Is residential solar right for you?
What to consider before signing up:
Take a look at your bill: At least in financial terms, it doesn’t make sense to shell out for solar – as either a buyer or a leaser – unless you’re already running up a large monthly tab with PG&E. In California, energy hogs are penalized with higher rates. If you’re paying those rates now, solar might look reasonable. Not so for more modest electricity users. Use your bill as a point of reference when considering payment options for solar.
Double-check any promises: A solar service company hoping to sign you up may offer a projection of all the money you’re going save with panels on your roof. That estimate will be based on the difference between your payments to the solar service company and those you would otherwise make to PG&E. How does the company know what utility rates will be over the next 20 years? They don’t, of course. They guess. Make sure you know what that guess is before signing up.
Harnessing energy from the sun, guaranteed: The more electricity your system produces, the more it will eat away at your utility bill. When you’re doing the math on whether solar adds up for you, you’ll want to have a baseline to work with. Find out how much electricity production is guaranteed.
Lease versus power-purchase agreement: The difference between a solar lease and power-purchase agreement boils down to what you’re technically paying for. With a lease, monthly payments are made for the system itself; with a purchase agreement, a homeowner is simply paying for the power it generates. In practice, the distinction is not always so important, because purchase payments can be rearranged from month to month to resemble any lease agreement. It’s more important to focus on the details of the payment plan itself.
Insurance: Most solar service companies will offer insurance as a standard feature of any contract. It’s up to you to make sure that insurance is up to snuff. For example, many companies use independent contracting firms to perform the installation, so check to see whether they carry insurance too.
Plan on moving? If you’ve signed an agreement to have solar panels placed on your roof, you’re tied to that arrangement, whether you’re living under that roof or not. Short of paying to have the entire system moved to your new address, if you decide to sell your home halfway through a lease or purchase agreement, you have two options: Prepay the agreement completely or find a buyer who is as eager to have solar panels as you once were. While many solar service companies will present this as a non-dilemma (who wouldn’t want to buy a house with guaranteed lower electricity bills?), a leased system shouldn’t be thought of as an asset to the value of your home – even if you like it, it’s something that needs to be paid for, which makes it a liability.
Know your payment, love your payment: Solar service companies offer a wide range of payment options – zero down, all at once, fixed, adjustable, or kilowatt per hour. Before deciding on what and how you’ll be paying, it’s important to make sure that it’s an amount you’ll feel comfortable paying for the duration of the agreement, regardless of what happens to PG&E rates or the cost of newer, more efficient solar panels between now and 2032.
Consider all the options: The majority of new solar customers are going with the third-party model, but that doesn’t mean it’s right for everyone. If you have enough spare cash to buy a system and pay for installation, insurance and maintenance, and don’t mind the paperwork, consider that. And while it’s unlikely that your bank would offer you more favorable rates, run the numbers on taking out a loan to purchase a system. If you’re really adamant about going green, consider the less-glamorous options, too – weatherproofing your windows, getting more energy-efficient appliances and reducing your energy consumption.