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Sunrun Solar Reviews: Costs, Quality & More (2021)

Is Sunrun the best option for solar panels on your home?

Reviews
Eloi_Omella / E+ / Getty Images

If you're considering a solar panel installation, chances are you've come across the name Sunrun. A lot of literature exists on this leading residential solar panel installer, but research can be overwhelming, so we're breaking down everything you need to know in this Sunrun solar review.

As one of the nation's top solar companies, Sunrun focuses on installing custom-designed solar arrays and backup battery systems, and installations are performed quickly and easily by the provider's massive fleet of technicians. Sunrun also offers a solar leasing program that's popular among customers.

Sunrun Fast Facts
Year Started
2007
Service Areas 22 states and territories, including AZ, CA, CO, CT, FL, HI, IL, MD, MA, NV, NH, NJ, NM, NY, PA, RI, SC, TX, VT, WI, Puerto Rico and Washington D.C.
Service Types Solar panel and backup battery installations
Types of Panels High-efficiency monocrystalline panels from top solar suppliers like LONGi and Costco
Backup Battery Options Brightbox Home Battery storage, which uses lithium-ion batteries like the Tesla Powerwall and the LG Chem
Certifications Solar Energy Industries Association
Better Business Bureau
(BBB) Rating
B+ with accreditation

Read on to learn more about the provider, or to see if Sunrun is available in your area and get a free quote, fill out the 30-second form below.

Sunrun Overview

Founded in 2007, Sunrun's mission is to create a world run by solar energy. Since 2007, Sunrun has expanded at an impressive rate, now offering services in over 20 states as well as Puerto Rico and Washington D.C.

Sunrun designs solar panel layouts custom to a roof's shape via satellite imagery, giving homeowners more control over the appearance and efficiency of their systems. The company's integrated home solar battery storage service, Brightbox, sets it apart from the many other providers that have yet to deploy storage options that bring a number of key benefits to solar customers.

Sunrun also provides a wide variety of solar financing options for its customers. Catering to a large client base has allowed for Sunrun's massive growth, but it's also presented challenges that have soured the company's reputation online. The BBB gives Sunrun a rating of a B+, which is lower than the average solar provider.

Sunrun Solar Services and Installation

Sunrun is a comprehensive solar installer, providing design and installation of custom solar solutions complete with backup battery storage, home energy monitoring and energy control during outages. These tools can help homeowners manage, store and monitor their home's energy use for additional savings on their electric bills.

The types of panels and inverters Sunrun offers come from brand names like SolarEdge, LONGi and Costco. They are ideal for the quick and easy installations that Sunrun prides itself on. An average customer could expect the installation process to look like this:

  • Receive a free quote by providing preliminary information such as your address, monthly energy costs and credit score.
  • If interested after receiving the quote, a Sunrun sales rep will provide a detailed proposal including your custom system design, appearance and estimated energy savings over the course of the system's lifetime. The proposal should include any local and state solar incentives, so be sure to make note that any are included.
  • Once you've decided on the custom system that fits your needs, you will need to complete paperwork and obtain permits and approvals. Sunrun will handle the permits and approvals from your presiding city or county, but you should expect this process to take a few weeks.
  • During the permitting process, Sunrun will also check for net metering programs through your utility company and will enroll you if eligible.
  • Once all permits and approvals are gathered, Sunrun will install your system. With Sunrun's resources, this will likely be the easiest part of the entire process.
  • Finally, you'll need to pass inspection and turn on the system. Once the system is installed, both the city and your electric company will most likely require inspections. Sunrun will handle the logistics of both. Once these pass, a customer will be able to turn the system on.

Solar Panel Warranty

All Sunrun installations, whether leases or purchases, are covered by the Sunrun Guarantee. This 10-year comprehensive warranty includes free equipment replacement and system repairs, covers all parts and labor costs and guarantees that roof penetrations are watertight.

Sunrun advertises free maintenance, repairs and insurance on its products, but it should be noted that those services are only available to customers leasing panels through Sunrun. Any customers who have purchased panels from Sunrun will be held to the product warranty of the panels they purchase (typically between 12-25 years). As such, all warranty claims will be handled through the panel manufacturer rather than Sunrun.

Sunrun Costs and Financing

The cost of a solar system from a particular provider is difficult to estimate, as pricing can vary widely depending on your state, your roof and your home's energy needs. As Sunrun has been an industry leader for some time, most other solar providers actually offer installations at a slightly lower cost to give them a competitive edge. This is just another reason we encourage our readers to get quotes from competing solar companies.

Much of Sunrun's expansion can also be credited to its utilization of solar leases, which allow homeowners to rent solar equipment from Sunrun at a monthly cost. Though leasing panels provides immediate energy savings with a low upfront cost, purchasing panels provides the greatest value long-term. Keep in mind that leases will not be eligible for the solar tax credit.

Solar Financing Options

Sunrun offers four different solar plans for its customers.

  1. Monthly lease: This option requires the least money down but also provides the least overall value. Sunrun retains ownership of the panels and you make monthly payments to purchase the energy they generate. The monthly payments are guaranteed to be less than what your utility payment would be, but the savings are not as great as they would be if you purchased the panels.
  2. Full lease: In a full lease, the customer pays Sunrun an upfront fee to rent the panels for around 25 years (the term of the lease can vary). Sunrun retains ownership of the solar equipment. This saves a customer more money than a monthly lease, but it's still significantly less than if a customer purchased panels.
  3. Monthly loan: Customers can receive a solar loan from a third party to fund the purchase of solar equipment. These loans require monthly payments and typically have a payback period of between five and 10 years. In a monthly loan, a customer still owns the system outright, which adds to their property value, allows them to claim the solar tax credit and provides greater long-term energy savings than a lease. However, they will pay interest on the loan, making the system more expensive.
  4. Full purchase: A full purchase is the most recommended method of investing in solar energy. When customers purchase panels, they buy the system designed by Sunrun outright. Immediately, the solar panels add property value and the homeowner is eligible for the solar tax credit. Over time, homeowners will see a larger return on investment when paying in cash.

