By Walter Mugdan

 May 2013

Residential solar electric energy has come of age.  Now, when the advertisement says, “No money down, EVER,” it’s not a scam.

In the past, if you wanted solar panels you paid an installer up front – thousands, even tens of thousands of dollars.  Then you applied to the government for various tax incentives, which would eventually defray part of your initial outlay.  Your electric bill would be reduced by the amount of solar energy you produced, so eventually you’d recoup all of your initial investment and thereafter enjoy the “profit” from a perpetually lower electric bill.  Typically, the payback time was 5-7 years.

If you could afford the initial outlay, and you expected to stay in your house beyond the payback period, this approach was OK.  But most homeowners weren’t going for it, so private residential solar wasn’t gaining much of a toehold.

Then came a new business model: a solar company leases your roof, puts up the solar panels, and maintains them at its own expense.  You literally pay no many down.

Here’s how  the program works.  You request an initial price quote over the internet from one or more of the many solar installers operating in our area.  You provide some basic information, including your current electricity usage.  The solar company looks at aerial images of your home to see how your house is configured.

(By the way, The New York City Solar Maphttp://nycsolarmap.com/  — is a simple internet tool that all New Yorkers can use to learn about the potential for solar on their buildings anywhere throughout the City.  It will quickly dispel any lingering notions that solar is just for homes down south in the Sunbelt.)

If things look favorable, you’ll get an initial estimate from the companies you contacted.  Next they will inspect to confirm the exact roof angle, orientation and shading.  That allows them to calculate the amount of sunshine your roof will receive in an average year so they can give you a firm offer.

And here’s how the offer works.  As the ad says, you’ll pay no money down.  You’ll be asked to sign a contract leasing your roof to the solar company for 20 years. The company will install the panels and be responsible for their maintenance.  The company will also apply for all necessary permits, insurance and tax benefits.

The electricity made by the panels is fed back into the grid, so your meter effectively runs backwards.  Your monthly utility bill is reduced by the amount of kilowatts made by the solar panels.

During the 20-year lease period you’ll pay the solar company a fixed amount every month.  The solar company guarantees that your annual utility bill will be reduced by a specified minimum number of kilowatts.  The combined total of what you pay the solar company, plus what you continue to pay your electric utility, will be a lot less than what you currently pay the utility.

This really is a win-win situation.  You save money every month, and you dramatically reduce your carbon footprint and help save the planet.  Not bad for no money down.