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Firms seek to make solar power more affordable

April 03, 2008|Elizabeth Douglass | Times Staff Writer

Turning the sun's rays into energy is an expensive endeavor, so solar companies are cooking up financial products that lower the upfront costs for homeowners and businesses.

Foster City, Calif.-based SolarCity is the latest to jump in, launching a lease program Wednesday that would slash the initial outlay for residential customers to as little as 10% of the total installation cost.

"One of the most common reasons that people are unable to go solar is because of the high upfront cost," said Chief Operating Officer Peter Rive, who founded SolarCity with his brother, Lyndon, the company's chief executive. "We're hoping that it revolutionizes the way people purchase electricity."

Rive said an average four-bedroom home would need a 4-kilowatt solar-electric system, which could cost about $25,000 for equipment and installation. That investment pays off financially, but it's a long wait.

"The payback time is long enough that you're effectively going to invest the money into your house and not expect to get it out for a while," said V. John White, executive director of the Sacramento-based Center for Energy Efficiency and Renewable Technologies. Leasing arrangements like the one offered by SolarCity, he added, "allow people to add solar without as much money upfront, which makes it less of a rich man's game."

Under SolarCity's plan, the customer's only ongoing cost is the monthly lease payment. The homeowner gets the use of the solar power generated by the rooftop system and gets the bill credits when there is excess power that can be fed back into the power grid.

Companies such as Sun Run, SunPower Corp. and SunEdison take another route. They pay the equipment and installation costs, then sell the power at variable prices to the customer through a power purchase agreement.

SolarCity doesn't make the photovoltaic panels, but it specializes in designing and installing systems tailored to each site's needs. The panels are typically installed on rooftops, but they also can be set up on the ground.

Under the lease program, offered in California and soon in Arizona and Oregon, SolarCity would design and install a homeowner's solar-electric system, keeping ownership of the equipment and paying for maintenance and replacement parts.

SolarCity, with backing from Morgan Stanley, offers homeowners several lease options. A homeowner installing a 4-kilowatt solar system could opt for a low initial payment of $2,125, plus monthly payments of $200 for 15 years, the company said.

Homeowners focused on keeping monthly payments low could choose to pay $4,600 upfront, then pay $175 a month for 15 years. A seven-year lease would cost $6,650 down, then $215 a month. Customers who move can either transfer the lease or buy it out.

The switch generally pays off for homeowners who use enough electricity to push them into more expensive rate tiers, yielding monthly electric bills above $200, according to SolarCity. That benchmark could get easier to hit in the coming years, because all of the state's largest utilities have instituted or are pushing for large rate hikes.

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elizabeth.douglass @latimes.com

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