Assessing Whether Solar Panels Make Sense for You

By DIANE CARDWELL

As I report in The Times, legions of companies will offer to install a system at no upfront cost and promise customers cheaper, cleaner electricity over the course of 20 years. Some are small and local, while others, including SolarCitySunrun,Sungevity and SunEdison, are larger, with national or even international reach. Some large manufacturers, like SolarWorld, even offer financing plans for home installations.

Installing solar panels on a home in Belmar, N.J.Marc Steiner for The New York TimesInstalling solar panels on a residential rooftop in Belmar, N.J.

For residential customers, the deals can seem attractive. The company arranging the financing for the system usually owns and operates it, selling the electricity back at a rate generally lower than what the utility would charge. Depending on the company and the state, the details vary. In some cases a customer pays a preset rate for the electricity used, known as a power purchase agreement. In others, the customer leases a system, paying a set monthly charge for a guaranteed amount of power.

Part of the appeal here is that customers can not only reduce their energy costs but fix them for a long period of time, avoiding the unwelcome surprise of a suddenly high bill because, say, natural gas prices have shot up again. Customers also avoid having to figure out how to claim the various incentives and benefits for which they qualify as a renewable energy producer.

But there are some things to look out for. Going solar does not mean going off the grid. A typical roof array will not handle all of a home’s electricity needs since it produces power intermittently. So customers will still get a bill from the utility, though probably a much smaller one. Many contracts also have escalator clauses, with the payments increasing over time, so it is important to determine if your energy costs are likely to go up or down if you were to stick solely with the utility.

The Department of Energy has an online guide for those considering residential solar and wind power, as do many of the companies offering installation. Some cities, including New York, San Francisco, Boston and Madison, Wis., have online solar maps where residents can estimate the solar capacity of their roofs.

As with a conventional mortgage or car loan, the real cost to customers varies depending on how much they are able to pay up front, and the economics only work for now in places where the cost of electricity from the utility is high, installation companies say. And not everyone is eligible: customers have to have good credit, typically a FICO score of 680 range or above.

Installers say prospective customers should make sure that there are clear terms to credit them if the system does not produce the promised amount of electricity and to repair or replace defective components. And customers should be aware that there is no easy way out of the deal in the event they want to sell their homes. The array generally stays with the house, installers say, so the options include finding a buyer who wants to take over the contract or prepaying the remaining electricity charges and wrapping that into the purchase price.

Of course, customers can forgo the installers’ financing and purchase a system outright. They will usually get the most savings that way because they will have no monthly charge for the amount of electricity the panels produce and they can take advantage of tax breaks, credits and other incentives.

The trade-off there is that the customer is then responsible for maintaining the system. Installers say solar systems are generally reliable, but the panels are not guaranteed past 25 years or so, and the inverters, which convert the direct current the array produces to the alternating current that comes out of a socket, only last around 10 years.

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