Sunrun Solar Reviews

Sunrun's size is both its biggest strength and its biggest weakness, and most customer reviews reflect just that. Positive Sunrun solar reviews praise the company's speed and ease of installation, yet a high employee turnover rate, communication troubles and growing pains have plagued a number of customers who feel their needs were not met.

Positive Sunrun Reviews

The size and resources of Sunrun make its business model reliant on high volumes of installed solar panels. Positive reviews usually reflect a quick and easy installation with immediate energy savings and little to no maintenance or further customer support needed. Most frequently, these positive reviews come from customers who opted for a solar lease rather than ownership.

Here are a couple of examples:

"I originally had my Solar installed by another company that was eventually purchased by Sunrun. The service with Sunrun has been far better than the service with the previous company."
— Brian Schopf via Trustpilot

"We have had our Sunrun system in place for over a year now. No problems at all. They were very courteous and responsive during the installation process."
— Peter W via BBB

Negative Sunrun Reviews

Most of Sunrun's negative reviews stem from a lack of attention to a customer's needs. Sunrun is one of the nation's largest solar providers, which presents challenges for customers troubleshooting issues with their system's performance.

Solar panel issues can be difficult to troubleshoot, and the size of Sunrun's client base can make the company's customer service department more difficult to get in touch with than a smaller solar provider.

This Sunrun review reflects the overall sentiment from dissatisfied customers:

"Worst company ever for follow-up once you have a problem… I have been waiting for a new inverter [for] seven months. No one bothers to tell you what they are going to do, or what they have done once they finally get to your house for a repair. No written report to update you. I have lost money this year because my system is either not running or is underperforming."
— Linda T via BBB

Final Thoughts on Sunrun Solar

Sunrun's mission, size and breadth of services make it one of the most well-known solar providers in the country today. However, its B+ BBB rating and poor reputation for customer service may make some buyers wary. An average customer experience with Sunrun will depend greatly on the quality of the sales representative assigned to your area, and many homeowners have run into bad experiences.

Sunrun Pros Sunrun Cons
Expansive service area Expensive labor
Backup battery services Frequent customer service issues
Free maintenance on leases
Flexible financing and lease options

Sunrun is a good and practical choice for customers looking to quickly and simply save money on their energy bills through a solar lease. However, for homeowners looking for attentive customer service both before and after installation, we advise you to shop around. You can start getting free quotes from a number of solar installers near you below.

Solar Energy Provider Comparison

To put this Sunrun review in perspective, let's compare the company to a few other national providers. Sunrun typically ranks highly in services offered, service areas and flexible payment options. Where Sunrun unsurprisingly falters is in its reputation for customer service and BBB rating.

Sunrun Blue Raven Solar SunPower
Year Started 2007 2014 1985
Services Offered Solar panel installation, battery installation, monitoring, maintenance Solar panel installation, monitoring, maintenance Solar panel installation, battery installation, monitoring
Service Areas AZ, CA, CO, CT, FL, HI, IL, MD, MA, NV, NH, NJ, NM, NY, PA, RI, SC, TX, VT, WI, Puerto Rico and Washington D.C. CO, FL, GA, ID, IL, IN, KS, KY, MO, NC, NV, OH, OR, SC, TX, UT, VA All 50 States
BBB Rating B+ A+ A+
Payment Options Cash, loan, lease, PPA Cash, in-house financing plans Cash, loan, lease

Frequently Asked Questions

Is Sunrun a legit company?

Sunrun is a legitimate solar installer leading the industry in quantity of installs and breadth of products offered. Hundreds of thousands of homes across the country have installed solar power with Sunrun. Though Sunrun is legitimate, there is a concerning amount of bad reviews regarding Sunrun's customer experience. Often, unconcerned sales staff can make customers feel their business was not taken seriously.

Is Sunrun solar a good deal?

As is the case with most solar providers, getting a good deal is dependent on many factors. Sunrun is certainly capable of providing customers with a solar energy system that saves them money, but a better deal might be found by a different solar provider, especially if you are looking to purchase panels rather than lease from Sunrun.

Is Sunrun owned by Tesla?

Sunrun is not owned by Tesla. In fact, Sunrun is one of Tesla's biggest rival companies in the solar industry. Unlike Sunrun, Tesla solar offerings focus more on products and less on installation services, so the companies are distinctly different.

Which is better, SunPower or Sunrun?

Which company is better will depend on what the customer is looking for. If you're looking for customer service, a high BBB rating and to purchase high-quality panels, we'd likely recommend SunPower over Sunrun. If you're a customer looking for a quick and easy solar panel lease to save a small but guaranteed rate on your energy bill each month, Sunrun may be the better choice.

Where is Sunrun available?

Sunrun is available in 22 states and territories, including Arizona, California, Colorado, Connecticut, Florida, Hawaii, Illinois, Maryland, Massachusetts, Nevada, New Hampshire, New Jersey, New Mexico, New York, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, South Carolina, Texas, Vermont, Wisconsin, Washington D.C. and Puerto Rico.

