Why buy a solar panel when you can lease it?

Dual solar panels on a house in Portland, Ore.

TEXT OF STORY

Bob Moon: The solar power industry is advancing rapidly in neighborhoods across the country. But it's not sales, necessarily. The fastest growing part of the business is in leasing solar panels to homeowners, instead of selling them. Solar lease companies expect to double their business this year.

From the Marketplace Sustainability Desk, Eve Troeh reports.


Eve Troeh: In the backyard of Mike Jones' suburban home in West Hills, Calif., you see citrus trees, a swing set, and:

Mike Jones: Twenty-two solar panels on the south side of our house.

They've been turned on about five months. When the sun's shining, Jones' utility meter sometimes points backwards.

Jones: Now, we're generating more than we're using.

But he can't sell that power to the grid because the system belongs to a company called Sungevity.

Jones: There's no way we could have afforded it without going through the lease method.

The panels would have cost about $14,000. With a lease, Sungevity hooked up the panels, maintains them, and owns the power. It cost Jones about $4,000 for a 20-year lease to use that solar power -- about 55 cents a day.

Jones: Unbelievable, really. It took me three or four days to get a hold of that. I did a whole lot of research, I though it might have been a scam.

But so far, he says it's a great deal. He's still hooked up to the grid, but the panels lower his power bill to a few dollars a month. Sungevity founder Danny Kennedy says his company aims to make residential solar ubiquitous. The Internet is a key factor. Homeowners enter their address at Sungevity.com. An engineer evaluates their roof online.

Danny Kennedy: So here you see your house, and where we'd put the panels.

Within 24 hours, potential customers get a price quote by email. No on-site evaluation needed.

Kennedy: We want to be the Amazon of solar, if you like, or the Netflix or the iTunes.

Phone reps seal the deal after customers get their online quote. And celebrate with maracas.

And some investors are getting the tax credits and rebates for that. Solar lease customers sign over any incentives to the leasing company's investors. That's how the companies attract capital. So much that Sungevity and other solar lease outfits are now expanding to the East Coast. Where even with less sun, they plan to make solar shine.

In Los Angeles, I'm Eve Troeh for Marketplace.

About the author

Eve Troeh is News Director at WWNO-FM in New Orleans, La., helping build the first public radio news department in the station’s 40-year history. She reported for the Marketplace Sustainability Desk from 2010 to 2013.

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