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n recent years, solar energy has become an increasingly popular choice for homeowners who want to save money on their utility bills while also reducing their carbon footprint. As a result, many companies have emerged offering no cost solar panels, touting the idea of "going solar for free." However, this claim can be misleading, and it's essential to understand the true costs and outcomes of such offers before making any decisions. In this article, we'll explore the reality behind free solar power and what you need to know before considering this option.

Are free solar panels really free?

Deciphering the message of  "free solar panels"

Have you ever come across advertisements for “free home solar panels” or a “no cost solar program” offered by companies? Many homeowners have. For instance, some have received a barrage of ads from the Clean Energy Association (cleanenergyassociation.org) promising to install photovoltaic modules on their houses without any upfront fee. Well, let’s clear the air right now – these “free” solar modules come with strings attached.

In reality, what these companies are really providing through their "solar for free" solutions is a solar lease or power purchase agreement (PPA). They install the system on your roof and cover all enrollment, installation and maintenance costs for a specific period, typically 25 years. After the installation, you can certainly boast about your environmentally-friendly dwelling powered by green energy. However, the catch is that technically, you don’t own the system, and these agreements don’t actually allow you to go solar for free. You’ll be billed for the electricity you consume or a monthly lease fee.

Can a "free" PV system cut your energy costs?

Although a "no cost solar program" may sound suspicious, it is not always a scam. Solar leases and PPAs can still make sense financially and substantially lower your electricity expenses. When you choose a lease, for instance, you make a monthly payment and have a PV array set up on your roof, which could help you save anywhere from 10% to 30% on your electricity bill. Although not as beneficial as an outright purchase, a "no cost solar program" may be a practical choice for some people.

The hidden expenses of “free” solar

Although the idea of getting solar panels for sale is alluring, it is essential to consider the hidden costs before committing to a lease or PPA. The company will install the modules on your roof without an initial payment, but you will need to cover the costs of a monthly rental fee or the electricity output of the PV system. Moreover, if you sign a contract with a solar company, you won't be able to take advantage of any federal or local solar incentives or programs. Additionally, if your system generates more energy than your household needs, any financial benefits will go to the company and not to you.

Before signing a contract, it's crucial to fully comprehend all the terms and conditions. Some companies may use low-quality materials that may result in less efficient energy conversion, causing you to miss out on potential electricity savings. Also, it's wise to consider whether you intend to sell your place while the agreement is still active. Future buyers may be hesitant to take it over, which could make selling your property a challenging feat.

Overview of solar financing options

Let's get started on exploring solar financing opportunities to choose the one that's perfect for your budget and needs.

Cash purchase

Advantages of purchasing PV modules outright

While financing through a lease or PPA might seem like an attractive option for those who don't have a lump sum of money saved up, there are several advantages to purchasing PV modules outright.

Firstly, buying solar panels gives you complete control over them and the energy they produce. You do not have to worry about paying interest on loans or signing long-term contracts with leasing companies, which can be expensive and time-consuming. Furthermore, owning your system can be a significant asset when it comes to selling your property, as many buyers are now looking for properties that have installed PV panels to reduce their energy bills.

Secondly, cash purchases for solar PV are much more affordable in the long run. With just one payment, you'll start saving on your monthly energy bills, eventually recouping the cost of your system in a matter of years. This can be a great advantage, especially if you have the funds to buy the system upfront, as it will allow you to benefit from a clean and sustainable energy source for many years to come. Additionally, PV panels generally require very little maintenance, reducing ownership costs over time.

Lastly, purchasing a PV system outright can provide you with peace of mind in terms of energy independence. Once you get your modules installed, you won't have to worry about fluctuations in energy rates from your utility company. Moreover, you can generate your electricity and reduce your reliance on the electric grid, which helps to shield you from grid outages during natural disasters or other unforeseen circumstances. By paying cash for a solar system, you'll have access to cost-effective and eco-friendly energy while also reducing your carbon footprint.

The costs involved

The current price tag for getting solar panels in the US, as revealed by EnergySage, ranges from $16,870 to $23,170. The average installation price stands at $20,020, taking into account the federal solar tax credit. Meanwhile, the cost per watt of PV panels is $2.86 before incentives. On average, you can expect to earn back the money spent on a solar installation in approximately 8.7 years. However, this time frame may vary depending on factors like your energy usage and electricity rates.

Tips on how to save money when buying solar panels

Although buying solar panels can be a hefty investment, there are ways to get the best deal possible. One effective method is to explore the available options and compare prices from various suppliers. Take advantage of promotions, rebates, and discounts PV manufacturers offer. Look for a solar provider with a warranty and a maintenance package to help reduce future repair expenses.

Another way to save money on a purchase is by taking advantage of available incentives. While there are no free government solar panels, many states and localities have schemes in place to encourage installation. These could be in the form of tax credits, rebates, or grants. Get in touch with your state and local government to see what incentives and programs are available in your area.