Trending

Oil Change International released a comprehensive report today on fossil fuel exploration and production subsidies in the U.S.—Cashing in on All of the Above: U.S. Fossil Fuel Production Subsidies Under Obama—which demonstrates that at a time when we need urgent action on climate change, the U.S. government is channeling huge and growing amounts of money to increasing discovery and production of oil, gas and coal. These federal and state subsidies totaled $21.6 billion in 2013.

“The 'All of the Above' energy strategy is not only climate denial—it’s climate denial that is funded with more than $20 billion in taxpayer support each year.” Photo credit: Oil Change International

Subsidies that promote fossil fuel exploration are particularly harmful and hypocritical. The world’s preeminent scientific institutions working on climate and energy have determined that the majority of the world’s existing fossil fuel reserves need to be left in the ground in order to avoid catastrophic climate impacts. In 2012, the International Energy Agency (IEA) warned that “no more than one-third of proven reserves of fossil fuels can be consumed prior to 2050 if the world is to achieve the two degree Celsius goal.” The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) reached a similar conclusion in its 2013 climate assessment.

 

“The 'All of the Above' energy strategy is not only climate denial—it’s climate denial that is funded with more than $20 billion in taxpayer support each year.” said Steve Kretzmann, executive director of Oil Change International. “Until our representatives in Washington and around the country find the courage necessary to put people’s interests ahead of rich polluters, this theft of our tax dollars is likely to continue. The next step for saving the climate should be clear: stop funding fossils.”

Fossil fuel exploration subsidies are in direct conflict with these calls to restrict fossil fuel production and use. Rather than finding ways to curtail fossil fuel production in line with the demands of climate science, the U.S. federal government, under President Obama’s “All of the Above” energy strategy, is currently channeling more than $5 billion each year in exploration subsidies to actually expand proven reserves, leading to the discovery of fossil fuels that we know we should never burn.

Shakuntala Makhijani, the report’s author, added, “The science is clear that at least two-thirds of proven fossil fuel reserves need to stay in the ground to avoid catastrophic climate impacts—it is time for the U.S. government to show leadership and immediately end the massive subsidies that encourage their production.”

 

Trending

Kill Devil Hills, a small coastal town located in North Carolina’s Outer Banks, has joined the mounting opposition towards seismic airgun blasting along the Atlantic Coast. In early June, the Town of Kill Devil Hills’ Board of Commissioners passed the strongest resolution in opposition to date, which outlined specific economic and ecological consequences of offshore drilling. Kill Devil Hills commissioners have adapted resolutions to oppose offshore drilling for nearly 30 years.

A North Atlantic right whale swims off the Georgia coast, an endangered species that would be affected by seismic airgun testing. Photo credit:
FWC Fish and Wildlife Research Institute / Flickr Creative Commons

“The 20 counties that comprise North Carolina’s coastal region generate more personal and commercial income, public revenues and employment opportunities, than the petroleum and natural gas industry is estimated to bring into the state,” the resolution said. 

The commissioners stated that revenue generated by tourism—totaled at a record $20.2 billion for 2013—far outweighs that of offshore drilling, estimated to be at $118 million annually over the first seven year build-up period. After that initial period, tourism would still generate more revenue than offshore drilling, estimated to then bring in $1.9 billion annually over a 30-year period. The commissioners noted that seismic airgun blasting threatens the very ecosystems—vast, beautiful beaches—that drive the economy in North Carolina coastal counties.

This resolution also mentioned how offshore drilling could result in disastrous oil spills along the North Carolina coast, citing the 1989 Exxon Valdez spill and 2010 BP oil spill disaster as examples. The commissioners also noted that the same beaches that attract tourists are also breeding and foraging grounds for marine mammals, sea turtles and migratory birds, and that North Carolina waters also provide some of the best wild-caught seafood.

“The inherent risks to our region from off-shore oil and natural gas exploration and drilling have the potential to irrevocably harm our natural environment, our economic well-being and our overall quality of life, proven by considering just two massive oil spills in waters contiguous to the U.S.,” the resolution stated.

Kill Devil Hills’ resolution shows that not only is seismic opposition growing, but the resolutions are getting stronger and more specific. Recently, 14 other coastal towns passed resolutions opposing or voicing concern with the use of seismic airguns along the East Coast. An additional 78 local elected officials, 163 conservation and animal welfare organizations, and groups like The Billfish Foundation and The International Game Fish Association have also joined the mounting opposition against their use. The Mid-Atlantic Fishery Management Council, as well as more than 50 members of the U.S. Senate and House of Representatives, have also called on President Obama to stop the use of seismic airguns.

Seismic airguns create one of the loudest manmade sounds in the ocean in order to locate oil and gas deposits on the seafloor, each blast 100,000 times more intense than a jet engine. Impacts to marine mammals include temporary or permanent hearing loss, disruption of vital behaviors and masking of biologically important sounds. According to the Department of the Interior’s own estimates, these dynamite-like blasts could injure and possibly kill more than 138,200 marine mammals, while disrupting the necessary activities of millions more.

Oceana has also delivered more than 100,000 petitions opposing seismic airguns to the director of the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management and continues to campaign against their use. Click here to learn more. 

This article was originally published on Oceana’s blog.

 

Trending

Following in the footsteps of the University of Dayton, the first Catholic school to divest from fossil fuels, the Unitarian Universalist Association (UUA) announced Saturday its resolution to do the same. 

Image courtesy of 350.org

The faith-based organization of more than 1,000 congregations has about 2.9 percent of their $175 million investment dollars in fossil fuel companies under their UUA Common Endowment Fund (UUCEF), according to the Providence Journal. Saturday's vote was overwhelmingly in favor of divestment. 

