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Want to run the country’s biggest solar company? You better know politics

Lyndon Rive, SolarCity cofounder and CEO, spoke at the company’s Inside Energy Summit in October in Manhattan.REUTERS/file 2015

When Lyndon Rive launched SolarCity with his brother Peter a decade ago, he had no idea just how important understanding politics would be to his job as chief executive.

But running what has become the country’s largest solar panel installer turned into a crash course in government relations, a big shift from his previous role leading a software firm.

“Energy is so highly lobbied, it’s insane,” Rive says.

To some extent, that’s what brought Rive to New England this week: He says he wanted to chat with political leaders such as Lieutenant Governor Karyn Polito and New Hampshire Governor Maggie Hassan as lawmakers in both states debate the future of solar power. The discussions focus on net metering — the way solar panel owners get reimbursed for sending the power they don’t use onto the grid — and whether existing caps on these reimbursements should be lifted.


The caps were hit in National Grid’s territory in Massachusetts last year, prompting SolarCity to drop most of its commercial work here. (Residential rooftop solar panels are exempt from the caps.) Rive says his California-based company didn’t trim any jobs from its 800-person workforce in this state as a result; his employees still are busy with home installations. But he says “there are a bunch of jobs on the sidelines.”

As he preaches the Net Metering Gospel, Rive says he finds himself undermined by local utilities at almost every turn. The utilities argue that net metering drives up the costs for ratepayers who don’t have panels on their roofs. Associated Industries of Massachusetts, for example, claims that solar incentives could cost Massachusetts homeowners and businesses $8 billion over a 10-year period.

Rive says that number is wildly inflated, a scare tactic to support utilities whose business models are threatened by the rise of solar.


But Rive, whose cousin Elon Musk is chairman at SolarCity and a major investor, doesn’t sound pessimistic: He sees an agreement emerging within two months on Beacon Hill to continue net metering and, as a result, large-scale solar construction here. “I’m convinced that policy leaders will do the right thing,” Rive says.

Jon Chesto can be reached at Follow him on Twitter @jonchesto.