The Solar Leasing vs. Ownership Debate

By Pamela Cargill and Liz Merry

[edit: updated in 2/7/13 to reflect new resources available]

The residential solar lease has become the first-tier option provided by the largest solar installers in the country. With SolarCity acquiring groSolar’s residential installation business, we expect this trend to spread rapidly across the country.

We recognize there are a wide and growing variety of solar lease provisions. Here, we are specifically discussing residential solar leases and not Power Purchase Agreements which are a related but very distinct financing mechanism.

For clarity, we’ll define a solar lease as “a monthly payment for a minimum guaranteed amount of PV-generated kilowatt-hours.”  There are many variations on the basic solar lease, including:

  • upfront payments
  • annual escalator
  • buy-out provisions
  • included maintenance and equipment replacement
  • requirements for transferring the lease to the new building owner.

In the light of this fast-paced trend, we want to explore how or whether residential solar installers without access to customer leasing remain competitive.

We had a long, long list of both pros and cons for both solar ownership and leasing. For clarity we took our top four and compared the benefits of solar leasing against the benefits of solar ownership.

Benefits

Solar Ownership

Solar Leasing

  • Hedge against utility rate increases; control over system
  • Potential for immediate positive cashflow
  • Financial and operating transparency, clarity
  • Ease of process
  • Ownership of environmental attributes and Renewable Energy Credits (RECs)
  • Inclusion of maintenance and possibly equipment replacement
  • Flexibility in System Size and Design
  • Small, lower-cost system with targeted utility-savings

Ownership Benefits

Fixed Hedge Against Utility Rate Increases

When you buy the system you are locking in your cost of power for the next 20-30 years at today’s rates an inflation levels. While we can’t accurately predict how system prices and incentives will rise and fall, we do expect electricity rates to rise over time. Therefore, when you buy your system whether with cash or a loan you know your exact costs and your financial return increases proportionately to rising electricity prices.

Financial Transparency & Clarity

System ownership means understanding a fairly straightforward calculation between your utility bill, the cost of the system after incentives, and system production. The cost should be lower in cases of maintenance costs and inverter replacement and can easily be included in the cash flow analysis.

Financial Certainty

System ownership means recouping full financial benefits from both REC ownership and utility savings.

The Renewable Energy Credits (RECs) ascribed to system owners are a mostly unknown value in unregulated markets at this time. While the valuation and trading of RECs, especially Solar RECs (SRECs) has fueled growth in the solar industry in New Jersey and Massachusetts, it is unclear how these attributes will change in value over the long-term. System owners retain the rights to their rights to potential future REC income.

See SRECTrade for more information about the particulars of SRECs.

Also, one of the strongest financial arguments for system ownership is “free fuel from the sun.” After the initial investment and payback period, all the solar energy is free to the system owner. With a lease there is an annual cost escalator – whether tied to the utility rate or at a flat rate. The system lessee is gambling that their contract price increases continue to provide a positive cashflow over time.

Flexibility in System Size and Design

Customers purchasing their own PV system have a wide range of flexibility when it comes to the sizing and design of their system. Depending on their budget, homeowners can purchase a system to completely zero out their annual utility bill. Systems can also be designed with a wide range of PV panels and inverters, often tailored completely to the customers’ needs ranging from available roof space, aesthetics, and whether or not equipment was Made-in-America amongst other options.

Leasing Benefits

Potential for Immediate Positive Cashflow

While it isn’t true in many, many instances that require $1,000 deposit or more toward the system lease, there is the potential for an immediate positive cashflow for the lessee.

Ease of Process

PV companies offering a lease make the entire process of going PV seem simple. They provide the energy use and budget analysis, decide on the equipment, and provide a minimum production guarantee. Once the system is installed, the lessee simply begins making monthly or sometimes annual payments once the system.

This “one stop shopping” model is a big draw for lessees. Many turnkey PV installers offering direct ownership often are missing that one key ingredient: how to pay for the system.

Inclusion of Maintenance and Monitoring

While PV systems should require very little maintenance, the idea they won’t have to worry about anything that comes up is attractive to new customers Furthermore, while most customers won’t track production closely over the long term, the availability of production data on the web indicates a level of confidence possibly missing from the turnkey installer that doesn’t include online monitoring services.

Small, Lower-Cost System with Targeted Utility-Savings

A much simpler array of choice are offered to Lessees from a Lessor. In California especially, where utilities bill for residential electricity on a tiered system, a small leased system can completely change the rate tier in which a household falls. Lessors offer a few different pre-defined system design options to bring a leasee into a lower rate tier. It’s simpler for the lessor and simpler for the leasee.

Considerations and Resources

  • There are also Leasing critics (such as Solar Leasing Disadvantages), available to explain all the potential pitfalls of leasing in colorful terms.

Conclusions

We see the purchase vs. lease decision as “Pay Now or Pay Later.” Customers who arrange their own financing to purchase PV outright are investing the time and money at the beginning of the project. Lessees are handing the decisions and finances over to their leasing company at the outset but they maybe hit with big decisions and financial barriers at the end of the contract period. In many cases, lessees are handing those constraints over to the next home buyer who might take over the lease.

It is no surprise that many consumers choose “now” and “simple” over what can seem like a very confusing time-intensive decision process. The lease option is clearly accelerating the adoption of PV, generating local jobs, and growing our solar industry.

The question remains: Is the rise of leasing the “death” of ownership? Not necessarily.

In a constantly shifting economy, what is most profitable or simple for a solar installer to offer today might be off the table tomorrow, especially as there are many uncertainties in the incentives marketplace and in residential utility rate structures that also has the possibility of overnight change.

Installers should fully prepare sales staff offering either the lease and/or ownership model with information about the pros and cons of each. Installers offering only ownership models would be wise to educate their prospects about the benefits listed here and research additional benefits they can bring to the table. Bottom line: solar sales is about educating and removing skepticism, helping a customer find the right solution, and maintaining profitability for the installation company. Installers should arm their sales staff with the best information possible to help achieve those goals.

originally posted at RenewableEnergyWorld.com

Posted on February 24, 2011 and filed under analysis.