrun is the largest home solar installer in the US. Should you hire them for your project?
If you live in a city where home solar is popular, like any of the big cities in southern California or the Bay Area, you’ve probably heard about Sunrun.
Maybe you’ve seen their blue vans rolling around town, or had their sales people knock on your door. Sunrun is the largest home solar installer in the US by a wide margin: they currently have about 14% of the US market. Not only that, but they recently acquired Vivint Solar, adding another 6% market share to their total. Telsa, currently in second place, has about 7.4% of the market.
This means that if you’re thinking about adding solar panels to your home, there’s a good chance that you’ve come across Sunrun, or maybe even gotten a quote from them already.
Because Sunrun is so big, there’s a good chance that they service your area. If you’re thinking of adding solar panels to your home, that makes them a convenient choice - but are they a good choice? Fortunately, because of their size and the fact that they are a public company, there’s a lot of customer feedback and public data that you can use to help answer that question.
This article will try to help break it all down for you. There’s a lot to cover so this will be a long article. You can use the table of contents below to jump to the section you want.
Sunrun: a super quick company overview
Sunrun was founded in 2007 and does home solar installations in the following states: Arizona, California, Colorado, Connecticut, DC, Florida, Hawaii, Illinois, Massachusetts, Maryland, Nevada, New Hampshire, New Jersey, New Mexico, New York, Pennsylvania, Puerto Rico, Rhode Island, South Carolina, Texas, Utah, Vermont, and Wisconsin.
Very quickly, they raised hundreds of millions of dollars in venture capital and went public on the Nasdaq (ticker: RUN) in 2014.
Today, they have a market capitalization of $8.7 billion. You might wonder: how does a solar installation company raise hundreds of millions in VC money and get to be worth billions of dollars?
The answer is that they’re not really in the solar installation business.
Sunrun’s business model explained
If you talk with a Sunrun salesperson about solar, most likely they’ll strongly encourage you to not to buy solar equipment for your home, but instead rent it through a financing plan such as a lease or power purchase agreement (PPA).
Under one of these plans they’ll install the equipment on your home for zero upfront cost, and you’ll pay Sunrun a monthly fee. Your home uses the solar electricity the panels generate, reducing your electric bill. You should come out ahead: the money you pay to Sunrun for solar electricity will theoretically be less than what you otherwise pay to your utility for grid electricity.
This business model costs Sunrun a lot of money upfront, but over the long term it earns them a steady stream of revenue. Sunrun also keeps the tax credits and other incentives, which can be very substantial.
One handy thing about Sunrun is that they are a public company, and there are quarterly reports and conference calls with company management you can delve into to make sense of all this. In their most recent earnings call, they refer to their solar customers who purchase leases or PPAs as subscribers:
For example, we now refer to customers under lease or power purchase agreements as subscribers, given the long-term and recurring nature of our relationships. We now refer to the present value of upfront and recurring cash flows from customers as subscriber value instead of project value and present it on a per subscriber basis instead of per unit of solar energy capacity.
And if the “subscriber” opts to add a battery to their solar system, the grid services that Sunrun can use it for - the ability to provide electricity from the battery to the grid when utilities are willing to pay a high price for that power - could be worth $2,000 in additional revenue to Sunrun.
Risks of Sunrun’s business model
Sunrun burns through a lot of money to install solar panels on houses for free, but they do it because of the promise of future revenue. They’re actually very unprofitable right now and burned through a billion dollars in cash last year. But using money they’ve raised from the markets and venture capital, it seems that their goal is to lock down as much market share as possible with the hope of becoming profitable at some point in the future.
If that sounds familiar, it’s because it’s the classic Silicon Valley unicorn growth story seen with companies like Uber. It’s possible Uber will run out of cash before they become profitable, and that same fate could befall Sunrun too.
I’m no financial analyst, but given that you should expect a home solar system to last you 20 years at least, I think there’s reason to be skeptical that Sunrun will have the financial wherewithal to be around two decades from now to service your system.
For a bearish take on Sunrun, check out this article on Seeking Alpha.
