||Solar Power Boom Shines for Consumers
Solar energy is gaining fans in homeowners who aren't just tree huggers -- they're penny pinchers.
Just ask 51-year-old Karl Hutter. The Silicon Valley tech executive refuses to drive a hybrid car but signed up with solar panel outfit SolarCity.
"You're doing good by the planet, and you're doing good by your pocket book," says Hutter of Menlo Park, Calif. "Fundamentally, when you have both it makes perfect sense."
Hutter has joined the ranks of people enticed as much by price as the feel-good element of saving the Earth. He's hardly alone.
In the first quarter of 2011, U.S. solar panel installations shot up 66%, or the equivalent of powering roughly 20,000 average houses, compared with a year ago, says a report from the Solar Energy Industries Association and GTM Research.
In the past year, falling prices for systems that capture the sun's energy and turn it into electricity have helped spur growth as well. Prices of solar panel components dipped 15% in the quarter from a year ago, according to the SEIA.
"We've seen a dramatic decrease in the price of solar power over the past year," said the SEIA's Tom Kimbis. "That has helped residential and commercial use of solar."
The United States is now poised to lead the world in solar energy installations within just a few years as lower costs for the technology and zero-down financing plans and subsidies lure people across the nation to cleaner forms of power that save money and energy.
For Hutter, the money saved was a "no-brainer," and he has pointed neighbors and family -- scoring referral fees -- to SolarCity. He says he's saving 25% off his electricity bill, a story that likely resonates with others.
"SolarCity is not doing this for the heartstring pull. It's pure economic benefit," says Ron Pernick, co-founder of Clean Edge and co-author of The Clean Tech Revolution.
The U.S. will become the largest solar market in the world by 2014, experts at SEIA predict. The nation will leapfrog Europe, now No. 1, and No. 2 Japan for the crown on solar installations.
The result is that many of the world's manufacturers are looking to set up shop here, making it even more affordable, experts say.
Worldwide spending on solar components and installation of equipment will jump from $71 billion in 2010 to $113.6 billion in 2020, according to industry researcher Clean Edge.
No-money-down deals grow
Yet solar is just getting started. In the U.S. there are only about 166,000 total residential and commercial solar installations, according to the SEIA, despite tax incentives and other breaks that can provide solar to consumers at no upfront cost.
But solar is catching on with consumers. Last year there were about 52,600 photovotaic installations around the nation, a figure that's expected to nearly double in 2011. Analysts say the economics of solar are now starting to make sense as costs to produce clean power come down.
Homeowners right now can get solar panels from various providers at no upfront cost and in turn get lower electricity bills.
Companies such as SolarCity, SunRun and Sungevity promise to secure all the subsidies and building permits and make the paperwork process effortless. They all boast savings of as much as 10% on electricity bills. Some customers, like Hutter, save far more because of superior southern exposure. "One of the nicest things to see is the energy meter spinning backwards," Hutter says.
Interested in solar for your home? Here's a look at three residential solar installers:
• San Mateo-based SolarCity has more than 15,000 solar projects either completed or in the works. Roughly 80% of its customers have chosen its leasing programs that provide panels at no initial cost and cut electricity bills immediately. The remaining 20% buy solar panels upfront. SolarCity promises as much as a 10% reduction in electricity costs depending on the market where it's installed and other factors. Some customers with outstanding southern exposure have seen as much as a 25% reduction in electricity bills.
"Don't worry about the subsidies and the costs. We'll take care of that," SolarCity CEO Lyndon Rive says. "There's no hassle factor at all."
SolarCity serves Arizona, California, Colorado, Maryland, Massachusetts, New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Texas and Washington, D.C. SolarCity has 1,300 employees and plans to add 400 by year's end.
• San Francisco-based SunRun also handles all the customer service and paperwork, but it uses outside contractors to do the installations. SunRun can offer zero-down purchase plans for solar panels as well. SunRun was formed in 2007 and says it has 12,000 customers. The company claims 26% of California's residential solar energy market. "We believe this is an enormous and growing market," says SunRun CEO Edward Fenster.
SunRun serves California, Colorado, Arizona, Hawaii, Oregon, Massachusetts, New Jersey and Pennsylvania. The company has 100 employees and plans to add as many as 70 within a year.
• Oakland-based Sungevity serves California, Arizona, Colorado, Delaware, Massachusetts, New Jersey, Maryland and New York. Sungevity has more than 200 employees but plans to double in size by year's end as interest in its solar installation agreements surges.
"The customer pays zero down," CEO Andrew Birch says. "We're expanding very quickly."
Sungevity, formed in 2007, uses outside contractors to install systems. It offers online quotes for people to determine how much they could begin saving with a system from the company. Quotes are e-mailed within 24 hours. Sungevity, which has sold more than 1,500 systems, signed a deal in May with Lowe's to put its iQuote system in kiosks at the home improvement stores.
(Source: USA Today, 07/21/11)
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