Solar Power Is Now an Option for Even the Most Cash-Strapped Suburbanites

Say hello to the thing that could save our sun-splashed suburban lifestyle: affordable residential solar power that puts roof-top solar panels within reach of the most cash-strapped America consumer. This breakthrough is not a result of technological innovation, but a new financing scheme cooked up on Wall Street called a "residential solar lease," a no-money-down, low-monthly plan that has made solar electricity cheaper than the stuff we get by wire. It's an old approach to a new source of energy, and it is taking California by storm.

"Go solar for $0 down. Now you can afford to go solar without the high initial cost of installing a system. Instead of buying the equipment, you simply lease it,"  boasts the Web site of SolarCity, a well-financed Silicon Valley start-up that has been pioneering the residential solar lease.

A solar lease is a fairly simple arrangement that is not unlike a car lease. Instead of dishing out tens of thousands of dollars upfront to buy and install a rooftop solar array, homeowners simply borrow one for a low monthly fee. Like a car lease, customers sign a contract that locks them in for a specified period of time with the option of extending their lease or buying the panels at the end of the contract. It makes sense when you consider that a typical homeowner would have to cough up between $20,000 and $50,000 to buy and install a solar panel system. A solar lease, on the other hand, would only cost them somewhere around $100 a month.

California, the world's third-largest solar-power market, saw twice as many people file for solar power permits in 2009 than in 2008, with much of the surge in demand being driven by this newfangled solar product. (Demand is so high that a black market for stolen solar panels has sprung up in the Golden State.)

SolarCity, one of the first companies to aggressively market solar leases, signs people up for 15-year contracts that run an average of $110 a month (with a 3.5-percent increase every year). SolarCity says customers can typically expect to shave 15 percent off their electricity bill from day one, with savings potentially growing over time if energy costs continue to rise. Competing companies -- like SunRun out of San Francisco or American Solar Electric out of Scottsdale -- offer the same basic deals.

A $100 electricity bill is a steal for California, a state that takes fifth place for highest electricity rates in the country, especially for the millions of people who inhabit the southern, sun-baked reaches of the state.

“My bill goes over $200 during summer when we keep the central AC going twelve hours day,” explained Paul Bosacki, who sits on the city council of Hesperia, a rustic, sprawling exurb on the edge of the Mojave Desert 90 miles east of Los Angeles. Bosacki was the first -- and so far the only -- person to sign up for SolarCity’s lease program in his town, but he won’t be alone for long. Because now he pays $89 a month and gets all the juice his household needs, while saving $21 dollars off his average electricity bill. 

We walk around to Bosacki's backyard, where a single Joshua tree keeps watch over a jacuzzi and a panoramic view of the Mojave Desert, and he gives me a tour of his solar system: a slim grid of black panels on the roof and a box that converts its electricity to proper voltage. Bosacki might have to spend a couple of bucks a month on additional electricity from his local utility in the summer, but in the few months he’s had the system, he’s been well in the clear. “I turned it on in September and haven’t gotten a bill since," he says, adding that he would never be able to afford the $40,000 his solar setup retails for without the solar lease. 

Not only do homeowners like Bosacki save money with solar, but they stand to make some, too. The beautiful thing about the technology is that it allows you to feed all your surplus electricity -- like when you're on vacation, at work or taking a nap -- into the grid. The only downside is that, until 2010, local utilities in California paid customers in electricity credits rather than in real money. But a new law will now force them to pay in real money, as in cold hard checks they'll soon start getting in their mailboxes. Called Consumer Net Metering, this new regulation finally does an end-run around an insane California law that only allowed utility companies to sell electricity; a restriction that had been putting a serious damper on small and alternative solar projects. Now even the small-time homeowner could actually make an honest buck on the energy market. Welcome to the cheap new world of debt-financed green energy. 

"We've been selling like crazy down here because of the lease program," a SolarCity rep told the Orange County Register, explaining that the company had not been able to meet demand in Southern California, which has been so high it outstripped SolarCity’s meager financing ability. In April 2009, 3,000 people signed up, biding their time until SolarCity lined up more investors to fund the installations -- a wait the company predicted could take a year to clear. Other solar lease companies are seeing similar growth.

"Falling prices, rising utility rates and new government incentives may finally be driving serious growth in the region's market for residential solar power," wrote the Sacramento Bee in September 2009, when applications for solar panel installations suddenly quadrupled in the Sacramento region.

Even in this harsh credit freeze climate, investors seem to be rushing in to fill the need. While loans to American businesses have dropped by 17 percent compared with last year, solar leasing companies have taken in hundreds of million of dollars in new funding. SunRun received $105 million in financing from U.S. Bankcorp earlier last year and another $90 million in December. The bank also doubled SolarCity's funding to $100 million. National Bank of Arizona gave SolarCity $5 million for solar leases in Arizona. Morgan Stanley, J.P. Morgan and Goldman Sachs all have been in the solar lease game from the beginning, in large part because they have been able to rig the financing and government subsidy structure in a way that guarantees profits, allowing them to easily recoup their investments through complicated tax credit and green energy derivatives schemes -- all of if risk free.