Free solar panels from Sunrun? Leases and PPAs explained
Sunrun sales people will usually try to sell you on a lease or PPA, and might even colloquially refer to this type of financing as “free” solar panels because there’s no upfront cost.
Earlier I said that you would theoretically pay less to Sunrun than you would your utility company. While this may be true when you first sign your contract, escalator clauses mean that in several years you could end up paying more. This is one of the many reasons while consumers should be skeptical about [solar leases and PPAs](https://www.thesolarnerd.com/blog/solar-lease-ppa-good-or-bad/.
It’s rare that leasing will be better financially than purchasing the system outright, even if that means taking out a loan. One case where a lease might be better is if you are retired and pay very little federal taxes, in which case you wouldn’t get the full benefit of the solar federal tax credit. However, people who are retired may be thinking about downsizing or assisted living in the future and won’t stay in their current home for the next 25 years. Because of that, having a solar contract with Sunrun (or another solar leasing company) could be an obstacle when it comes to selling your home.
While you can purchase your system through Sunrun, because they have higher overhead than many smaller local installers, you may end up paying more for solar panels.
Sunrun really wants to install a lot of batteries
As mentioned earlier, Sunrun also sells batteries with their systems. Their battery is called the Sunrun Brightbox, but it’s a rebranded LG Chem RESU10H. (They apparently also will install a Tesla Powerwall.)
If you add a battery to your Sunrun lease contract, you get the battery for no-money-down like the rest of the system, and pay a monthly fee for the hardware.
Like other smart home solar batteries, the Brightbox has different modes that the homeowner can set:
- Self-consumption, which stores as much of your excess solar electricity as possible and minimizes your reliance on grid electricity.
- TOU Peak Charge Management which is similar to the self-consumption mode, but is aware of utility peak hour charges and shifts the battery usage to avoid using the grid during peak time.
- Home backup mode only uses the battery during a blackout.
About 10% of Sunrun customers are currently choosing to install a battery, but their goal is to get this number to 80%. The reason they are pushing so hard on this product is because when aggregated together, all these batteries can act as a virtual power plant and supply electricity to the grid when utility companies need it the most.
During extreme demand, like in the hottest days of summer when air conditioning usage is so high that power plants can’t supply enough electricity, the wholesale price of electricity can skyrocket to 1,000 times the normal price.
Also, some states like California and Hawaii have installed so many solar panels that demand on the grid is low during the middle of the day when its sunny but quickly ramps up to high demand as the sun goes down in the evening. The shape of this daily demand is called the duck curve because it looks vaguely like a duck in profile.
With control of its many internet-connected Brightbox batteries, Sunrun can send electricity into the grid when the wholesale price of electricity is very high, making a nice little profit for itself. Remember that when you’re leasing, you don’t own the battery - Sunrun does.
It’s not clear whether Sunrun has the ability to override the program that the customer has chosen for the Brightbox. For example, home backup mode is intended to never send stored solar electricity into the grid, but its possible that Sunrun has the ability to override this when it wants to provide power to the grid.
The grid services part of their business is discussed in their quarterly investor calls. Here’s a quote from CEO Lynn Jurich:
I think the other benefit of the – the other benefit of that grid services relationship independent of what the financial contribution maybe, which right now it's looking about $2,000 per customer of incremental value. The other value of it is it really just differentiates you to the customer. And again, provides the – moves the market more to a winner take most market with, with companies that have the technical capabilities of doing that on the network effects. So that in many cases will be a bigger financial driver than the actual revenues that come off of programs in the near-term.
Jurich is saying that being big is valuable in itself. Also, with $2,000 per customer of additional revenue, you can see why they’re eager to increase the number of customers who add batteries to their systems. Sunrun also keeps all the federal tax credits, which currently knocks 26% off their costs.
Vivint Solar is now part of Sunrun
Vivint Solar, the second largest residential solar installer in the US, was acquired by Sunrun in 2020.
The press release mentions the usual reasons for the merger - cost savings by consolidating staff and other business expenses - but this paragraph is noteworthy:
We expect additional revenue synergies to generate enhanced value creation for our customers and shareholders from a larger base of solar assets. We expect to be able to offer batteries to the combined base of solar customers. A larger footprint of solar and battery assets also increases the value of what we bring to our grid services partnerships and strengthens our ability to deliver considerable value in that business. We expect to benefit from efficiencies in large scale project finance capital raising activities and are excited about the opportunity to build an even stronger and more recognizable consumer brand in residential energy services.
