Hippie Adventure: Going Solar


solar house

You guys! I’m totally stoked to tell you that we’re getting solar panels installed on our house!

I’ve been wanting to do this forever, but it’s one of those things I didn’t spend too much time investigating because I figured it’s expensive. It is expensive — really expensive — to buy solar panels. But nobody buys solar panels any more. (Well, super-rich people probably do, but normal people like us sure don’t.) I’d heard about solar leases before but was kind of suspicious of them. Now that I know who’s who and what’s what, I think solar leases are pretty much the greatest thing of all time and I can’t imagine why you wouldn’t do it if you can.

Here’s my quick and dirty understanding of solar leases — keep in mind I’m no expert and this is just my experience.

With a solar lease, you can pay absolutely nothing up front. In the alternative, you can make a payment (of, say, $500 to $2,000), which will lock in your rate over the course of the lease. If you don’t lock in your rate, it’ll increase every year, although the increase will be less than the usual annual increase your utility company charges — for example, your utility company might have a 5% rate increase every year, but your solar company might increase your rate by 3% (unless, of course, you’ve paid a bit up front to lock in the rate, in which case it never changes). The other trick is that if you pay a small amount up front, your monthly solar bill might actually be slightly higher than it would be if you put no money down, but as years go by, you’ll end up paying less than you would’ve with no money down. Does that make sense?

The solar people design your system and then have engineer types come to your house to check everything out and do a final plan. (We’re also getting a home energy audit at the same time, but I don’t know if that’s standard. It’s going to be a bummer to hear about how our house has no insulation, but the good news is they prioritize things you can do to increase your house’s energy efficiency, which is pretty cool.) Then they install the solar panels on your house, someone comes and inspects it, and then the electric company comes out and does something to your electric meter, and yay you have solar power! The process takes a while, maybe two months or more — apparently there’s a lot of waiting for the electric company to do its thing.

We can get solar panels only on one part of our roof (facing south). We could squeeze some on the west side of our roof, but the neighbors have a tree that shades it so it wouldn’t be worth it. So, due to limited roof space and how many solar panels can fit, our system won’t make enough electricity for us to be 100% solar, so we’ll still be using Xcel electricity. I think this is pretty common and I’ve read that it’s usually the most cost-efficient to not go 100% solar, but I’m not sure about that. So the bad news is that we’ll have two bills (solar and Xcel) instead of one. But the good news is that we’ll be paying a little less each month than we do now and we’ll be benefiting the environment by using less electricity from coal (or natural gas, which apparently Xcel is switching to soon).

What else? The lease is for 20 years — so another thing to consider is your roof, which should typically last for 30 years (you don’t want to install solar panels on a 25-year-old roof). If you sell your house before then, you can transfer the lease to the new owner. My guess is that this would be a plus for selling your house, but it would eliminate potential buyers who don’t want solar (which is fine because those guys are nuts). You might have a hard time if your roof is flat. You save money over the course of the lease because even if you put no money down, your rates solar rates will increase less than what your utility company charges. The solar company maintains the solar panels, insures your roof against damage, and ours even has an app where you can see how much energy your solar panels are producing (they’re pinged every 15 minutes). If the system makes less than they say it will, you get money back. If you make more power than you need, it’s banked and you can use it later, when you need it. At the end of the lease, you can buy the system, extend for 5 years, or have it taken down (which I imagine you’d want to do because by then there will be new technology).

Solar leases work because the leasing companies make money by getting all the rebates and incentives you get for going solar. So if you’re rich and you buy solar panels and have them installed on your house (the system we’re getting was quoted at $26,000 if we were going to purchase it), you get a bunch of rebates and incentives from the electric company and the government. When you have a solar lease, the leasing company gets all those incentives. That’s how they make money. It’s nice to know that, because otherwise I was kind of WTF how do these people make money installing expensive-ass equipment on your house and charging you less every month than the electric company charges. Rebates and incentives, that’s how.

Colorado, which is very sunny, is ideal for solar. Yay!!

Anyway, that’s all I know for now. I’ll report back when something happens. I’m super excited about going solar!