California goes the extra mile, providing the largest solar subsidies of any state ($2.2 billion has been made available through 2016). Investors can expect to be credited 80 percent of their products’ retail cost, meaning that financiers like Goldman Sachs are able to turn an instant profit for their investors on every solar panel array -- before customers even pay their first solar lease bill. The handouts have been so good, in fact, that investors are constantly demanding bigger profits.

"Investors historically expect seven percent to eight percent, which includes the tax benefits and a slice of profit during the life of the fund," wrote Green Tech Media about the amazing profits being squeezed out of the residential solar market. "Now they want ten percent or more." 

Solar start-ups are popping up to compete for customers and the billions of dollars of federal and state subsidies for solar and renewable energy. Some companies are pioneering do-it-yourself solar kits you'll be able to buy at Home Depot, while others are working to integrate solar panel technology into building materials like roof shingles and siding.

Looking through slick Web sites and optimistic sales pitches, yet with nothing real to sell, is reminiscent of the dot-com bubble. It seems like solar hype is about the only thing for sale, and a sign that America's solar energy market is probably entering the same dangerous bubble-burst territory Spain found itself in last year, when the government heated up the solar market with with $1 billion in subsidies and then crashed the party when it ran out of money and was forced to suddenly cut funding, causing a world-wide solar recession and a glut in solar panel parts that persists even today.

But bubble or not, there are huge ramifications from this full-on race to develop affordable, ubiquitous residential solar technology.

Peak oil theories have been gaining strength ever since the real estate market collapse turned vast stretches of sub-prime suburbs into vast stretches of ghost sprawl, giving us a scary glimpse into our post-oil future. Its preachers have been pounding the empty oil drum, warning the masses about our helpless dependence on cheap oil and how a shortage would reduce us to pathetic hunter gatherers -- all the while urging people to stock up on dry astronaut food and how-to farming guides for urbanites through their online stores.

"[T]he truth is that no combination of solar, wind and nuclear power, ethanol, biodiesel, tar sands and used French-fry oil will allow us to power Wal-Mart, Disney World and the interstate highway system -- or even a fraction of these things -- in the future," James Howard Kunstler, the populist apostle of peak oil for this generation and failed Y2K theorist, prophesied in a Washington Post op-ed titled "Wake Up, America. We're Driving Toward Disaster." Even the New York Times has joined the scare fest with stuff like this: "Suddenly, the economics of American suburban life, idealized around the world, are under assault as skyrocketing energy prices inflate the costs of reaching, heating and cooling homes on the distant edges of metropolitan area." 

Standing in Paul Bosacki’s backyard, on the edge of Southern California’s suburban sprawl, it is hard not to agree with the suburban doomsayers. With a panoramic view of the Mojave Desert, you can see the sub-prime suburbs creeping deeper into the open desert. This is one of the most arid, inhospitable places in America, yet it is also one of the fastest-growing, swelling to a population of almost 400,000 over the past few decades, then booming higher and crashing harder than most other regions in the country. Looking at this failed McTractHome paradise and left-behind carnage -- half-built master-planned communities and a sea of vacant homes with dead lawns dry and rotting in the heat -- it seems there is no way it can survive, not with its four-hour daily commute to Los Angeles and summer air-conditioning bills that can feel more like mortgage payments.

But affordable roof-top solar has the power to nip a suburban energy freakout in the bud. Not only can it power the most outlandish McMansion palaces out in the hottest reaches of the American West, but it can also power the cars that get people there and back. 

“You’ll be able to plug in electric vehicles into these things to charge them off your own panels,” says Bosacki, intuitively picking up on the possibilities that residential solar power have opened up for suburbia. “One day, we’ll be probably be able to lower energy costs for cars to zero. That’s one of the unintended benefits of these things.”

That is exactly the future that SolarCity seems to be angling for. The company was created in part by Elon Musk, a Silicon Valley millionaire and the man behind Tesla Motors, the experimental electric car company that recently rolled out its first model: the souped-up, $100,000 base price sports car called the Tesla Roadster that does 0-60 mph in 3.7 seconds. The San Francisco Business Times wrote about Musk:

At 37 years old -- and with a net worth estimated at more than $300 million from past endeavors like PayPal -- Musk is making contributions to clean energy that may become his legacy. Tesla was the first company to produce an electric car that gets more than 200 miles per charge, and SolarCity is one of the largest installers of solar panels in the country. SolarCity was also the first company to market solar-power systems with no down payments that could save customers money from day one.

Rumor has it Tesla is working to unveil a mass market all-electric sedan sometime after 2012, with SolarCity playing a part. SolarCity already offers charging stations as a deluxe option for its residential solar power systems; the company equipped over 2,500 electric vehicle charging stations so far and recently installed five experimental Tesla charging stations along Highway 101 from San Francisco to Los Angeles. It’s all part of a bigger strategy to provide the foundation for cheap, readily accessible solar electricity, and a ray of hope as far as our suburban lifestyle is concerned.

The fact that the biggest suburban growth has been taking place in the sunniest spots in the United States -- California, Florida, Nevada, Arizona -- means that these sweltering locales will become even more popular with solar power. After all, who can say no to trading up to a larger home and reducing energy bills at the same time? And that just might make solar the thing that will sucker us into the next reckless speculative real estate boom. Amen to that.


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