by Carl Brahe, Certified Home Inspector
Imagine providing for your own heating and electricity with your own solar power production. Some people even feed excess electricity back into the power grid and are paid for it.
New options in alternative energy ownership are available for many homeowners in Colorado and other parts of the country. Plans are available that provide solar electric power to home owners and businesses with little or no money up front.
- Zero down leasing plans are available with payments less than regular electric bills. Leases end in full ownership after 15-20 years. This option is not available for IREA customers.
- Solar gardens are coming soon where multiple living units communally own a solar array that is not necessarily on site. This may be an important ownership concept for home owners, renters and businesses. Legislation is being developed in Colorado to allow this form of ownership.
- Group buying is available in some locations. Multiple buyers pool resources to take advantage of quantity discounts and group bargaining.
- Local governments can issue bonds as a source of financing for community members. PACE programs provide zero down financing for individual homeowners and is typically paid over 20 years in the form of property tax increase.
- Other companies offer a PPA, Power Purchase Agreement, where they own and maintain the solar panels and you purchase your electricity from them. This is currently more popular for commercial consumers.
Colorado allows net metering which requires utility companies to pay for power delivered to the grid by individual homeowners. When more power is being produced than is being used by a system such as solar PV the electric meter spins backward as electricity is delivered into the power grid. This power is usually paid for at a wholesale rate rather than the retail rate you pay. Net metering is required for these options to work. Before considering solar electric systems many people want basic answers about how solar PV will affect their lives. Will my homeowners insurance increase, and what will it do to my roof? Installing solar panels on your roof may, or may not, affect homeowners insurance. Some insurance companies will view it as increase in home replacement costs and raise rates. Other companies may see it as an act of responsible people who are better risks and lower rates. Your individual situation and your individual insurance company will determine rate changes, if any. Solar panels improperly installed will probably raise your home owner insurance premiums as well as cause roof problems. A properly installed roof system protects the roof covering. The roofing under the panels should last longer than the rest of the roof. Solar panels are ideally installed on a new roof. Panels are projected to last 20-30 years before their electrical generation slowly fades. This is about the life of most roof covers. In places prone to hail and high winds the roof cover under the panels will be more protected from storms.
Panels are usually made to withstand direct hits from 1” hail. The panels are usually mounted at an angle facing south for maximum sun exposure. Hail storms usually come from the north making a direct hit to the solar panels unlikely.
If you have to remove panels for roof repair or replacement expect to pay $1000 – 1500 to have the panels removed and remounted. Labor rates vary. Check with your local solar installer for rates in your area. Alternatives to solar panels installed on the roof are growing. Thin film technology that allows a solar film to be sprayed or printed onto flexible or curved surfaces is bringing new products to the market. Solar PV shingles are available in many styles including for tile roofs. Many more building materials will incorporate Solar PV in the future. Some solar PV systems are made for installation on the ground. SunCube, a new product for ground installation, offers a 31% efficiency rate compare to 10-15% industry average. Future improvements to the main microchip that operates these units are expected to increase efficiency to 50%. Current units will be retrofittable.
Ground mounted units have the added expense of concrete mounting pads, but the increased efficiency with SunCube allows a smaller, cheaper system for the same electrical output as the roof mount models.
In Colorado there are three companies currently offering solar leases:
- SolarCity, a California company, offers a zero down, 15 year flat rate lease. For a 5 kilowatt system the rate is about $45/mo. 888-765-2489
- SunRun, another California company, offers zero down, 20 years leases. A 5 kilowatt system averages about $50/mo, with inflation adjustment. 877-786-6656
- Vibrant Solar, a Denver company offers a zero down, 15 year lease. Payment is pegged to 80% of the monthly utility bill. 303-604-6696
Leases are only available to people who live in service areas of power companies that provide sufficient rebates. Rebates and tax credits are turned over to the leasing company. The lease becomes, in essence, a second mortgage and will be paid off when title transfers. Solar gardens is an emerging energy ownership concept. People who live in multiple housing units will be able to buy into solar panels located off site. Condo owner and renters will be able to buy partial ownership in solar gardens. Payments for power produced and delivered to the grid will be credited against electric bills. Some organizations, and/or groups of individuals, pool resources to get quantity discounts on systems. Groups like, One Block Off the Grid, sponsor projects where large group of people are pooled together for buying power. The group organizes and negotiates all the details including financing and installation. Local governments have the ability to issue bonds to provide zero down financing for things like alternative powers systems, insulation and energy efficient HVAC systems. Property Assessed Clean Energy programs (PACE) work something like municipal bonds sold to finance streets and bridges. With PACE programs the money is provided directly to individual community members for energy related improvements to private homes. The programs will probably expand in the future to include multiple family housing units and businesses. Ask your local government representative to start a PACE program if one doesn’t already exist in your area.
Payment for improvements is made through property tax increases. Property taxes increase only for the individual homeowner until the improvement is paid off. You don’t pay for your neighbors home improvements. Energy savings must be greater than property tax increases. Improvements must pay for themselves and payments can be spread out up to 20 years. Zero down loans require no credit check because the loan is in essence made to the property. If the property is sold before improvements are paid off the remainder of the loan goes with the house. With this method of financing you get to keep rebates and credits instead of assigning them to the leasing company. In Colorado rebates and credits may pay for up to two thirds of the cost alternative energy sources. Another method for obtaining alternative power with little or no money up front is a Power Purchase Agreement (PPA). A power company or individual installs a power source at your home or business. You pay for the power you consume. You don’t get the rebates or credits, but like leasing, all maintenance and repair are done for you. PPAs are becoming popular with businesses and governments but have not been used much in residential settings. This may change as individuals, HOAs and small businesses realize that it is possible for anyone with a small amount of investment to become a small, independent power supplier.
Other new options for owning or leasing alternative energy are no doubt coming. Technology is developing quickly and energy production is getting more efficient. The future may hold more exciting options for producing your own energy, but solutions exist now for many people that cost little or nothing up front with monthly payments lower than buying electricity from your power company.