By Jake Abbott, Appeal Democrat
As more solar companies sprout up around Yuba-Sutter, customers looking to go green are faced with the decision of which plan is best for them — buy, loan, lease, or rent.
Having different options and plans to choose from makes some potential customers skeptical of what constitutes a good deal versus a bad deal. But representatives from local solar companies and customers said there are no bad deals in solar, only bad decisions.
"It all depends on the energy you need to produce," said Jenny Zimmerman, director of marketing for Alternative Energy Systems.
Mark Schaeffer, co-owner and CEO of Westhaven Solar, said the average house in the Yuba-Sutter area requires a 7.8-kilowatt solar system. The company determines a customer's need by referencing usage rates over the past 24 months.
Brad Heavner, policy director for the California Solar Energy Industries Association, said people looking into solar equipment should understand what the different companies in their area provide before choosing a solar plan.
"Get three bids," Heavner said. "There are plenty of options out there. It's a matter of preference."
Companies vary in regard to the options and plans they provide.
Renting is done much like other utility providers in that a power purchase agreement is signed by the homeowner. The agreement is for 20 years and states the homeowner buys power directly from the solar company, while the provider installs and maintains the equipment.
Another option is leasing the equipment through the solar company. This option locks a customer into a flat monthly payment for a set amount of time, and the company is responsible for any maintenance requirements during the time period.
"If you don't have the money up front and don't want to borrow against the house, a lease or a PPA are both good options," Heavner said.
Customers also have the option of taking out a loan through the solar company with the promise of paying back the amount over time.
When it comes to purchasing solar equipment, customers who have the cash up front can buy the system outright. Schaeffer said the price of systems can range between $20,000-$50,000 depending on the quality and number of panels.
The latter two options allow the owner to receive what is called the solar investment tax credit.
"With the cash or finance options, you can get a 30 percent tax credit from the government," Schaeffer said.
Heavner said the tax credit was scheduled to expire at the end of 2016 but was renewed within the past year, extending it through the end of 2019.
What users are saying
Dave Rosenberg, owner of Artistic Window Tinting in Yuba City, runs his business out of his house. Solar panels were an investment he decided to make on the advice of his father. He had been solicited years before by a solar company, but the equipment was much less affordable.
He is leasing his panels through Westhaven Solar through a 20-year agreement.
"It all made sense: the timing of it, the investment, how many gas appliances we use," Rosenberg said. "They say in seven years it should pay for itself. If that is the case, another seven years I could potentially make my money back."
Rosenberg said he made the decision because he knew he would be at the same location for the duration of the agreement. If he had any inclination that he might have relocated to a different home, he would not have invested in the panels at that time.
He said he was happy with his choice to transition to solar and hasn't had any problems thus far.
"I definitely think it is worth it," Rosenberg said. "It's good for my business. As far as technology goes, I think it's smart to lease it."
One concern for homeowners looking into solar equipment has been the impact it will have if they choose to sell the house.
Sarah Norris, co-owner and CEO of sales for Sutter Buttes Real Estate, has sold homes that use solar, with both leased and owned equipment.
"Buyers are becoming more familiar with solar, so it's not as hard to sell to them because they understand the benefits," Norris said.
Norris also leases solar equipment through SolarCity at her own home. She said she chose to lease because the warranty covers maintenance on the panels throughout the agreement period.
"I have two properties, which includes a guest house, so I chose two different options," Norris said. "We were on Tier Four at the time with PG&E. So we chose a flat fee for 20 years, which was 18 cents per kilowatt. The side house consumes very little electricity, so we chose a 15 cent flat fee. Already, PG&E has increased its kilowatt charge, so I'm actually saving now."
She said people's decisions to choose a certain company often comes by word of mouth, much like real estate. If representatives of a company — the door knockers — build up a good reputation in a certain area, other community members are more likely to work with the company.
Norris is also pleased with her decision to lease from SolarCity. She said the company is the best fit for her because it doesn't put a lien on the property.
Where solar companies and PG&E come together
Solar panels collect energy and store it into the power grid through a process called net metering. When solar users need electricity, they pull stored energy back out of the grid.
Zimmerman said her company has a number of experts who work with PG&E to help with discrepancies on a customer's bill. They are there to help customers understand and address any complications that might arise.
Paul Moreno, senior external communications representative for PG&E, said customers get credit for excess power generation.
He said power generated during peak or partial-peak hours builds up more energy that can be leveraged or drawn from at nighttime. These numbers are also dependent on where a customer lives, the climate, rates due and tier adjustments by season.
At the end of every year, a true-up statement is sent to solar customers that assesses a year's worth of usage and power generation.
"If you do produce more than you use, there is a credit, or a payback depending on how much you use from the grid," Moreno said. "There are tools online to help you find what you need."
PG&E is not foreign to solar power. It provides the solar choice plan to customers who can't install the equipment on their own but want to use solar power. The company has large solar farms that provide electricity to the grid that costumers on the plan can pull from.
"PG&E has more solar customers than any other company," Moreno said. "We have for years."