The story goes like this: Homeowner A calls Solar Contractor B. Gets an analysis, sleeps on it, applies for this or that rebate, tax credit or municipal loan and goes solar. In a sentence full of operatives, you might not notice that powerful and exclusive word hitting lead-off: homeowner. Solar power is very much about getting solar panels on to more and more rooftops, but it’s not only homeowners who can take solar energy and funnel it into a light bulb.
Most anyone can get “radically” sustainable with home solar power these days. If you live in any one of the 29 states with mandatory renewable electricity standards (RES), a number of avenues are already mapped for you on the road to home solar power.
Utilities need renewable energy and they need it now — a fact that’s pushed many to come up with innovative ways to get their customers to purchase renewable energy.
Options are out there for everyone. Check out yours below.
If you’ve got the cash, the rooftop is your oyster. Unfortunately for most of us, solar power is still quite an expensive investment despite falling costs. So the federal government, states, utilities, cities and counties have set incentives in place to promote the widespread use of home solar power. Financing options are abundant:
Some are simple loans, similar to what you’d get buying a new car, and are available from states, utilities, solar installers and private firms. But in a constricted economy, that’s often not enough. Even if loans are available, $20,000 to $30,000 in debt is too daunting, so a good discount or diversion is a welcome addition to the equation.
Programs with No Up-Front Costs
Most radical of late is a program first conceived and implemented in Berkeley, California. Known locally as FIRST and nationally as PACE (Property Assessed Clean Energy), the idea is to offer municipal bonds for home solar power systems that leave the homeowner paying little or no up-front costs. Instead, those initial costs are carried by the city or county and paid back through a voluntary increase in property taxes. The real ingenious part is that the cost of the solar power system is tied to the property and not the owner, reducing risk for all parties involved and giving birth to a wave of solar rooftop opportunities. Berkeley’s pilot program sold out in under 10 minutes, and a host of other cities are adopting the idea led by the national PACE guidelines.
Group Buying for Cheaper Rates
Group buying is another burgeoning grassroots solar discount option. Around the country, neighbors and communities are getting together to save money on solar power. It’s the same principle that makes buying cereal from the grocery store out of a bin cheaper than out of a box; the more you buy at once, the lower cost per unit. Group buying in solar power enables homeowners and neighborhood organizations to bargain collectively for cheaper solar rates.
Savings can be very substantial and all parties benefit, from the money-saving homeowner to the installer who gets to install, say, 20 systems within a few square blocks. One Block Off the Grid (1BOG), SolarCity and a handful of other companies and nonprofits are leading the way in community solar power.
Solar Leasing Options
SolarCity also offers solar leasing options that essentially allow homeowners to “rent” solar panels, contribute to a better environment and save a decent percentage on their utility bills.
As new and improved as home solar financing options are, the truly radical and innovative steps toward distributed solar power involve the other side of residential power consumption: renters. Going solar is usually tough for renters. There’s no control over the property and usually no permanence to the living situation.
Yet renters occupy a high percentage of homes in many cities, especially college towns, where youth are at the front of the green movement but lack the means to take major steps, like installing solar power.
Cities like Santa Cruz, California, however, are working to motivate renters and landlords to go solar. It may sound like a tough job, considering that renters usually pay the electric bill and landlords are rarely present, but plans are in the works and we’ll see what blows out of that brainstorm.
Solar Shares & Renewable Energy Offsets
More readily available are options like solar shares or renewable energy offsets from the utility company. I myself am a renter and 100 percent of my household electricity is renewable, with no solar panels, wind turbines or geothermal heat pumps to speak of. And checking a box was all it took to make it happen.
Now, living in Portland, Oregon, the majority of that renewable power comes from wind out of the Columbia River Gorge, but solar power is increasingly available here, there and everywhere in the United States. Utility-scale solar power is not without its obstacles, but it is growing, and utilities are offering that power to customers at a typically reasonable monthly fee, usually less than $10 per month (based on personal experience).
Community Solar Arrays
In some cases, utilities build municipal solar arrays and sell “shares” of the resulting solar power to renters or homeowners without the means for their own solar system. Such community solar arrays are popping up in Sacramento, Tucson, and elsewhere. As of now, they’re more about serving the environment than saving money.
In fact, that’s what being a “solar renter” is all about, and perhaps what makes it the most radically sustainable part of the solar industry. These days, economics dominate the discussion about solar and renewable energy. The debate is very heated as to whether solar can ever be as cheap as coal or natural gas. Yet the truly pressing need is to curb climate change, and the more renters that buy shares of solar power, the more arrays utilities will build and the bigger dent we’ll make in solving climate change.
There are a plethora of ways to get radical about sustainability, from eating and volunteering locally to composting to recycling and everything in between, but know that it can be as easy as checking a box and spending a movie ticket’s worth of extra cash each month. Check your local listings.
This post is our contribution to sustainablog’s Pedal-a-Watt Powered Blogathon this weekend. The long-running green blog (and new green shopping site) is publishing for 24 hours straight to raise funds for the Dancing Rabbit Ecovillage in Northeastern Missouri. Go join the fun: read post contributions from around the green blogosphere, leave a comment to be entered in a drawing for some great green prizes, and join in the Tweetchat at #susbppb or Taylen’s Home Solar Twitter.