The larger the investment, the more due diligence needs to be done. Before we bought our home, my wife Rommy and I poked around the crawlspaces and closets of twenty houses with our delightful real estate broker Dick Sproul. We saw stairways to nowhere and frogs in the basements of what from the outside appeared to be charming homes. There are no solar brokers that I know of to help one navigate the plethora of panels out there and the many firms pedaling them, but I could've used one! Hopefully this story will help others travel from the dark to the sunshine with solar.
The first decision to be made was a simple one: rent vs. own. In Maine we have the dubious fortune not to have companies targeting our tiny market for solar leasing, but this is very big business in most of the US. The lease deals sound too good to be true. They say, "We'll just come to your house and install solar on your roof totally free and it will lower your electric bills!"
What often happens in reality is that there are some installation costs involved to the home owner and the electric bills may not be significantly reduced. The lease company pockets all the federal, state and local incentives and derives a good profit margin while the homeowner actually loses money over time compared to buying their own panels. This is like leasing a zero emissions furnace for your basement. Let me be clear, I think solar leasing is far preferable to nothing and I would bless almost anything that moved society off fossil fuels, including solar leasing. Solar leasing slaps panels on roofs and reduces all the mercury, smog and pollution that would've powered that home. Leasing might make sense for some people in some situations (for instance if you plan to move in less than 8 years, which is the breakeven point on my solar panels), but the economics of buying panels, even by financing 100% of the costs, are undeniably superior for the homeowner. Would you lease a car for 25 years? Lease payments, and financing payments are similar in their monthly cost but the lease payments never end whereas paying off a solar loan lets you do the free electricity dance.
Though tempting with its apparent freeness, I ruled leasing out due to its actual costliness. Next, I needed to get quotes from solar companies, so I burned some gasoline to attend a community energy expo of sorts. Families and prospective buyers mingled with heat pump salesmen, energy efficiency consultants, solar contractors, and green business people of all stripes. I spoke with four solar installers, including our family friend Rob Taisey who has founded his own solar company Assured Solar.
Rob lives on a road near ours and is an unrepentant entrepreneur, engineer, tinkerer, inventor, and general jolly do-er of all things mechanical. His local claim to fame is his perfectly named business Stump and Grind, which uses gigantic robotic chainsaws to make stumps wish their seeds had never sprouted. Despite his mustache, suspenders, and unconventional interests, Rob is actually a Bowdoin College graduate and former nuclear engineer which put him on the extremely over-qualified fringe of solar representatives at the community expo who ranged from professional sales reps to recent college grads. Rob started dabbling in solar back before it was cool in the 70s now his former hobby employs almost a dozen people in our town.
Naturally, I wanted to work with Rob but, being a believer in due diligence, played hard to get, circulating among many solar booths and requested quotes from all. I couldn't afford to pay thousands of dollars extra just because Rob was a friend, so I resolved to only choose Assured Solar if their quote was closely competitive with the other quotes. As we chatted, Rob pointed out a startling idea that I hadn't considered, "You know, you could put panels on your roof that would power your parent's house on Chebeague Island too."
I did not know this. I'd never heard of such a thing. But it was intriguing and after some discussion, my parents hopped on the bandwagon as well. They also use heat pumps so their electric bills justified a solar investment.
The next question to tackle with the installers providing quotes was a choice between 3 options: a roof array, fixed ground-based array, or a pole-mounted 'tracker' array that followed the sun's angle perfectly throughout the day. The pros and cons of each possibility from each installer multiplied the complexity of my decision making process and bogged me down with hypotheticals. Some weeks after the expo as quotes and possibilities trickled in, I picked up a magazine in a doctor's office and learned about the rapid growth of community solar farms in Maine...
To be continued in part 3.