Solar energy: Will leasing make it more affordable for homeowners?

Solar panels on a home in Sebastopol, Calif., were installed in 1993. Sonoma County wants to fund a special loan program for this type of residential solar power project.

Many homeowners like the idea of harnessing the power of the sun to heat their homes – until they check the price tag. Installing solar panels isn't inexpensive – typically $25,000 and up-up-up for a solar photovoltaic system for the whole house; less for just heating your water – even if there's a 30 percent federal tax credit later.

But there are other options:

One is "green financing," which requires no money down. Still, you owe money, which cuts into your potential savings from using solar energy.

Perhaps even more useful, though: Some companies are leasing the panels to homeowners, who find it less expensive in the short run to "rent" them, rather than buy. Sorta like leasing a car. You pay a deposit, sign a lease, and then pay a monthly fee.

Is this like the companies that popped up in the 1970s to install solar water heaters, and didn't last long? No way of knowing at this point, But some heavy-hitters are getting involved.

A big drawback, though, is that at this point, leasing is available only in limited parts of the country.

Also, what happens when you sell your home?

Leasing solar panels isn't really "news" -- it's been available in a limited way for a couple of years -- but what may be the impetus that pushes the idea forward is state or country involvement. In Massachusetts, for instance, a law that sets utility targets for renewable energy also specifies leasing solar panels, with homeowners allowed to sell their excess back to the company.

Homeowners pay $1,000 in the beginning and sign an 18-year lease that specifies the cost of the solar power, says the Boston Globe, which adds that "the rate will be comparable to, or less than what utilities charge, according to the companies involved."

The upsides for homeowners: There's no installation charge or maintenance. Costs are more reasonable. (In the print edition – but not online – the Globe gave an example of 24 panels and suggested that a homeowner can recoup his investment in three years versus 11 for buying panels. But a person in the article said he expects to regain his investment in four years.)

Among the downsides: No one knows that utility rates will be during the next 18 years or if the firms involved will stay in business that long. Also, the companies receive the tax benefits as owners of the panels. (Massachusetts rebates an average 40 percent on top of the federal 30 percent credit.)

And in Massachusetts, as well as other states that get plenty of the wintery white stuff, there's the issue of removing snow from the panels.

With lots of "ifs," leasing solar panels isn't a sure thing. It's certainly not for everyone. But it may have promise for some who are eager to go solar. If you were considering installing solar panels, would you think about taking this route?

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