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Journey to Solar – Part Two, Financing

Once you make the decision to go solar, the next step is deciding how you want to pay for it.

Solar has come a long way from the days of buying the panels outright.

Today’s solar is flexible and can accommodate many different budgets.

There are basically three ways to go solar:

1. Purchase – this is the oldest and was the most common way to go solar years ago. Basically, you purchase the system, and apply for and receive all your rebates from the Federal and State government directly. Once you have the system installed, it is yours forever, but you are on your own for maintenance and service outside of the warranties. These days, very few customers go with this option.

2. Pre-Pay – This relatively new plan allows you to “pre-pay” your solar energy usage for a set period of time – generally 20 years. You pay a set amount upon installation of your solar panels – essentially, what you would pay for the kilowatt hours (kWh) at today’s rates, and then get all of your solar energy at no additional cost for the next 20 years. In fact, if your solar system does not generate the guaranteed amount of kWh on an annual basis, the solar company will be sending a check to you each year. At the end of the twenty years, you can renew your plan (at discounted rates) or turn the solar panels back in to the company. This plan includes system monitoring, repair service, insurance coverage, and a performance guarantee for the duration of the contract term.

3. Solar lease or Solar PPA – Both of these options essentially boil down to a zero-money-down situation, where you pay a monthly amount to the solar company once your panels are installed and up and running. They offer similar financial advantages to the homeowner. The primary difference is that with a lease you pay a set amount per month, and with a PPA you pay per kWh. One of the benefits of the SolarPPA is that you can purchase the system any time after year five. Availability of SolarPPA and SolarLease vary by location based on what your local utility company prefers. This plan also includes a “buy-out” at the end of the term, or turning panels back in to the solar provider (if they even want them at that point). Both of these plans offer flexible payment options, system monitoring, repair service, insurance coverage, and a performance guarantee for the duration of the contract term.

One thing I like about going with a full-service company like Solar City, is that regardless of which payment option you choose, they take care of every step of the process —including engineering, financing, permits, installation and ongoing monitoring.

In our situation, the Pre-Pay plan was the best deal by far – even better than purchase. With an initial investment of $22,000, it was calculated that we would save $90,000 in energy costs over the twenty-year period. With the payment plan, we could invest nothing initially, pay a set $235 per month for twenty years, and save around $60,000 in energy costs over the lifetime of our contract.

So our decision was whether we finance through the solar company at a set price of $235 per month – effectively paying them $53,000 over twenty years, or find a way to pay them an initial investment of $22,000 (even if we have to borrow money to put that down). For us, the flat fee of $22,000 made more sense. Money is so cheap these days, with interest rates at all-time lows, we just think that the initial payment makes sense financially. If you have access to cheap money through a line of credit, or savings, or even selling some investments, I think it makes sense. I mean, what investment is going to guarantee a return of $90,000 over the next twenty years?

In both scenarios, we would still have a small electric bill depending upon our energy usage. Also, it was projected that we would save a few thousand dollars on our electric bill per year initially, but that amount moved up to almost $9000 per year in year twenty of our agreement. The reason the savings are so high is that unlike electricity, the payment to the solar company is set per month, with no increase, over the course of twenty years.

With energy prices rising approximately 39% over the past decade, and estimated to continue, by locking in your energy costs now, you save a bundle over the next couple of decades.

Even if we decide to sell our house, the solar agreement is transferable, or we can transfer the solar panels to a new home. What’s more, homes that have solar panels are shown to increase in value by 3-4%, which for most people, covers the cost of the system.

But everyone’s situation is different and each buyer has to make the decision that is right for them. The bottom line is that no matter what option you choose, you are going to save money in the long-term by going solar.

For more on solar financing options, you can check out this link.

Journey to Solar – Part One, Making the Decision

We are in the process of going solar at our house. I want to document our journey to demonstrate how simple, easy and cost-effective it can be. And hopefully inspire some of you to consider solar panels for your own home.

We are a few steps down the road at this point, but I’ll start back at the beginning with Step One – making the decision to go solar.

The reasons to choose solar energy are numerous and well documented. Let’s just say for me, it breaks down to either powering our home using solar (a clean, non-polluting, completely renewable energy source) or continuing to run off fossil fuels (a finite source that pollutes our water and air, and is a primary contributor to climate change). It’s kind of a no-brainer.

With that said, I will focus primarily on the financial aspects of going solar. Quite simply, it can save you A LOT of money.

In general, when looking at solar purely from a financial perspective, it makes sense for those who own their homes, are planning to stay there in the near future, and generally have an electric bill that is over $150 per month.

For us, our journey to solar started shortly after we moved last year and received our first electric bill – over $400! I couldn’t believe it. I had never seen an electric bill over $200 in my life.

Since then, we have implemented some energy-saving, cost-cutting measures, like switching all our bulbs to CFL or LED, turning off appliances not in use, and installing a new dual-speed pool pump (that alone has saved us about $75 a month). With these measures, we have reduced our bill to about $300.

Still, way too high, and using far too much energy from the grid.

So, I started interviewing solar companies.

It turns out, we can go solar for no money down, lease the panels for around $200 per month, and reduce our electric bill to about $40. That means, we can start saving money every month, right away, with NO MONEY OUT OF POCKET. Not only that, but as the years go by and Edison’s rates continue to increase (vs. our fixed-lease rate for our panels), we save even more money. I’ll give you more details and the full breakdown in my next post.

The next step is to select a solar contractor to perform the installation.

After looking at many companies, and meeting extensively with three, I settled on Solar City.

So far, I am very happy with my decision. Solar City’s service is excellent, their technicians are timely, and they take care of the entire process for you – including engineering, financing, permits, installation and ongoing monitoring of your system performance.

Now, we are on our way. Actually, the van showed up today to get us moving forward. I was so excited. I felt like a kid on Christmas.

In my next post, I’ll break down the three main ways you can pay for solar, how the math works in our case, and how it may work for you too.

For a good overall summary of the process, check out this short, informative video, “Affordable Solar Power and Better Energy”.

(Point of clarification: Solar City in no way compensated me or provided me with any type of discounts for this recommendation. I selected them solely because I felt they were the best provider in California.)