Why consider solar?
The potential advantages of solar energy are well known, but the reality has so far fallen well short of the rosy scenarios painted by some of its proponents. The reasons for this are numerous and varied, but most can be summarized in a single statement: the solar marketplace has not come close to achieving the economies of scale enjoyed by traditional fossil-fuel based energy solutions.
Homebuilders seldom offer solar options to buyers. Government programs sometimes offer tax incentives for solar installs, but those amount to a small fraction of the dollars dedicated to federal and state tax breaks and investments in fossil fuels. Electric utilities that express interest in adding significant solar capacity are faced with zoning issues, legal challenges, and well-funded lobhying efforts - not to mention they've still got to send that energy out over an aging, inefficient power grid. Even neighborhood deed restrictions sometimes forbid home solar panels.
The best hope for using solar power to reduce our dependence on the grid, our fossil fuel consumption, and our carbon footprint is the widespread adoption of small, local installations - a panel on every roof. There's a problem, though: solar panels for your home cost too much. There's a high cost of entry, and even the most efficient solar installations can take years to pay for themselves.
A company called SolarCity has developed a new business model which, if successful, could bring drastic changes to the solar market. Taking advantage of the fact that solar installations do pay for themselves over time, SolarCity has begun a program that allows homeowners to have systems built for free!
The way the SolarLease program works is that once your home is equipped with a solar system, you pay a monthly lease payment on the equipment. The idea is that while you're still making a monthly payment, you have little to no up-front costs to recoup and you immediately realize a net monthly savings: the reduction of your monthly fossil-fuel power bill outweighs your SolarCity payments. With fossil fuel costs rising 3-5% per year, SolarCity says you'll realize even more savings over time.
Some other companies are akready starting to take this business model seriously. A firm called SunRun in San Francisco offers a simliar program, but instead of a lease, they charge (below fossil-fuel market rate) for the power you use. SunEdison, a Maryland company formerly specializing in commerical solar services, has also begun offering home installs on a lease basis in a number of states.
If plans like these can live up to their cost promises and deliver reliable service, they could go a long way toward widespread adoption of this technology, and that's good for all of us.
Some local governments are getting into this act. Berkeley, California, for example, uses municipal bonds to raise funds to loan homeowners the entire cost of a solar install. The cost is repaid over twenty years as part of the owner's property taxes, but the net effect is the same as with the commercial programs discussed above: the homeowner sees an immediate reduction in utility costs that amounts to more than the extra cost of the system.
Given the current anti-government, anti-alternative-energy, anti-spending political climate, getting such a program started in your own area might be an uphill battle; but the positive news is that ten states have passed laws explicitly allowing cities to set up such bond-based solar programs.
A Bright Future for Solar?
Great technology by itself is not a guarantee of success. That technology needs to be accessible and widely adopted to truly make an impact. Could it be that through these new financial options, we're on the verge of finally feeling a little of that impact from the solar energy market?