Cool Tools has an interesting suggestion for home owners who want to incorporate solar technology, but can't afford the steep investment costs: let the solar panel company finance it for you. The trade-off is you won't save as much money as you would if you paid for them outright, but you will save some money, and the company that's paying for the panels has a financial incentive to keep them working properly over the course of the agreement.
You sign up with a company that installs high-quality panels on your property for no money down. Zero dollars! On sunny days the panels make electrons which run your meter backwards. The quantity of panels are sized to cover about 80-90% of your current electric bill, so that you should be expected to pay the utility only 10-20% of what you pay now. In addition to the much smaller payment to your electric grid company you will also now pay the solar company a fee based on the number of watts you send into the grid. This is how they make money to cover the costs of installing the panels and their profit. The rates they will charge you per kilowatt will be less than the utility rates, so your total bill for electricity will be less each month. (Not zero, not half, but less.) Because the solar company makes money by how much electricity your panels produce they have a clear incentive to maintain the panels' performance and keep them clean and the inverters going. After 15-18 years, you own the panels and set up free and clear.
Kevin Kelly notes that by going the financing route, you're exchanging the bulk of the energy produced for free installation, which means the savings you'll see are real but not dramatic:
"While you may be generating 90% of your usage, because you are leasing the panels, your total combined bill will not be 90% less. It may only be 10% less per month. But since it costs you nothing or little up front, over 18 years that 10% adds up."
Visit his site for more information on how solar power purchasing agreements (Solar PPAs) work, and some links to companies that offer them. "Zero-Down Solar Panels" [Cool Tools]
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