“We are encouraged that the UUA can continue its longstanding successes in shareholder advocacy while helping to lead the divestment movement with the approval of today’s fossil fuel divestment resolution,” said David Stewart, co-chair of the UUA’s socially responsible investing committee. “We believe strongly that any effort that can change the current trajectory of climate change is a welcome improvement.”

Bill McKibben, founder of 350.org, tweeted his enthusiasm and appreciation over the weekend:

The resolution requires the UUA to:

  • Cease purchasing securities of Carbon Tracker 200 (CT200) companies as UUCEF investments immediately.

  • Continue to divest its UUCEF holdings of directly held securities of CT200 companies, reaching full divestment of these companies within five years.

  • Work with its current and prospective pooled-asset managers for the purpose of creating more fossil fuel-free investment opportunities, with the objective of full divestment of UUCEF indirect holdings in CT200 companies within five years.

  • Invest an appropriate share of UUCEF holdings in securities that will support a swift transition to a clean energy economy, such as renewable energy and energy efficiency-related securities.

“We, private citizens and the private and nonprofit sectors, need to take matters into our own hands and use every strategy we can to convince the government and public at large of our planetary emergency, and that we must act now,” said Terry Wiggins, a leader in pushing through the divestment decision. 

According to the UUA, the organization has a long-standing history of activism in environmental justice. Most recently, the UUA has supported the new U.S. Environmental Protection Agency limits on carbon emissions for new and existing power plants, as well as worked to increase transparency in the executive office of Chevron Corp.

 

Events in Iraq are headline news everywhere, and once again, there is no mention of the issue that underlies much of the violence: control of Iraqi oil. Instead, the media is flooded with, debate about, horror over and extensive analysis of a not-exactly-brand-new terrorist threat, the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS). There are, in addition, elaborate discussions about the possibility of a civil war that threatens both a new round of ethnic cleansing and the collapse of the embattled government of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki.

Photo courtesy of Shutterstock

Underway are, in fact, “a series of urban revolts against the government,” as Middle Eastern expert Juan Cole has called them. They are currently restricted to Sunni areas of the country and have a distinctly sectarian character, which is why groups like ISIS can thrive and even take a leadership role in various locales. These revolts have, however, neither been created nor are they controlled by ISIS and its several thousand fighters. They also involve former Baathists and Saddam Hussein loyalists, tribal militias and many others. And at least in incipient form they may not, in the end, be restricted to Sunni areas. As the New York Times reported last week, the oil industry is “worried that the unrest could spread” to the southern Shia-dominated city of Basra, where “Iraq’s main oil fields and export facilities are clustered.”

Under the seething ocean of Sunni discontent lies a factor that is being ignored. The insurgents are not only in a struggle against what they see as oppression by a largely Shiite government in Baghdad and its security forces, but also over who will control and benefit from what Maliki—speaking for most of his constituents—told the Wall Street Journal is Iraq’s “national patrimony.”

The Deconstruction of Saddam Hussein’s Iraq

Does anyone remember what Iraq looked like a dozen years ago, when Saddam Hussein still ruled the country and the U.S. was about to invade? On the one hand, Iraqis, especially Shiites and Kurds, suffered under the iron heel of an oppressive dictator—who may have killed 250,000 or more of his own people during his 25-year reign. They also struggled against the privation caused by U.S.-led sanctions—some estimates at the time placed the number of sanction-caused infant deaths alone at 500,000.

On the other hand, the country had a number of successful export-oriented industries like leather goods and agricultural products like dates that offered employment to hundreds of thousands of relatively well paid workers and entrepreneurs. It also had a resilient electrical, water and highway infrastructure (though increasingly decrepit thanks to those sanctions). In addition, it had a best-in-the-region primary and higher educational system, and the finest (free) health care in the Middle East. In a nation of 27 million people, it also had—in comparison to other countries in the area—a large, mainly government-employed middle class of 3 million.

These pluses all flowed from a single source: the 2.5 million barrels of oil that Iraq produced each day. The daily income from the sale of the “national  patrimony” undergirded the country’s economic superstructure. In fact, the oil-based government budget was so ample that it supported Hussein with multiple palaces, enriched all his relatives and allies, and financed his various wars, both on other countries and on Iraq’s Kurds and Shiites.

This mixture of oppression and prosperity ended with the U.S. invasion. Despite denials that it would ever touch the Iraqi “patrimony,” the Bush Administration went straight for those oil revenues, diverting them away from the economy and into “debt payment” and soon enough, a pacification campaign.  Despite promises from Washington that, under an American occupation, production would soon rise to 6 million barrels per day, the struggle to take control of energy production out of Iraqi hands ended up crippling the industry and reducing production by 40 percent.

In fact, the occupation government was a whirlwind of economic destruction. It quickly began dismantling all government-run (and oil-subsidized) industrial plants, bankrupting the private industries that depended on them. It disrupted or destroyed commercial agriculture, again by discontinuing Saddam-era oil-financed subsidies and by air attacks on insurgents in rural areas. It imposed both austerity measures and a “de-Baathification” program on the country’s educational and medical systems.

Since most Iraqis holding any position of significance had no choice but to belong to Saddam’s Baath Party, this proved a disaster for middle class professionals, a majority of whom found themselves jobless or in exile in neighboring countries. Since they had managed such systems, often under increasingly terrible conditions, the effect on the management of the electrical, water and highway infrastructure was devastating. Add in the effects of bombing campaigns and the privatization of maintenance and you had a lasting disaster.

