Friday, April 19, 2013

Eye on the Environment: Leases, Rebates, Group Purchasing Help Homeowners Go Solar

Sometimes being "environmental" has the connotation of giving up something or doing without. With solar, however, the only thing to give up is high electricity bills.

In the past 18 months, the reality of solar electricity has changed, costs have come down and homeowners can save money immediately on their electricity bills.

More than 125,000 Californians have found solar energy to be an affordable and reliable alternative, and they are regularly generating 1.3 megawatts of power. That's the same capacity as a Diablo Canyon nuclear reactor operating at full capacity.

Other than dramatic declines in the price of solar panels, the biggest shift in the residential solar sector over the past couple years is the availability of solar leases and power purchase agreements. While there are some technical differences, both types of agreements allow a third party to own the solar electrical system, charging the homeowner less for solar electricity than the utility was charging.

There are two things to keep in mind with a third party-owned system. First, these types of agreements make the most economic sense for people spending more than $100 per month on electricity. This is because the more power a homeowner uses, the more they pay per unit of electricity. Solar power makes the most economic sense when used to offset usage in the top three tiers of electricity rates.

Second, some of these agreements will include a set price increase per year. While not necessarily a bad thing, it can mean substantial cost increases over the 20-year contract and make savings more difficult to determine. Often, a down payment of $1,000 to $2,000 can significantly reduce both the per-unit cost for electricity and the rate increases.

Without solar, homeowners can expect the price of electricity to rise about 5 percent per year, if future trends match historical increases from Southern California Edison.

The state also is helping to bring down the cost of solar through the California Solar Initiative, a rebate program in its fifth year. Southern California Edison customers are currently eligible for a rebate of 35 cents per installed watt. For an average 4-kilowatt system, that equals $1,400.

Unfortunately, the rebate is expected to drop in the next month to 25 cents — a decrease of $400 on the same system but still enough to make a difference.

Another exciting trend in solar is a move toward community-based group purchasing. By combining purchase power, homeowners can decrease costs and increase accountability. The Ojai Valley Green Coalition is teaming with the fellow nonprofit group Community Environmental Council to coordinate a program called Solarize Ojai.

Solarize Ojai is a limited time, group purchasing program that runs through Dec. 7. Participants must live in the Ojai Valley, including Ojai, Mira Monte, Meiners Oaks, Oak View and surrounding unincorporated areas, and own a home suitable for solar electricity. The contractors working in partnership with this initiative are REC Solar and California Solar Electric.

The coalition and council will host an introductory workshop where homeowners can learn about energy efficiency, conservation and solar at 7 p.m. Nov. 1 in the Chaparral Auditorium, 414 E. Ojai Ave. Homeowners can also learn more about the program at, and groups in other parts of the county interested in forming a consortium can contact the Community Environmental Council at

With decreasing prices and increasing options, solar electricity is allowing everyone to keep an eye on the environment.


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