Solar: Buy, lease — or forget the whole thing?

It was hard to imagine a few short years ago.

Here in upstate New York, where it’s cloudy half the time, solar panels are taking off. Even though Congress just extended the biggest federal renewable energy subsidy for several more years, removing the urgency to ‘act now,’ many homeowners are embracing the idea of generating their own power.

If you do it right, it’s a win-win situation that may not cost you a dime. If you do it wrong, well…let’s make sure you don’t do it wrong.

Even deciding to think about solar requires are few first steps. If your electric bill is minuscule, like under $75 a month, it might not be worth it. If you live in the deep woods with your roof and property in year-round shade, forget it. And if you pay little or no taxes, you won’t be able to avail yourself of the enormous subsidies that make the numbers add up for buying a system. In that case, leasing will then be your best option. But if none of those “stoppers” apply, and you like the idea of living more carbon free, and want to slash your utility bills, read on.

There will be major decisions. Like whether to put panels on your roof or on the ground. Whether to lease or to buy. Whether to generate a little more electricity than you currently use so that you’re all set for electric plug-in cars. Or whether to go the other way, to a smaller and cheaper system, since you’ll replace your home’s incandescent bulbs with LEDs in a year or two, cutting your annual electric consumption by at least 10%.

First things first. If you have a sunny spot on your property or your rooftop and you don’t find panels horribly ugly, your first step is to call a company that either leases or sells. Here’s how each works.


Leasing the sun

Leasing is easy. It requires you to invest nothing. For our example we will use the largest company, Solar City, founded by billionaire Elon Musk. They’ve aggressively begun focusing on New York, and plan to build a major solar panel plant in Buffalo. If you look up reviews of them you’ll find terrible complaints and also glowing testimonials. We’ll cut through all the smoke and tell you how to have a good experience. When you’re finished, you can count on saving 20% off your electric bill, and a written guarantee that your price will not change for the next 20 years. And you will have not spent a dime. But you’ll have to be careful.

Solar City’s business has doubled every two years and they frankly have some employees who shouldn’t be there. But if you get a good, knowledgeable person from the outset, someone who is high enough up their food chain to offer you their best possible deal, and will take charge of your project in a pleasurable way, that will make all the difference. The person you want is Jack Millard at 916-740-3947. Everyone who’s worked with him loves him. He will promptly have a team analyze satellite photographs of your house to see if it’s a candidate. If it is, he’ll arrange to have an engineering team come over. They have equipment that tells them whether you get enough sun throughout the year. Your home needn’t be perfect, far from it. They will also analyze your electric bills going back several years. Ultimately, they’ll propose a solar system that generates somewhere between 75% to 100% of your needs. Unless you have a growing family or think you might someday want an electric plug-in car, it’s best if you choose a smaller system. That’s because if your usage should go down in the future, you’ll still be legally obligated to purchase all the electricity the system produces. You don’t want that to happen.

If you agree to their proposal, they will create plans and send them to you and also a set of blueprints to your town building department for approval. They handle all the bureaucratic paperwork. When it’s all cleared, they install solar panels on your roof. Leasing offers several big advantages. No money is ever required from you. You start saving on your electric bill right away. The company owns the panels and will always maintain them. They even carry insurance on them. If anything breaks they will fix it. It’s pretty worry free.


Good deal or bad deal?

The deal you get can vary greatly. In the past four months, one customer in our area was offered a system from Solar City where the electricity would cost the same as what’s charged by the local utility Central Hudson — around 16¢ per kilowatt. The 20-year contract also specified a 2.9 percent annual price increase. The selling point was that local electric utilities seem certain to raise future rates far more than that, so that the actual savings would commence and then increase in the years to come. Honestly, not a particularly good offer.

But another Solar City customer in our region, for the same installation, was offered a rate 20% below what Central Hudson charges, namely a mere 13¢ per kilowatt. And the contract specified that there would be no rate increases for the entire 20 year contract. Thus, in 10 years or 15 years when electric rates might well be double what they are today, this solar panel customer will enjoy huge economic benefits. And, again, with never any out of pocket costs.

So make sure you get their good deal and not their bad deal. The difference may have to do with who you talk to.

When figuring out what you currently pay with your local utility company, you’ll see all sorts of charges itemized, like fuel surcharge and so on. Just skip to the bottom line and divide by your kilowatt usage in that bill. For many in our region, it’s currently about 16 cents, although it varies from month to month depending on what the utility itself must pay for its power. With oil prices now so low, they may even be currently charging you less than 16 cents, but we all know that won’t last.

Your utility company also itemizes a service charge, which is about $25 a month for Central Hudson and NYSEG. This will not go away even when you generate your own power, whether leasing or buying. You still must pay this monthly fee. It’s fair enough, since your utility company must continue to maintain the lines and all the rest.




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