When, in 2009, the Obama Administration first began withdrawing U.S. combat troops, Iraqis everywhere—but especially in Sunni areas—faced up to 60 percent unemployment, sporadic electrical service, poisoned water systems, episodic education, a dysfunctional medical system and a lack of viable public or private transportation. Few Westerners remember that, in 2010, Maliki based his election campaign on a promise to remedy these problems by—that figure again—increasing oil production to 6 million barrels per day. Since the existing production was more than sufficient to operate the government, virtually all of the increased revenues could be used to reconstruct the country’s infrastructure, revive the government sector and rehabilitate all the devastated public services, industries and agricultural sectors.

Read page 1

The Corrupt Legacy of the U.S. Occupation

Despite his obvious Shia sectarianism, Sunnis gave Maliki time to fulfill his campaign promises. For some, hopes were increased when service contracts were auctioned off to international oil firms with the aim of hiking energy production to that 6 million barrel mark by 2020. (Some, however, just saw this as the selling off of that national patrimony.) Many Iraqis were initially reassured when oil production began to rise: in 2011, the Hussein-era mark of 2.5 million barrels per day was finally reached, and in 2013 production finally exceeded 3.0 million barrels per day.

U.S. forces arrive at the site of a car bombing in South Baghdad, April 2005. Photo credit: Wikimedia Commons

These increases raised hopes that reconstruction from the invasion and occupation era would finally begin. With oil prices holding steady at just under $100 per barrel, government oil revenues more than doubled, from about $50 billion in 2010 to more than $100 billion in 2013. This increase alone, if distributed to the population, would have constituted a windfall $10,000 subsidy for each of the 5 million Iraqi families. It also would have constituted a very promising down payment on restoring the Iraqi economy and its social services. (The electrical system in itself required tens of billions of dollars in new investment simply to restore it to inadequate pre-war levels.)

But none of this oil wealth trickled down to the grassroots, especially in Sunni areas of the country where signs of reconstruction, economic development, restored services, or jobs were hard to discern. Instead, the vast new revenues disappeared into the recesses of a government ranked by Transparency International as the seventh most corrupt on the planet.

Demanding a Share of the National Patrimony

So here’s where Iraqi oil, or the lack of its revenues at least, comes into play. Communities across Iraq, especially in embittered Sunni areas, began demanding funding for reconstruction, often backed by local and provincial governments. In response, the Maliki government relentlessly refused to allocate any oil revenues for such projects, choosing instead to denounce such demands as efforts to divert funds from more urgent budgetary imperatives. That included tens of billions of dollars needed to purchase military supplies including, in 2011, 18 F-16 jets from the U.S. for $4 billion. In a rare moment of ironic insight, Time magazine concluded its coverage of the F-16 purchase with this comment: “The good news is the deal will likely keep Lockheed’s F-16 plant in Fort Worth running perhaps a year longer. The bad news is that only 70 percent of Iraqis have access to clean water, and only 25 percent have clean sanitation.”

In all fairness to Maliki, his government did use some of the new oil revenues to begin restaffing wrecked government agencies and social service institutions, but virtually all of the new employment went to Shia citizens in Shia areas, while Sunnis continued to be fired from government jobs. This lack of employment—which meant, of course, the lack of oil money—has been key to the Sunni uprising. As Patrick Cockburn of the British newspaper, the Independentwrote:

Sunni men were alienated by not having a job because government funds were spent elsewhere and, on occasion, suddenly sacked without a pension for obligatory membership of the Ba'ath party decades earlier. One Sunni teacher with 30 years' experience one day got a crumpled note under his door telling him not to come to work at his school any more because he had been fired for this reason. ‘What am I to do? How am I going to feed my family?’ he asked.

With conditions worsening, Sunni communities only became more insistent, supplementing their petitions and demonstrations with sit-ins at government offices, road blockades and Tahrir Square-type occupations of public spaces. Maliki’s responses also escalated to arresting the political messengers, dispersing demonstrations, and, in a key moment in 2013, “killing dozens” of protestors when his “security forces opened fire on a Sunni protest camp.” This repression and the continued frustration of local demands helped regenerate the insurgencies that had been the backbone of the Sunni resistance during the American occupation. Once lethal violence began to be applied by government forces, guerrilla attacks became common in the areas north and west of Baghdad that the U.S. occupiers had labeled “the Sunni triangle.”

Many of these guerrilla actions were aimed at assassinating government officials, police and—as their presence increased—soldiers sent by Maliki to suppress the protests. It is notable, however, that the most determined, well planned and dangerous of these armed responses targeted oil facilities. Though the Sunni areas of Iraq are not major centers of oil production—more than 90 percent  of the country’s energy is extracted in the Shia areas in the south and the Kirkuk region controlled by the Kurds—there are ample oil targets there. In addition to a number of small oil fields, the “Sunni triangle” has almost the entire length of the only substantial pipeline that exits the country (to Turkey), a significant refinery in Haditha, and the Baiji petroleum complex, which contains an electrical power plant serving the northern provinces and a 310,000 barrel per day oil refinery producing a third of the country’s refined petroleum.

There was nothing new about local guerrillas attacking oil facilities. In late 2003, soon after the U.S. occupation cut off the flow of oil revenues to Sunni areas, residents resorted to various strategies to stop production or export until they received what they felt was their fair share of the proceeds. The vulnerable pipeline to Turkey was rendered useless, thanks to more than 600 attacks. The Baiji and Haditha facilities held insurgents at bay by allowing local tribal leaders to siphon off a share—often as much as 20 percent—of the oil flowing through them. After the U.S. military took control of the facilities in early 2007 and ended this arrangement, the two refineries were regularly subjected to crippling attacks.

