Solar power store highlights bright potential for clean energy

Next to the Village Pet Market, two doors down from Trader Joe’s, a vision of California’s energy future is for sale.

Bland’s Solar & Air, in a nondescript strip mall here, looks a little like a car dealership, only for personal electricity generators from the sun. The unusual storefront gives potential customers a chance to do the solar-panel equivalent of kicking the tires.

A children’s play area and electronic information kiosks greet customers as they walk through the doors on their way to a lineup of roofs — barrel tile, slate, conventional shingle and metal — all covered with solar panels.

“I got to see what I was buying,” said Victoria Vidal, a 55-year-old Bakersfield resident said after signing an agreement to buy a solar system. “It actually made it real to come in and touch the panels.”

Solar experts say there’s nothing quite like it.

By all accounts, owner Glenn Bland runs the largest, most comprehensive solar power showroom in California, with not only panels but also actual rooftops with the systems mounted for potential customers to see.

Bland’s 5,000-square-foot Bakersfield showroom, which opened in October 2014, is one of three he owns. He operates one in Templeton and another in Clovis. His plans for 2017 include the addition of a store in Fresno and a fifth in a to-be-determined location.

Of the 100 solar installations Bland contracts each month, 50% to 60% are the result of his showrooms.

“We want to bring a new level of professionalism to the solar industry,” Bland said. “It’s been very well received.”

Bakersfield might not seem the likely place for a clean energy business to succeed. Although it gets plenty of sunshine, the San Joaquin Valley city is a conservative outpost in an overwhelmingly liberal state.

Yet by the end of 2015, homeowners in Bakersfield installed 12,000 solar systems, twice as many as in San Francisco, according to the California Solar Energy Industries Assn. San Jose has a population that is three times the size of Bakersfield but has 1,000 fewer rooftop solar installations.

Overall, Bakersfield is third among California cities, behind Los Angeles at 20,000 and San Diego at 14,000.

Even on the national level, more consumers are viewing solar power as an economic benefit rather than part of the environmentalists’ agenda. That has many solar proponents hopeful that President-elect Donald Trump will embrace solar in addition to his avowed support for expanding fossil fuels such as natural gas, coal and oil.

Members of the tea party have even started fighting against efforts to stymie the growth of rooftop solar in the Western states of Nevada and Arizona.

“It’s no longer a left coast, liberal thing,” Bernadette del Chiaro, executive director of the solar association, said of solar growth.

Del Chiaro said she believes Bland’s showroom approach is the direction the industry is headed with the likes of SolarCity merging with Tesla Motors for one-stop home-energy shopping. Tesla Motors Chief Executive Elon Musk wants customers coming into his showrooms to buy solar panels that help power the house and the Tesla car in the garage, plus a battery to store electricity for times when the sun isn’t shining.

“Maybe there’s a limit to the storefront, but I kind of feel not,” Del Chiaro said. “I feel it’s like the Apple Store,“ which reimagined tech retailing.

“As solar becomes more of an everyday appliance, people are going to want to see it,” she said. “Right next to the Apple Store is your home energy store.”

Solar companies have sought to reduce some of their labor costs, such as customer acquisition, by linking up with other businesses.

SolarCity, for instance, partnered with Airbnb to offer $1,000 rebates on a solar system to those who use the home-sharing service. That helped SolarCity avoid the cost of collecting customers at hardware stores or other recruiting methods.

Bland doesn’t yet push the kind of broad package that Musk has been advocating, although he has sold solar and battery storage to some who lack access to electric service by a utility company. Those customers usually live in isolated locations or are rich enough to afford the hefty price of being able to live largely off the grid.

The typical rooftop solar system in California costs about $7,000 to $8,000 with government incentives. Battery storage can run an additional $5,000 for a small unit produced by energy storage leader Sonnen Inc. and up to $24,000 for one that will keep the lights on and the refrigerator running for a couple of weeks.

“They’re too expensive,” Bland said of home batteries. “We do have off-grid customers up in the hills, but not many. I think we’re looking at three years before we can see batteries enter the mainstream market.”

Bland’s been a good predictor of the solar market over the years. He broke into the business decades ago, realizing solar’s potential.

During the Great Recession, Bland began offering training about solar to housing contractors whose regular work had dried up.

In addition to his solar showrooms, Bland founded CalCom Solar, which is ranked No. 3 on Inc magazine’s list of the fastest growing privately owned companies. CalCom develops solar systems for agriculture and water management operations. The Visalia, Calif.-based company employs 54 full-time workers.

The Vidals are hoping that Bland can help them eliminate their electric bill with a solar-energy system.

Victoria Vidal, a letter carrier, and her husband Juan, a maintenance mechanic, spent a couple of years studying solar before stepping into Bland’s showroom.

“I read about a hundred companies,” Victoria Vidal said. “This is a very big investment.”

Juan Vidal said the couple was approved for financing after only a few minutes,an improvement over the hardware stores where “there’s a guy that has a brochure.”

“Here, we don’t have to go through a second or third party to get things done,” he said. “It’s a big difference. I was very impressed.”

ivan.penn@latimes.com

For more energy news, follow Ivan Penn on Twitter: @ivanlpenn

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