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A New Lease on Solar

For decades now, one very high hurdle has blocked the path to upgrading a home to solar: that huge upfront investment. It's this front end cost...

For decades now, one very high hurdle has blocked the path to upgrading a home to solar: that huge upfront investment. It's this front end cost that most solar-salivating greens cite when asked why they aren't yet capturing and converting the sun's rays.But that barrier has vanished for some lucky residents in a handful of Western states. Behold the SolarLease. Introduced back in April 2008 by California-based SolarCity, this lease program gives folks the option of rooftop solar without the hefty down payment, not to mention the headaches of installing, owning, and maintaining an array of panels."You rent the equipment and get the benefit of the electricity," says SolarCity's Jonathan Bass, but the company owns the panels themselves, handles the whole installation process, and takes care of any technical problems. The leases usually run for 15 years.
"It's best for customers who want a low upfront cost and want to see the savings immediately," says Bass. What kind of savings? The numbers vary considerably depending on a bunch of factors–average electricity bill, difficulty of installation, roof size, pitch and orientation, current utility rates–but most customers do see their monthly bills drop right away (see chart).I wanted to to see the saving in action for myself, but since SolarCity doesn't yet serve Brooklyn, I used my aunt and uncle's house in Flagstaff as a stand-in. The site has an easy to use calculator tool which took me all of two minutes to run through. "We've tried really hard to take the mystery out of it," says Bass.I plugged in the Flagstaff address and some basic facts about the house to the best of my memory, and tried on for size a couple of different monthly electric bill totals. The site spat out results: if Aunt Ginger and Uncle Wally currently shell out $150-a-month for their power, they'd save $24 every month. If their bill is $100 monthly, it'd drop to $84 by going solar. When I trimmed down their bill to $60/month, the lease broke even. This is typical, says Bass. "The greater the electricity use, the greater the savings, generally."What, though, if Flagstaff has a terribly cloudy March, or if the panels malfunction and the house has to pull more juice from the grid? Fortunately, SolarCity guarantees performance, so if the system doesn't produce as promised, Ginger and Wally would get a check at the end of the year to make up the difference. The guarantee also means if an Arizona windstorm sends a tree branch crashing into those panels, the company will work fast to take care of it. "Not only do we include repair in the contract," says Bass, "We're incentivized to come out and fix it as fast as we can, because if the system is down and not producing, we're responsible for that at the end of the year."Today, SolarCity serves California, Arizona, Colorado and Oregon, and they'll be opening up shop in a few more states this year (no word on who are the lucky ones). The SolarLease isn't for everyone, though, Bass urges. It doesn't make much financial sense as a "lease-to-own" program, so if you're intent on owning your system, it's best to do that upfront, says Bass. For the vast majority of the solar-curious, though, a $10,000-20,000 down payment stops them in their tracks. A no-down-payment lease that can actually lower energy bills, however, seems like a no-brainer. The future of residential solar is for rent.Photos courtesy of SolarCityThis post originally appeared on, as part of GOOD's collaboration with the Pepsi Refresh Project, a catalyst for world-changing ideas. Find out more about the Refresh campaign, or to submit your own idea today.

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