The pipeline and refineries returned to continuous operation only after the U.S. left Anbar Province and Maliki once again promised local tribal leaders and insurgents (often the same people) a share of the oil in exchange for “protecting” the facilities from theft or attack. This deal lasted for almost two years, but when the government began cracking down on Sunni protest, the “protection” was withdrawn. Looking at these developments from a petroleum perspective, Iraq Oil Report, an online industry newsletter that offers the most detailed coverage of oil developments in Iraq, marked this as a key moment of “deteriorating security,” commenting that the “forces guarding energy facilities... have historically relied on alliances with locals to help provide protection.”

Read page 2

Fighting for Oil

Iraq Oil Report has conscientiously covered the consequences of this “deteriorating security” situation. “Since last year when attacks on the [Turkish] pipeline began to increase,” the North Oil Company, in charge of production in Sunni areas, registered a 50 percent drop in production. The pipeline was definitively cut on March 2nd and since then, repair crews have been “prevented from accessing” the site of the break. The feeder pipeline for the Baiji complex was bombed on April 16, causing a huge spill that rendered water from the Tigris River undrinkable for several days.

Iraqi gunmen. Photo credit: Wikimedia Commons

After “numerous” attacks in late 2013, the Sonangol Oil Company, the national oil company of Angola, invoked the “force majeure” clause in its contract with the Iraqi government, abandoning four years of development work on the the Qaiyarah and Najmah fields in Nineveh Province. This April, insurgents kidnapped the head of the Haditha refinery. In June, they took possession of the idle plant after government military forces abandoned it in the wake of the collapse of the Iraqi army in the country’s second largest city, Mosul.

In response to this rising tide of guerrilla attacks, the Maliki regime escalated its repression of Sunni communities, punishing them for “harboring” the insurgents. More and more soldiers were sent to cities deemed to be centers of “terrorism,” with orders to suppress all forms of protest. In December 2013, when government troops began using lethal force to clear protest camps that were blocking roads and commerce in several cities, armed guerrilla attacks on the military rose precipitously. In January, government officials and troops abandoned parts of Ramadi and all of Falluja, two key cities in the Sunni triangle.

This month, faced with what Patrick Cockburn called a "general uprising," 50,000 troops abandoned their weapons to the guerrillas, and fled Mosul as well as several smaller cities. This development hit as if out of nowhere and was treated accordingly by much of the U.S. media, but Cockburn expressed the view of many informed observers when he termed the collapse of the army in Sunni areas “unsurprising.” As he and others pointed out, the soldiers of that corruption-ridden force “were not prepared to fight and die in their posts... since their jobs were always primarily about making money for their families.”

The military withdrawal from the cities immediately led to at least a partial withdrawal from oil facilities. On June 13, two days after the fall of Mosul, Iraq Oil Report noted that the power station and other buildings in the Baiji complex were already “under the control of local tribes.” After a counterattack by government reinforcements, the complex became a contested area.

Iraq Oil Report characterized the attack on Baiji by insurgents as “what could be an attempt to hijack a portion of Iraq’s oil revenue stream.” If the occupation of Baiji is consolidated, the “zone of control” would also include the Haditha refinery, the Qaiyarah and Hamrah oil fields, and “key infrastructure corridors such as the Iraq-Turkey Pipeline and al-Fatha, where a collection of pipelines and other facilities deliver oil, gas and fuel to the center and north of the country.”

Further proof of this intention to control “a portion of Iraq’s oil revenue stream” can be found in the first actions taken by tribal guerrillas once they captured the power station at Baiji: “Militants have caused no damage and instructed workers to keep the facility online” in preparation for restarting the facility as soon as possible. Similar policies were instituted in the captured oil fields and at the Haditha refinery. Though the current situation is too uncertain to permit actual operation of the facilities, the overarching goal of the militants is clear. They are attempting to accomplish by force what could not be accomplished through the political process and protest: taking possession of a significant portion of the proceeds from the country’s oil exports.

And the insurgents appear determined to begin the reconstruction process that Maliki refused to fund. Only a few days after these victories, the Associated Press reported that insurgents were promising Mosul citizens and returning refugees “cheap gas and food,” and that they would soon restore power and water, and remove traffic barricades. Assumedly, this will be funded by upwards of $450 million (of oil money), as well as gold bullion, reportedly looted from a branch of the Central Bank of Iraq and assorted other banks in the Mosul area.

The oppressive regime of Saddam Hussein was racked with insurgency, and when vicious repression failed, it delivered a portion of the vast oil revenues to the people in the form of government jobs, social services and subsidized industries and agriculture. The oppressive U.S. occupation was racked with insurgency precisely because it tried to harness the country’s vast oil revenues to its imperial designs in the Middle East. The oppressive Maliki regime is now racked with insurgency, because the prime minister refused to share those same vast oil revenues with his Sunni constituents.

It has always been about the oil, stupid!

Michael Schwartz is a Distinguished Teaching Professor, Emeritus, of sociology at Stony Brook State University. Long a TomDispatch regular, he is the author of many books and articles on popular protest and insurgency, corporate dynamics, and political policy, including War Without End: The Iraq War in ContextHis email address is [email protected].

[Note on Sources: This commentary rests, in part, on the reporting of Ben Lando and the staff of Iraq Oil Report, which is the best English language source for information about politics, economics, and social protest in Iraq. Because its articles cannot be accessed without a subscription, no links to its work are provided in the text. Unlinked evidence about oil and the U.S. occupation is also taken from War Without End: The Iraq War in Context.]

 

For the past 15 years, Ontario Power Generation—one of the largest producers of electricity in North America—has been working to obtain approval from the Canadian government to build an underground repository near the Great Lakes to store its nuclear waste.

