Solar evolved: How to make installing more affordable

January 8, 2013

The up-front cost of installing a solar array on the roof of a home has often been cited as a barrier to entry for an ordinary homeowner. But now financing the system is pretty common, whether through a leasing arrangement or a low-interest loan. And when you can “go solar” for hardly any money down, all of a sudden it isn’t hard to imagine neighborhoods dotted with paneled rooftops.

Puget Sound Cooperative Credit Union (PSCCU) is offering low-interest loans to cover up to $35,000 of the cost of installations purchased through the Go Solar Seattle Northwest campaign. This means in most cases you can get those panels up and producing juice for you without putting a dent in your savings.

Photo of people signing up for solar site assessment

Attendees at a Go Solar Seattle Northwest workshop in December sign up for a free site assessment from Sunergy.

For example, say you’ve got a moderate-sized home, and after consulting with a solar professional, you’ve determined that you want a system that costs $20,000 total. You’ve planned ahead a little, so you can afford to pay for half the system when it is installed, but you’ll need to finance the rest of it.

You go see one of the loan officers at PSCCU, and because you’ve got a respectable credit rating, they can offer you a $10,000 loan at 5 percent interest. You can pay off the balance of the loan over a leisurely 15-year period if you like.

The really cool thing for you as a borrower is that that new solar array on your house isn’t just sitting around doing nothing; it is working on your behalf, every day (or nearly every day), creating value as power that you can use yourself or sell back to the utility. State of Washington incentives are structured such that if you buy in-state solar panels and inverters, you can realize a 10 percent per year return on investment.

In other words, the cost of money from the credit union (4.49-7.99 percent) is easily offset by the return from the solar installation itself (approximately 10 percent).

Shannon Ellis-Brock, Chief Operating Officer of PSCCU, says the loans make good business sense for the credit union as well: “Our small credit union was just given an award for being 5th in loan growth for all US credit unions in 2012. This was in large part from growth in Energy Smart loans (which include solar) and our commitment to offering Washington homeowners a way to finance green projects.”

But for Ellis-Brock, the reason for partnering with a program like Go Solar Seattle Northwest goes beyond just dollars and cents. “Credit unions were founded on the principle of people helping people – we have expanded on the principle and not only are we helping people, we’re helping the environment, helping to reduce our reliance on foreign fuels, and making use of an energy supply that is free and will be around forever,” she added.

This combination of long-term idealism and here-and-now pragmatism is a healthy sign of a maturing renewable energy movement. Bankers absolutely have their role to play in this. As Danny Kennedy writes in Rooftop Revolution (2012): “Financial engineering allows you to pay for your solar panels over time instead of up front, and this is probably the most important innovation in the solar industry in the past decade” (p. 99).

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