While it’s well known that solar is clean and helps the environment, what has opened up solar to vastly more people — and lead it to become the fastest growing new electricity source in the United States is that solar is now the least expensive source of electricity on the planet.

Wait, what? Let’s repeat it, to be clear: Solar is the least expensive source of electricity on the planet.

What that means is that solar electricity is an impressive economic opportunity. Not only is solar electric equipment incredibly inexpensive, but it is extremely reliable. By making the upfront investment to go solar, you gain a system that produces electricity (worth money!) for decades, with little to no maintenance required.

Solar is a Solid Investment

Start “paying” yourself for electricity!

People are surprised to learn that in Maine, New Hampshire, or Massachusetts, the economics of solar energy outperform traditional investment products.

Sound crazy? It’s true!

Compare solar to an annuity, for instance. An annuity works by offering you a monthly payment for a fixed period of time-based on a pre-determined interest rate, around 2% right now. A solar electric system also requires an up-front investment, and offers a monthly “payment,” so to speak, in the form of reduced utility bills for the life of the system.

However, the solar electric investment is pegged to a commodity – electricity – which increases in the order of 2.5-3% each year.

Consider a $15,000 investment:

  • Option A: With a 2%, 20-year, fixed rate annuity, you could expect a $67 dividend each month.
  • Option B: With a 5 kilowatt solar electric array, you would receive $4,500 back in the first tax year as part of the 30% federal tax credit, plus other state incentives or SREC revenue if applicable, and a ‘dividend’ of around $85 per month, in the value TODAY it provides against your current electric bill. The solar will earn you roughly $4,080 more than the dividend, even if the price in electricity does not change!

Solar Cash Purchase: Reliable Savings Over Time

Every solar project we design includes graphs like the following, which compare (Left) the cost of doing nothing versus investing in a solar array, and (Right) the relative cash flow of an upfront cash purchase versus the ROI in terms of energy savings over time.

Simulated economics of a solar cash (or self-financed) purchase in Maine. In Massachusetts, there is an additional revenue stream through SRECs which halves the investment recovery time.

The exact Internal Rate of Return (or IRR) of a solar investment will vary based on a number of conditions, including a site’s solar access, the local rate for electricity, and available state incentives. However, most solar investors see a 25-year IRR of 8-12%, vastly superior to any other risk-free investment.  See our profile of a customer who ‘did the math’ for his Falmouth, ME installation to see this modeling backed up with real data.

For businesses and institutions, the math is a little different, as the incentive structures are a bit different, and larger electricity consumers are usually billed on demand profiles rather than a fixed rate for kilowatt-hour consumption. However, the business case is quite solid and especially with financing solar is an excellent choice for businesses who are keen to reduce their long-term operating expenditures.

Solar Loans: An Affordable Way to Get Fixed-Price Power

Buying solar using a loan product makes for a slightly different decision-making process.  For those who are choosing to finance, usually it is a way to go solar earlier than would be possible if an upfront cash purchase was required. One of the biggest reasons to choose to finance a solar array (beyond simply wanting to have solar on your roof) is to enjoy the peace-of-mind and security of a fixed payment for electricity that will not fluctuate with local electricity prices.

Simulated economics of a solar project financed by a loan. There is a small premium (vs current electric bill) paid in the 1st 12 years, but once the loan is paid off there is quick payback and overall vast savings. Compare this to a solar lease where you would continue paying for the system for a full 20 years.

Exact economics vary (and are displayed in great detail in one of our solar system proposals), but with our Own Your Power solar loan product, we can offer a fixed rate of 2.99% over 12 years.  After the system is paid off, the solar owner enjoys 100% of the benefits for the remaining 20+ year life of the system.  Compare this to a solar lease, where for the same array you would continue paying for 8 more years!

Massachusetts homeowners are also able to take advantage of a loan product sponsored by the Mass CEC, the Mass Solar Loan Program.

Solar Increases Property Value

An image of a solar electric array mounted on a house in Wiscasset, Maine

A solar photovoltaic installation, such as this one for a customer in Maine, will raise the value of the home roughly $20,000 (based on a 4-5kw solar electric system)

As solar has become mainstream, a number of recent studies have sought to help homeowners, appraisers, and real estate professionals through the process of assessing the appropriate value for a solar energy system on a home in the event of a sale.

Their findings:

We appreciate that market research proves what to us seems obvious: solar is an excellent investment, whether you are staying in the home long-term or need to sell. Solar provides a powerful suite of benefits not seen in any other home improvement:

  1. Proven ROI in the form of reduced energy costs for the life of the home
  2. Environmental ROI in the form of reduced carbon emissions
  3. Long-lived and durable equipment increases in value over time as costs of traditional energy rise

Standing Out in a Crowd

While the actual dollar value of PV improvements is still an area of study, what is more easily observed is how solar helps sell homes more quickly. In addition to findings in the Colorado report (with realtors reporting feedback like “PV was a major marketing factor,” “Sold very fast,” and “Listing agent liked the system so much, he had it installed in his own personal home after this sale”).

A 2008 Ryness study found that “homes with solar systems were outselling others by as much as 2:1 in 13 California communities” (Businessweek).

In the Northeast, there is little data, but anecdotally several of our customers have said that they are very happy in their solar homes, but feel confident that their solar investment will be recouped should they need to sell it.

Chris Rhoda of Belgrade told us that “My wife and I were talking about what might happen in 20 years when we’re empty nesters and want to downsize—but we can’t imagine finding a home that’s more efficient than ours already is. The realtors we have talked to have told us they would love to sell a ‘green home.’ They have very few green homes to sell yet people are asking for them all the time.”

More Data Needed

One of the tricky parts with the current solar valuation of solar is the lack of data for appraisers to use when comparing like homes. To help with this, the Sandia National Laboratories has developed a new tool, PV Value, which uses the income capitalization approach when assigning a value to PV systems. This approach factors in the anticipated production of the PV system, along with estimated maintenance costs, to determine a fair market value of the energy savings. This approach is discussed in detail in their paper, “Standardizing Appraisals for PV Installations.”

This approach, properly called the “Income Approach using a Discount Cash Flow,” more fairly assesses solar compared to the cost approach (looking at costs to have the equipment replaced) or comparable sales (looking at similar homes that have sold, which are often scarce with solar improvements). Sandia Labs reports that there have been over 2,500 downloads of their tool and early feedback from appraisers is very positive.
The next section, SOLAR WORKS ON THE ROOF, GROUND, OR FAR AFIELD, examines the many solar options that exist to see what may be perfect for your home or business.

To Chapter 2

To Chapter 4

Do the economics of solar look like a sound investment for you?

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