As the approval process for the Deep Geologic Repository (DGR) nears an end, some concerned citizens have started a petition asking lawmakers in Canada, as well as the U.S., to block the approval of the proposed nuclear waste repository near the Bruce Nuclear Power Plant site in Kincardine, Ontario.

Almost 61,000 people have signed the petition so far, including Dr. David Suzuki, a famous Canadian environmentalist.

Much of the concern is focused on the proposed repository’s location—just about a half mile from the shores of Lake Huron. Groups such as Stop The Great Lakes Nuclear Dump argue that if radioactive nuclear waste leaked into the water, the 40 million Canadians and Americans who depend on the Great Lakes for their drinking water, would find themselves without access to a source of clean freshwater.

Though some are troubled by the idea of underground nuclear waste repositories, Emily Hammond, a law professor at The George Washington University Law School and scholar at the Center for Progressive Reform, says the scientific community has come to the consensus that it’s actually the best way to dispose of radioactive material.

Hammond recognizes the concerns regarding the proposed facility—and of nuclear power or waste, in general—but, she said, “Nuclear waste repositories are some of the safest places you could put anything on Earth,” as the facilities are “over designed.”

She also says that any company building a repository should be transparent and allow scientists and concerned citizens to conduct studies and voice concerns.

Meanwhile, although many activists opposed to the site have expressed their concerns in recent years, numerous scientific studies conducted on the proposed site of the DGR by scientists around the globe have all come to the same conclusion: the site is a safe location for nuclear waste disposal.

Safe Space?

Arguments that the site is safe stem from its location in a seismically stable region. Scientists say the rock formations have hardly moved during the last 450 million years and don’t appear to indicate any future movement.

However, not all scientists agree that a glance at a rock formation can clearly determine how safe it may be to store nuclear waste in the area. For instance, William Fyfe, a retired University of Western Ontario professor who worked as an international consultant on nuclear waste before he passed away last fall, voiced his concerns about the project due to the site’s close proximity to water.

“It is universally acknowledged that nuclear waste must be kept away from water circulating through the environment of living things,” the late Fyfe said, “since water is seen as the main vehicle for eventual dissolution and dissemination of radiotoxic pollutants.”

Michigan Congressman Dan Kildee has also expressed concerns about the location of the proposed DGR, especially due to recent issues at facilities that were supposed to be spill-proof—such as the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant (WIPP) in New Mexico.

“These nuclear waste storage sites, although often said to be impenetrable, are not perfect, as this radiation leak shows,” Kildee said in February, after a broken drum at the WIPP facility reportedly caused a leak. “I continue to have great concerns with locating a similar nuclear waste site less than a mile from Lake Huron in Ontario."

“Storing nuclear waste so dangerously close to the Great Lakes is just too much of a risk to take,” Kildee continued. “Michigan and our shared water basin with Canada would be forever changed if a nuclear radiation leak were to happen. Such contamination would also have a drastic effect on the livelihood and well-being of both Michiganders and Canadians.”

Concerns regarding contaminated water have prompted more than 50 cities and towns in Ontario and in the U.S. states bordering the Great Lakes to pass resolutions opposing the DGR.

Beverly Fernandez, spokesperson for Stop The Great Lakes Nuclear Dump, an opposition group formed last year, says the project “defies common sense.”

“Would you bury poison beside your well?” she asked rhetorically.

Need for a Nuclear Repository

Plans for the underground repository first began in 2001, when officials from the small town of Kincardine in Ontario, Canada, approached officials at OPG in search of a more permanent storage solution for the nuclear waste materials the Ontario-government owned company has been kept in above-ground containers for the past 40 years or so.

Ontario relies heavily on nuclear power, which is viewed as a clean power source because it doesn’t produce smog or contribute to climate change. About 50 percent of Ontario’s electricity is currently generated by nuclear power plants, making the province the largest nuclear power jurisdiction in North America.

“We have had nuclear power since the late 1960s,” said Neal Kelly, director of media, issues and information management for OPG.

The major benefit to nuclear power, Kelly says, is that it generates large amounts of relatively cheap electricity around the clock, which is used to power homes, businesses, hospitals and more.

But the creation of nuclear energy also creates a need to dispose of the resulting nuclear waste. There are three types of nuclear waste streams produced by nuclear power plants: low-, medium- and high-level wastes. High-level wastes—essentially the fuel bundles in the reactors—would not be put into the DGR, as Kelly says those only disposed at the very nuclear power plants where they were produced and used.

The other two types of radioactive waste materials would be buried in the proposed DGR site, though. The vast majority would be low-level waste —items that are slightly contaminated by nuclear waste, such as gloves, coveralls and mops. For the past 40 years, these low-level materials were moved to Kincardine, where they were incinerated.

Kelly says that OPG will continue to incinerate these items and bury the ash in the depository. Although the resulting ash is radioactive, the material being burned contains such a small amount of radiation that Kelly says the employees who handle it wear minimal protective gear—just coveralls and gloves.

Medium-level waste that would be buried in the DGR includes items like filters and resins that cannot be incinerated because they were located closer to the reactor core. Just like the low-level radioactive items, the medium-level items have been disposed of safely in the area for 40 years, Kelly says.

Scientific Analysis

As both sides argue why the DGR should or should not be built on the shores of Lake Huron, a three-person environmental panel of experts in the fields of geology, science and mining, has been appointed by the Canadian Ministry of the Environment to thoroughly research the geologic structure of the land and hear comments and concerns from members of the public.

Before OPG applied for approval to build the facility near Lake Huron, Kelly says, the company researched the types of facilities used to store nuclear waste around the world and shared the best practices with officials from Kincardine and surrounding municipalities.

The creation of a nuclear waste storage facility in deep rock was the option the municipalities liked best, Kelly says, so OPG moved forward with the project.

