Consumers being used to paying for electricity on a monthly, rather than on an upfront basis, is the single biggest factor undermining potential homeowner adoption of rooftop solar in the United States.

Neighborhood walk reveals allure of solar leasing

I was walking through Denver, Colorado’s Park Hill neighborhood yesterday afternoon when I saw an REC Solar truck on the side of the road.

Sure enough, it was parked in front of the house that I’d noticed a couple of days earlier had what had seemed, back then, like a rather strange sign given that the home had no solar panels: “This home powered by REC Solar.”

REC Solar installed the 5.59 kW home solar system on our Aurora, Colo., home’s rooftop two years ago that has now produced nearly 2 megawatts of solar electricity, or nearly twice as much as we’ve actually used (this because we haven’t been able to get the electric car we thought we’d have by now).

Since REC Solar had installed our system, I decided to chat it up with the REC crew. I asked about Tim and Dustin, who were part of the crew that installed our system. They’re still at REC Solar, though they’ve moved up the ranks.

solar-sun-my-shadow245 watt panels
I asked about how large a system they were installing on the garage of this Park Hill neighborhood home. They said 4.7 kW. I asked how many watts each panel was. The answer: 245 watts, or 30 watts more per panel than those installed on our home two years ago!

Then I asked whether the system had been bought outright, or was a lease. One of the guys looked at me a bit funny, like I was asking a crazy question, and then said, “It’s a SunRun (lease) system. I can’t remember the last time I was on an install where we took a check from a customer. It’s gotta be more than a year now.”

I wasn’t surprised. I knew, back in the summer of 2009 when we first signed on the dotted line with REC Solar to buy our 5. 59 kW system outright, by ourselves, that if solar leasing were to come to Colorado, it would dominate.

In fact, solar leasing did come to Colorado — in Oct. of 2009 — just a few short months after we’d committed to buying our system. I had a feeling back then it was going to come to Colorado, though, at the time, I bought the line the REC Solar salesperson who sold us the system was selling – frankly, I think somewhat disingenuously – that solar leasing was at least a year off in Colorado. It wasn’t.

Solar elitists hate leasing
I also know that despite what all the solar elitists say about how it’s better to buy a system than to lease one, how you’ll save more money in the long run, how it’ll be more satisfying, yada, yada, yada, that, had leasing been available when we bought, we would have leased, not bought our home solar system.

The biggest problem with solar buying is there’s no way in hell there would be as much solar on rooftops in America right now if it were not for the availability of the solar leasing model.

I also know I’m very happy we bought our system. Though, ironically, if we had to do it again, I also know we would almost certainly lease it, not buy it.

It was a hardship for us to save the money to buy the system up front (thanks to the housing crash, we had no equity to take out a home equity loan back then). In fact, we waited 10 months before we actually had the system installed so that we could lock in the incredible Xcel Energy Solar Rewards rebate of $3.40 per watt while also giving ourselves time to save up money [during those 10 months, we actually had to sit on some credit card debt to save the money].

We weren’t accustomed to paying for our electricity in 20 year chunks either. That’s especially true of my wife, who, no matter how many times I told her we would save money in the long run, was really, really reluctant to put up the $10,000 (after utility rebates, tax credits & local incentives, we paid a silly-low price of $8,000 out of pocket for our 5.59 kW system).

utility-meter-3000Paying for electricity up front
In other words, we were like 99 percent of Americans who have become so accustomed to thinking of their electricity bill in terms of monthly installments that they simply cannot, will not, think outside of that box and plunk down the money up front for a home solar system.

That ingrained monthly electricity payment model – and the fact that relatively few Americans have tens of thousands of dollars sitting around – are the reasons that leasing has taken off and why, frankly, it’s simply kicking the ass of buy-up-front systems in so many places and cases, including, apparently, in Colorado.

Some of the solar elitists are still chirping about how solar leasing is a fraud, wrong, a rip-off, a Wall Street scheme, etc. In fact, I recently saw a piece that slammed SunRun for trying to pull the wool over consumers eyes by using allegedly artificially inflated price of electricity increase projections to make leasing look better.

I’m not condoning this approach. But it’s definitely not unique to solar companies pitching a solar lease.

Inflated rate increase projections?
REC Solar did the same thing in trying to sell us on buying, not leasing, our system, using projections of approximately 5 percent annual utility increases in its long-term saving projections. I haven’t done the historical research to see what the actual annual rate increases have been in Xcel’s Colorado Front Range territory over the past 20 years, but I’d bet good money that they have not gone up by 5 percent every year.

I don’t think playing up annual utility rate increases was a deliberate attempt to deceive us. It was just an attempt to sell solar to what is still an extremely small percentage of Americans (less than 1 percent) who were, or are, truly potentially interested in actually going through with things and putting solar on their home.

While solar leasing may have its problems, so too, does solar buying. In fact, the biggest problem with solar buying is there’s no way in hell there would be as much solar on rooftops in America right now if it were not for the availability of the solar leasing model. Including, I’m pretty sure, on the Denver rooftop that I happened to walk by on a baking hot, sunny Colorado afternoon.

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