This shows again how grid services (ie. batteries) is a big focus of the company.
As for Vivint Solar itself: the company was the target of lawsuits by New Mexico and Massachusetts for their business practices, and has pretty bad customer reviews. We have a separate article that covers the company in depth if you want to learn more.
Acquiring a company such a questionable track record might raise some questions about Sunrun and whether their focus is really on the customer.
How does Sunrun sell its services?
Sunrun sells their systems a few different ways. One is a partnership with big-box retailer Costco, so that you can think about going solar while eating little free samples of spanakopita and ravioli.
Another way is by door-to-door sales. Sunrun calls these employees “Field Sales Consultants” and are paid by commission. In the job description, the first responsibility listed is “Meet minimum required sales targets as set by the Regional Sales Manager”.
If you’re on the receiving end of one of these door-to-door pitches, you’d be right to wonder if the salesperson has your best interests in mind: their first goal is to hit their sales target. The job description says they should be prepared to answer objections; nowhere does it say that they should take a consultative approach and sell the customer a system only if it will benefit them.
Even if a customer signs a contract, many of them will cancel during the 10-day grace period that Sunrun gives you. This means that Sunrun’s sales is a basically a volume game: they need to knock on as many doors and and get as many signatures as possible.
This volume approach to sales seems to result in enough customers changing their mind that Sunrun has a position called Sales Retention Representative. The job description actually says: “This is not a job for the weak-minded.” Responsibilities include:
• Handle outbound and inbound calls, where a pre-installed customer is requesting to cancel the solar process and retain their business.
• Exercise the ability to overcome objections, resolve concerns and de-escalate customers in a tactful and professional manner.
• Assist our sales reps in scheduling installations, resolving issues, concerns, holds or anything preventing an account from moving forward to installation.
Apparently Sunrun has a lot of angry customers, so they need people who aren’t “weak-minded” to deal with them!
One more way that Sunrun does sales is through telemarketing. The company was sued not once, but twice for violations of the Do Not Call Registry and settled a class action lawsuit last year for $5.5 million after a previous settlement in 2018, also for $5.5 million.
The fact that the company was sued twice for the same thing and paid $11 million in fines might raise some questions.
Sunrun’s contractor license violations
Most states in the US require a company to be licensed to install solar. If the contractor does work that violates the guidelines of that license, there may be a disciplinary record that you can search online at the government agency responsible for issuing the license.
Sunrun operates in about half the states in the US, so if solar installation requires licensing in your state, check to see if those records are available online and look for any disciplinary records.
Because Sunrun is the largest home solar installer in the country, there are plenty of customer reviews online that you can read.
Which review sites to trust?
Online reviews are an important way to gauge the quality of a company, but you have to be careful which ones you use. For example, Angie’s List and ConsumerAffairs have been accused of paid-to-play schemes where companies can pay money to manipulate their rankings.
Another way to screen out bad review sites is to pick a company as a benchmark and see how the site rates it. For example, as mentioned above, Vivint Solar was sued by New Mexico and Massachusetts. Reasonably, you would expect them to have a bad rating, but EnergySage still gives them 4 stars out of 5.
The Solar Nerd uses reviews from Yelp - which gives Vivint Solar 1 and 2 star reviews - and the Better Business Bureau as one part of our overall process in screening solar installers for inclusion in our partner network.
BBB complaints about Sunrun
The Better Business Bureau (BBB) is a credible organization, and a good place to start if you want reviews about Sunrun.
When you search on BBB.org, multiple Sunrun locations will appear. Start with the location nearest to you (if there is one), but also be sure to check the headquarters location.
BBB has two categories of feedback that a consumer can submit: complaints and reviews. A complaint is a more substantial type of feedback where the consumer is asking for a formal resolution. A review, in comparison, is a review like you would find any other review site.
What types of complaints do people have about Sunrun?