Geologists were also called in to analyze the proposed site, which is where a lot of the waste is currently stored above ground. They spent about four years assessing the underground geological formations, studying the current environmental conditions and forecasting what might happen in the future.

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Based on an examination of a piece of rock removed from more than three miles underground, geologists and scientists reported that the rock structure was around 450 million years old and hasn’t shifted much over the long course of its existence. Because of this, the site was deemed an appropriate and safe place to build the repository.

“We were very lucky with the geology of the site,” Kelly said.

OPG had the initial findings peer-reviewed by other scientists, he continued, and has since shared more than 12,000 pages of studies proving the safety of the rock formation to the environmental review panel and the public.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the Department of Environmental Quality in Michigan have also reviewed the findings. Both bodies concluded that storing the nuclear waste in the rock about 2,230 feet below the surface would not harm the environment.

Despite a plethora of scientists coming to the same conclusion, Allison Macfarlane, chairman of the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission, has argued that geology has not yet advanced to the point in which predictions on future movement can be made based on a study of a rock formation.

Even with the use of computer software that can make predictions, Macfarlane has said that geologists are not able to account for processes or features they may be unaware of. For example, after studying a rock formation, government and industry scientists reported the chance of off-site migration occurring at a nuclear waste facility in Kentucky was “essentially nonexistent.” But the plutonium, which scientists believed would travel a half of an inch on-site over a 24,000 year period, actually moved two miles off-site in less than 10 years.

Dr. Frank Greening, a retired OPG chemist, worked in the nuclear industry for more than 30 years. He also expressed concerns about the site in a report, in which he claims OPG has “severely underestimated” the radioactivity of the materials that will be put into the repository, “sometimes by factors of more than 100.”

Kincardine is a municipality located on the shores of Lake Huron in Bruce County in the province of Ontario, Canada.

Public Opinion

Although thousands of Americans and Canadians are opposed to the DGR, thousands of others support the plan. Hammond says she must admit that even as an environmentalist, OPG appears to be doing everything properly by following the laws and being completely transparent throughout the democratic process.

Fernandez, of Stop The Great Lakes Nuclear Dump, disagrees that it has been a democratic process. She says OPG has paid around $35.7 million to Kincardine and four other shoreline communities located near the proposed DGR site, claiming that these funds are dispersed with the understanding that officials must support any effort to approve the repository or they’ll lose the contributions.

OPG has not denied that it has donated money to local municipalities, which are home to 10,000 OPG employees, and it has been transparent about the donations. While it may be surprising that a company would willingly disclose financial contributions, according to Hammond, these types of donations are legal as long as they are authorized by the government.

Known as “benefits packages,” Hammond says companies around the world—including those in the U.S.—often donate sums of money to cities where a project is anticipated in order to persuade people to support it. In the case of a nuclear structure, these funds are also meant to ensure that hospitals are equipped to handle the chemicals and relevant vocational courses are offered in the area that would enable local workforce participation.

But Fernandez remains unconvinced that the process is as democratic as OPG claims. She says the company failed to consult the 40 million people who would find themselves without access to clean drinking water if the DGR leaked or ask them if they approved of the project.

She also says OPG is seeking approval from a town of around 14,000 people—many of whom are OPG employees—for a decision that has implications for millions.

Fernandez suggests the company find another location to store the nuclear waste, such as an area that is not near the Great Lakes or as highly populated, or it should continue storing the material in bomb-proof, above-ground containers.

OPG’s Kelly acknowledges the opposition to the project, but says most people change their minds once they learn about all of the research that has gone into the DGR. While OPG seems to be working hard to convince the public that the DGR is the right way to go, he says the company will not proceed without support from the First Nations groups that live in the area.

It should become clearer how indigenous populations and members of the public feel about the project in September, when four weeks of public hearings commence for what is likely the last time before the review panel is expected to make their decision sometime in early 2015.

How the Canadian government will eventually decide is anyone’s guess at this point, but as environmental lawyers like Hammond note, this has been a remarkably aboveboard, democratic process—a feat in and of itself.

Long Road to Approval

Though Fernandez and other opponents push members of the public in both countries to block approval for the project, the petition to stop the DGR from being built is arguably a bit premature, as the project has not yet been approved.

Even if the panel does side with OPG, Kelly says the company has only applied for a license to construct the facility. OPG is currently essentially seeking approval to construct a mine to build the underground storage facility.

If the project is approved, Kelly says it would take five to seven years to build the DGR. Upon its completion, OPG would have to undergo another public process in order to obtain an operation license so the company could lawfully transport and store the nuclear waste in the DGR.

OPG expects the DGR to hold about 52,834,470 gallons of nuclear waste—the equivalent of about 35 years worth of nuclear waste. Once the DGR is full, the OPG would submit to another public process in which the company would seek a decommissioning license, which would allow OPG to fill about 2,230 feet of the mine shaft with cement and cap it at the top.

The company would be responsible for monitoring the facility for a period of time to ensure that radioactive material was not leaking, but it would eventually ask to abandon all responsibility for the site. This could occur about 300 years after the DGR had been closed, even though the chemicals remain radioactive for around 100,000 years.

Kelly says he and others at OPG are not concerned about the chemicals getting into the Great Lakes because not only have the rocks not moved in 450 million years, but there are multiple natural barriers—such as shale—that would help insulate the materials and prevent them from leaking into Lake Huron.

When asked about the disaster at the WIPP facility in New Mexico, Kelly explained that the proposed facility in Kincardine is different than the WIPP facility and OPG is studying what happened at WIPP and incorporating lessons learned into their plans to build the repository.