Solar leases

How solar leasing works

One popular financing option often advertised as a "no cost solar program" is solar leasing. It is a popular solution for those seeking the advantages of clean energy without the hefty initial investment required for purchasing and installing a PV system. Essentially, a homeowner or business can rent the modules from a solar company that installs them on the property. The owner agrees to pay a fixed monthly fee for a 20 to 25-year lease, during which the provider takes responsibility for monitoring the system’s hardware and performance.

If desired, the owner can renew the lease or purchase the system at the end of the term. In the event of non-renewal, the solar company will typically remove the panels and restore the roof to its original state without any additional charges, similar to returning a leased vehicle.

Pros and cons of solar leasing

Solar leasing has a lot of advantages, such as the absence of a hefty initial payment since the leasing company will cover the expenses of installation. They also take on the responsibility of maintaining and repairing the equipment, freeing you from any maintenance or repair expenses. Moreover, solar leasing allows you to reduce your energy bills and even earn extra income by selling surplus electricity back to the grid.

However, there are some downsides to leasing. For one, you won't own the PV system, so you can't take advantage of any tax credits or other financial incentives for solar energy. The monthly lease payments may also be more expensive than outright purchasing. Finally, the leasing agreement may restrict any changes to your property or require you to purchase additional insurance coverage. Be sure to carefully scrutinize the terms of the lease agreement before committing.

Understanding the fine print of PV panel leasing agreements

Before signing a solar leasing contract, it's crucial to thoroughly understand the terms to ensure they align with your property and budget. Be sure to pay attention to critical details like the duration of the lease and pricing structure.

Of all factors, the lease duration is particularly important. While some agreements last a decade or two, others can stretch up to 25 years. Knowing the exact timeline can help you plan for future financial obligations. It's also worth checking for any clauses that could automatically extend the lease or increase payments without prior warning.

The pricing structure is another critical aspect to scrutinize. Typically, solar leasing agreements come with fixed or variable monthly payments. Fixed payments offer predictability, while variable ones can fluctuate based on market conditions. It's also worth checking for any additional expenses like maintenance fees, insurance, or early termination fees, which could impact the overall cost of the lease.

PPAs

Definition of a solar PPA and how it works

The solar PPA is another financing choice that is frequently presented as a "no cost solar program." A PPA or power purchase agreement is a financial agreement where a developer arranges for a solar energy system's design, installation, and maintenance on a customer’s property. In exchange for hosting the PV system, the customer agrees to purchase the energy produced by it at a fixed rate for a set period. Typically, PPAs last between 15-25 years and are an effective way for businesses and homeowners to access affordable, clean energy without the substantial initial investment required to purchase a solar system outright.

A solar PPA differs from a lease in that the customer is not renting the system but instead agrees to purchase the energy generated by the system.

Advantages and disadvantages of PPAs

One of the biggest advantages of solar PPAs is financial savings. Typically, these agreements offer lower energy rates compared to traditional electricity suppliers. As a result, consumers can save a substantial amount of money without investing in solar infrastructure. Moreover, PPAs provide fixed pricing, which protects buyers from the volatility of energy prices. This can be especially useful for businesses with limited budgets or homeowners seeking to cut down on energy bills.

Nonetheless, solar PPAs come with some drawbacks. For instance, the annual escalators can be a concern. These refer to the yearly increase in the energy price stated in the agreement, which can range from 1-3%. This increase can lead to higher energy bills over time. Furthermore, PPAs may require long-term commitments, which can be constraining for some buyers. In certain instances, buyers may find themselves tied to an agreement that is no longer financially feasible for them.

Solar loans

Solar loans are also occasionally promoted as a way to get no cost solar panels, but in reality, you'll still have to pay for them. Yet, there are loan options that require no initial payment, allowing you to have solar modules set up in your abode without shelling out any cash upfront.

Solar loans are a type of financing where homeowners borrow funds from a solar company or bank and repay it with interest through monthly installments, much like a house upgrade loan. These loans generally fall into two categories: secured and unsecured loans. Secured solar loans require an asset to serve as collateral, usually property, with the lender putting a lien on the property. In contrast, unsecured loans don't need any collateral other than the PV equipment itself.

Conclusion: you can’t go solar for free, but there are ways to minimize the costs

While the promise of "no cost solar panels" may sound tempting, it is crucial to cautiously approach such claims. Going solar for free is nothing but a myth, and in the world of solar energy, there are always costs involved.

Nevertheless, solar leases, PPAs, and loans are still viable options for those who want to embrace solar energy and reduce their carbon footprint but may not have the initial funds required. Ultimately, the decision to go solar should be based on a clear understanding of the costs and benefits rather than misleading advertising or unrealistic promises of free solar energy. By doing so, you can enjoy the many advantages of solar power, from lower energy bills and reduced carbon emissions to greater energy independence and security.

Posted 
Mar 31, 2023
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