On BBB.org, there have been a total of 808 customer complaints that have been filed against Sunrun just the past three years. They fall into the following categories:
- Advertising and Sales complaints: 40
- Billing/Collections: 92
- Delivery Issues: 26
- Guarantee/Warranty: 48
- Problem with a Product or Service: 602
Here’s a sample of complaints:
In July 2019, SunRun came to install a solar roof on my home. In the rainy season that immediately followed (, we had at least 3 roofs 3 leeks in our roof directly under or adjacent to areas where the photovoltaic cells were installed on our roof. We have reached out to SunRun in December of 2019, and they sent out a tech on December 17, 2019. It wasn't until Jan 17, 2020 that they followed up , saying they couldnt attribute the leaks to their work. In the interim, we had an independent roofing company come out and inspect the roof (Jan 2020) and they said that the panels installed by SunRun were installed improperly and that the braces for the solar panels lifted up the slate tiles on my roof allowing rainwater to seep in and damage not only my roof, but also the ceiling in my home. To date, April 2020, sunrun has denied that the roof leak was caused by their installation. SunRun has not sent anyone else out to reinspect our roof based on our independent assessment, and have only sent an email after over 2 dozen emails and follow up calls seeking resolution.
Roof leaks are a prime concern with solar installations. With a high quality installation job, the roof will never leak during the 25 year working life of the system. However, because Sunrun subcontracts many of its installations, you never know which company will be doing the actual work.
I gave SunRun a $500 deposit while I was getting quotes and I told the sales person I didn't want to put any money down as I was still gathering information. The salesperson told me it would be fine and I would be reimbursed if I decided that I wasn't going to go with SunRun. After calling a few other companies and deciding to go with a different company, I told the salesperson to cancel any further work and to send me in writing that it was indeed cancelled. To which he responded "I will take care of it". 16 emails and three weeks later, I still have not gotten my money back or written confirmation he keeps telling me that "He will get to it". I have called SunRun about it and they just sent the sales person and I an email to which the sales person responded "I will get it taken care of."
This sounds like a case where a commission sales person may have given the client incorrect information in order to make the sale.
Yelp reviews of Sunrun
There are many different Sunrun offices around the country, so their rating on Yelp will differ depending on the location.
Check out some of the reviews at the links above, or search Yelp for the Sunrun office closest to you.
One possible reason why Sunrun reviews can be either great or terrible is that the company contracts work to independent local companies to do the installations.
Known as Sunrun Service Partners, these companies can do everything from trades such as roofing and electrical, to solar installation, to full service including sales and installation.
You can check out the page where they pitch the program to prospective companies.
To cover the huge service area they do, Sunrun needs a lot of service partners. While many of them are probably excellent, given Sunrun’s many low quality reviews, it seems like many of them are lower quality.
Bottom line: should you choose Sunrun to install your solar panels?
As the largest solar installer in the country, its hard to make the case that you can’t get good service from Sunrun. Clearly, some of its customers are happy. Some have also been happy with getting a Sunrun lease or PPA, which allows you get solar panels with zero money down.
However, there are many legitimate concerns. When it comes to financing, most people would be better off purchasing their system. While you can purchase a system from Sunrun, because their business model involves much higher overhead, it’s most likely that a high quality local solar installer will be able to provide a better price.
In addition to potentially paying a higher price for your system from Sunrun, there are reasons to be concerned about the sales process, such as the two class action lawsuits over their telemarketing, their merger with the very poorly reviewed Vivint Solar, and the many consumer complaints documented at the Better Business Bureau.
Reviews at the BBB and Yelp also detail installation issues such as roof leaks, and license violations in California, Colorado, and other locales raise questions about the quality of their installation crews.
Given all these issues, you might be tempted to discard Sunrun entirely from consideration. One situation where you might not is if you live in an area where home solar is a little less popular, and there are few local solar installers. In that situation, Sunrun might be one of the few experienced companies available to you.
What should you do? As with any home renovation project, make sure you do your due diligence before hiring a solar installer. To help you with this decision, check out our 10 tips on how to pick a solar company and our 20 point guide on how to compare the solar quotes you get. Finally, don’t forget that you can use The Solar Nerd to get quotes from prescreened local solar installers.