What I didn't know about solar power – but should have

In renovating an old farrmhouse, the owner discovers that solar panels can be leased instead of purchased.

Joanne Ciccarello/Staff/The Christian Science Monitor
Putting solar panels on the south-facing roof of the barn at Sheep Dog Hollow could provide power for the farmhouse as well.

We’ve already broken the bank, so to speak, in our effort to renovate Sheep Dog Hollow in a green and economical manner. We did that when we decided to install a geothermal heating system that cost about $20,000 more than a top-of-the-line oil or gas heating system. The trade-off: big upfront costs versus long-term savings and a clean conscience.

But now, as I mentioned in my most-recent post, it turns out we could have installed a solar system for zero money upfront – just the cost of our monthly electric bill. Hmmm. Think that was a bit of poor planning on my part?

Connecticut is one of the few states that offer a solar leasing program that allows consumers to install solar panels and pay for them as they would their regular electric bill. (Others include California, Arizona, and Massachusetts, according to the site Tech.Blorge.com.

There are also about 200 local municipalities that offer similar solar leases, according to Monique Hanis of the Solar Energy Industries Association, a nonprofit trade group in Washington. (You can find out which ones at www.SEIA.org or www.dsireusa.org.)

The Connecticut Clean Energy Fund, which is financed by a small surcharge on the state’s electric utility users, got together with local financial institutions and developed the lease program. The goal is to “…mainstream solar in CT. It is intended to make the ability to install a solar electric system affordable to everyone who owns a home.”

The way it works is simple, and I'll use my current home as an example: A local solar installer from BeFree Solar dropped by one afternoon last week. He looked at my current electric bills and then checked out our barn, where I’d propose installing the panels because it faces directly due south. (The power would be used for both the house and the barn. But the barn's roof is better situated for solar.)

A few days later, I got the analysis. I currently use 7500 kilowatt hours (kWh) a year. As a result, he proposed I install a 6600 watt solar panel system, which should produce, based on my barn’s angle toward the sun, about 8,000 kWh a year. The cash cost of such system: $46,200.00. With state rebate of $10,000 and federal tax credit (about $10,000 as well), that would bring the upfront cost down to $26,000 and that doesn’t include sales tax.

That’s still pretty high for most homeowners.

With the lease program, the upfront costs are zero. The federal and state incentives go to the leasing company, which essentially gives me a fixed rate loan for the remaining $26,000. I pay for that loan with a fixed monthly payment of $99 for the next 15 years.

After that, the company reappraises the solar system, and offers me another five-year lease, which, because of depreciation of the system, is estimated to be around $30 a month.

It does sound too good to be true: no upfront costs, fixed monthly costs that are lower than my current electric bills, and there’s no sales tax on the lease.

Tthere are some drawbacks. First and foremost is that the lease is “non-cancelable, which means you’re not allowed to pay off the lease for any reason. You have to make all payments as scheduled,” according to the Connecticut Solar Lease Advisor.

There are also income limits to the program, but since it’s designed to encourage middle-class people to get into solar. they’re relatively high. A couple living in my county, without children, have to make less than $150,000 in combined income. (The more children you have, the higher the limit.)

Finally, at the end of the lease, you either have to remove the system or buy it from the leasing company. (By then it will probably be worth only a few thousand dollars, according to my BeFree adviser Kapil Luthra.)

Over the next 30 years, if I continued to buy electricity from the local utility – which has a history of raising rates about 6 percent a year – my total costs would be almost $70,000, according to my BeFree analysis.

With a leased system, my total outlay over those same 30y years would be around $20,000, if I include money earned annually from the utility company. That’s because when my solar panels are producing more electricity that I’m using, it gets fed back into the power grid and my electric meter essentially runs backward. Wouldn’t it be nice to get a check from the local utility company, rather than keep sending them out?

So, all of this begs the question: Did I make the wrong call on installing geothermal at Sheep Dog?

I don’t think so, because I can still install solar panels on our barn there, and that will be the subject of my next blog.

Editor’s note: Alexandra Marks blogs twice a week about her green and budget-friendly restoration of a 1902 farmhouse in Connecticut. Click here to find all her blog posts and articles.

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